The New Enlightenment and the Fight to Free Knowledge: Part 3




Editor’s Note: MIT Open Learning’s Peter B. Kaufman has just published The New Enlightenment and the Fight to Free Knowledge, a book that takes a historical look at the powerful forces that have purposely crippled our efforts to share knowledge widely and freely. His new work also maps out what we can do about it. Generously, Peter has made his book available through Open Culture by publishing three short essays along with links to the corresponding freely licensed sections of his book. Today, you can read his third essay “The Republic of Images” (below). Find his first essay, “The Monsterverse” here, his second essay “On Wikipedia, the Encyclopédie, and the Verifiability of Information” here, and purchase the entire book online.

In November 1965, after some hondling between the Carnegie Corporation and the Ford Foundation, a senior executive from Carnegie called former president of MIT James Killian with an invitation. Would Killian be interested in assembling a commission to study educational television with an eye toward strengthening the American system of learning on screen, and could he start right away? Killian jumped; a commission was formed; and two years, eight meetings, 225 interviews, and 92 site visits later, the Carnegie Commission’s report comes out, a bill gets written, the bill becomes law, and President Johnson is signing the 1967 Public Television Act to create public television and radio.

At the signing ceremony, Johnson said, “Today, we rededicate a part of the airwaves – which belong to all the people – and we dedicate them for the enlightenment of all the people. We must consider,” he said, “new ways to build a great network for knowledge – not just a broadcast system, but one that employs every means of sending and storing information that the individual can use.”

Heady stuff.  But it gets even better:

Think of the lives that this would change:
The student in a small college could tap the resources of a great university. [. . .]
The country doctor getting help from a distant laboratory or a teaching hospital;
A scholar in Atlanta might draw instantly on a library in New York;
A famous teacher could reach with ideas and inspirations into some far-off classroom, so that no child need be neglected.
Eventually, I think this electronic knowledge bank could be as valuable as the Federal Reserve Bank.
And such a system could involve other nations, too – it could involve them in a partnership to share knowledge and to thus enrich all mankind.
A wild and visionary idea? Not at all. Yesterday’s strangest dreams are today’s headlines and change is getting swifter every moment.
I have already asked my advisers to begin to explore the possibility of a network for knowledge – and then to draw up a suggested blueprint for it.

The system he was signing into law, Johnson said, “will be free, and it will be independent – and it will belong to all of our people.”

A new network for knowledge.

Imagine.

Fifty years later, totally (seemingly) unrelated, then MIT president Charles Vest went on to speak of something else, something that became MIT Open Courseware.  Together with new foundations – this time the Hewlett Foundation and the Mellon Foundation led the way – Vest envisioned “a transcendent, accessible, empowering, dynamic, communally constructed framework of open materials and platforms on which much of higher education worldwide can be constructed or enhanced:”

A meta-university that will enable, not replace, residential campuses, that will bring cost efficiencies to institutions through the shared development of educational materials. That will be adaptive, not prescriptive.  It will serve teachers and learners in both structured and informal contexts.  It will speed the propagation of high-quality education and scholarship.  It will build bridges across cultures and political boundaries. And it will be particularly important to the developing world.

Today, in our time of severe truth decay, our great epistemic crisis, it might be time again to envision another intervention, formative and transformational as the establishment of public broadcasting, imaginative and daring as the launch of open courseware and the open education movement.  Indeed, something as breathtaking as the events above, and their own vital forbear over a century ago – the founding of a network of public libraries across America and other parts of the world (which also happened with Andrew Carnegie’s financial support).

The original Enlightenment brought us Newton’s physics, Rousseau’s political philosophy, Linnaeus’s taxonomies, Montesquieu’s laws, the Declaration of Independence, the Declaration of the Rights of Man – it was the Age of Reason.  Its founders – as we noted in [Parts 1 and II on] Open Culture – comprised between themselves what became known as the great Republic of Letters.  They were all men, though; and they all were white; while they had access to their own means and to the mean of media production, and they delivered new systems of thinking much of the modern world is based on today, their circles were limited; their imaginations were not our imaginations.

Today we have a chance to do more – to take advantage of the cultures and communities that have arisen in the centuries and from the struggles since that time, to launch a new Enlightenment, and to realize perhaps in bolder and more secure ways this new network for knowledge.  Video, more than text now, has taken over the internet; video is a new key to our networked world. The company Cisco Systems – which makes many of the devices that connect us – deploys a forecasting tool it calls the Visual Networking Index (VNI). The latest VNI tells us that there were 3.4 billion Internet users on the planet in 2017, almost half of the planet’s current population of 7.7 billion people. By 2022, there will be 4.8 billion Internet users: 60 percent of the planet, and more people in the world will be connected to the Internet than not. By 2022, more than 28 billion “devices and connections” will be online. And – here’s the kicker – video will make up 82 percent of global Internet traffic. Video is dominant already. During peak evening hours in the Americas, Netflix can account for as much as 40 percent of downstream Internet traffic, and Netflix – Netflix alone – constitutes 15 percent of Internet traffic worldwide. All this forecasting was completed before the pandemic; before 125 million cases of Corona virus; before 3 million deaths worldwide; before the explosion of Zoom.

We are living in a video age. What will be our next media intervention?  How do knowledge institutions secure their deservedly central place in search and on the web?  We need to look over our rights vis-à-vis the government and the giant companies that increasingly control our Internet; we need to look at the growing power we have to contribute to access to knowledge and share our wealth especially in the online Commons; we need to make sure that the public record, especially video (and especially video of all the lies and crimes, and of all the outrageous falsehoods leaders circulate about COVID) is all archived and preserved. We need to strengthen how much of the network we own and control.

What’s important is that we have begun to reach toward the point where there is equity in the leadership of our knowledge institutions. No longer are white men and only white men in charge of the Library of Congress, for example, or the Smithsonian Institution, or, and thus by extension, of our new Enlightenment. New and diverse study and action groups are being formed specifically to address our information disorder. But many more of our leading knowledge institutions – and, critically, foundations and funding agencies again – need to lead this work.  This is a 20th-anniversary year for MIT Open CourseWare, for Wikipedia, and for Creative Commons; indeed, MIT OCW starts to celebrate its birthday this month. Many other like-minded progressive institutions and their supporters are on the move. That network for knowledge is coming again: this time, our new Enlightenment moment will belong to all of us.

Peter B. Kaufman works at MIT Open Learning and is the author of The New Enlightenment and the Fight to Free Knowledge


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