Possessing Knowledge

January 7, 2010 | Leave a Comment

Category: Society, Web

Perhaps 150 academics have contacted me over the last 11 years after coming across one of my websites or this blog.  Some were directed to my work by my having contacted them.  Others happened across it on a search.  Others by referral.  Almost universally, they leave no comments online.  They email me directly with comments or questions.  I receive maybe one email for every three posts by nonacademics.  With academics, I receive maybe 200 emails for every one comment post.

I don’t think the issue is that they feel like they are performing or speaking to a group when commenting online where other visitors can observe a conversation.  What I believe is happening here is partly a hesitation to become associated with concepts they themselves have not signaled that they support.  Perhaps they are concerned about association with an individual that will tout the visitor’s support when it was not provided.

The horizontal, transparent, diverse world of the Internet does not exactly occupy the same behavioral space as academia.  Academics are carving out territories where their names are associated with various disciplines.  They are building walls around a place where their expertise has been established.  This is so they can at least partly possess the respect that accompanies association.  On the web, we mostly concentrate on taking down walls while seeking respect by sharing ideas to watch them spread beyond our awareness and control.  This difference between professional and amateur doesn’t seem that extreme.  Still, control does seem an issue.

The professional, the academic, when offered respect, achieves units of currency called citations.  The amateur, the blogger and net surfer are also offered respect in the form of citations represented by links and comments.  In this way, the academic and the blogger/user are much alike.

The academic mostly shares his or her work and receives little or no money, as does the Internet sharer of ideas.  Of course, the more often academics publish, the more likely they will achieve tenure, but once tenure is achieved, papers published still bring little money.

The academics base their seeking of community respect upon the words they compose, papers written with much attention to detail, citing allies whose work they respect or whose support they seek.

The net idea maker usually places far less attention on the words composed.  Citations are far more casual, often neglected altogether.

A major difference, of course, is that source material in academia is often difficult to retrieve.  Barriers among disciplines–different journals, different academic languages, different conferences–inhibit communication.  Until the last 150 years, academics were almost exclusively the wealthy and elites.  Then, to pursue an academic career and have access to peer-reviewed journals, proof of entry was required–a degree.  Once academics have achieved a degree, the coveted information frame of reference continues to be the most effective way to establish territory among elites.

There seems to be more similarities between academia and Internet relations than differences, though the differences are stark.  Still, wrestling with why so few academics leave comments on the over 600 posted pieces, I’d conclude that because words are the most important possession of a university professional, they are loath to share them publicly without the compensation of a potential citation from someone that shares their elevated or segregated station, or at least they want assurance that the other party won’t embarrass them among their peers.

Is there a hierarchy here that should be flattened, an elite that should be taxed?  The product of the current academic system is astonishing erudition.  Might useful results be achieved if some barriers were removed?  Clearly, the current system inhibits seamless sharing of high quality information.

Sharing is what the Internet is all about, behaving as an example and metaphor for the direction that society is taking.  Academia, with roots in nineteenth century elitism, has trouble with the concept of sharing.  Livings are made and reputations are established by embracing a covetous attitude toward knowledge.

Academics possess knowledge.  Net users share it.  When academics start leaving comments, I’ll know that some walls are finally coming down.


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