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Knowledge, Democratisation and Power

My job takes me to meet and speak with people who have radically different ideas about the nature of knowledge: its origins, its history, its future. I love these conversations. They are often profound even if they are problematic in revealing, in some ways, how far apart very intelligent people can be on what we might call fundamental questions for our individual and communal lives.

When it comes to a history of knowledge, there have always been different views as to how our relationship with knowledge has changed. Some think that the mental frameworks of human beings have changed siginficantly, even in relatively recent times. In this camp you might put Julian Jaynes or many writers on the Renaissance or the Reformation. My grandfather, E H Gombrich, was rather opposed to this view and thought that we were not so dissimilar to our recent ancestors in Rome, Greece, Egypt or ancient China.

It is literally impossible, I suppose, to put ourselves in such a completely different era as to imagine how thought could be constructed in a way which is radically different to our own. But my instincts tend to be with my grandfather on this. In the Obamian phrase: ‘There are more things that unite us than divide us’; I think this is true across time as well as across current geography.

But this instinctive view of mine is constantly challenged. Yesterday I read in Richard Popkin’s wonderful History of Scepticism of a court case in 16th century France. A monk had been accused of infecting a convent with devils and was being tried. However, the court was deeply disturbed and unable to proceed because, prompted by Descartes’ recent idea of the malin genie, they were worried that this monk might be infecting them all with a kind of evil deception so that they would not be able to judge properly. Popkin does not relate the outcome of the case. But to me, if anything can demonstrate that our minds have, in some important way, shifted, it is this sort of story. What does it mean that we would now regard it as insane if a jury were worried about being deceived by an evil demon within the court? Surely that there are qualitative shifts in how we see the world and what we regard as knowledge, fact and truth.

One theme that arises repeatedly in my conversations about knowledge is the impact of the web on our ways of thinking and our collective and collaborative ability to produce valuable knowledge. The ether is thick with writers on this (see e.g. Clay Shirky and Cathy Davidson for just two examples). And those who are positive about such things – like these authors – see a great wave in the democratisation of knowledge coming our way – a wave that will bring great individual and collective benefits. Some, including myself, see parallels with the first great wave of democratisation of knowledge in Europe which occurred with the invention of the printing press. And although there are many upheavals in-between (the British enlightenment, new worlds, Empire, the Industrial Revolution, mass education and so on), there is a good case to be made that the most significant shifts in the modern age turned on the Renaissance and the Reformation, and that these revolutions in thought took hold due to the mass publication of books. This current wave in democratisation is the first since the publication of books in which the medium  of knowledge has significantly changed, and it may well have as profound an impact as that first wave.

How will this new wave of democratisation affect us? Especially,  how will it affect us in universities? In order to explore this a little, let me take a very different tack here.

On Twitter I follow some devout Muslims who tweet on the Qur’an, Muslim spirituality and Muslim life in Britain today. I love reading this stuff. On one level much of it is simply beautiful (quotations from Islamic scripture and commentaries). On another level, the way Twitter allows me to hear voices I would otherwise not hear is valuable and enriching. But one consequence of following these tweeps is that I occasionally eavesdrop on the public tit-for-tat sessions between the English Defence League and the Muslim tweeps I follow. The EDL have been described as fascists – which they vigorously deny – and have been accused of being yobs. But one thing is sure: they are overwhelmingly white, working class men with little formal education.

Now what is so remarkable to me about these Twitter exchanges is that some of the EDL are using the internet, reliable knowledge gained from the internet, to argue their case. They are able to source statistics to bolster their arguments and, in some cases, the EDL members quote directly from the Qur’an and the hadith to demonstrate what they see as inherent sexism or violence in Islam. I am not going to pass any judgement here on the views of either side, what concerns me as part of the discussion of the democratisation of knowledge is that members of the EDL have at their fingertips the sorts of facts and knowledge that it is hard to imagine the rank and file of such an organisation ever having before.

Knowledge, then, from Google, Wikipedia, iTunesU, Facebook etc is getting to the people. No doubt this example of a Twitter exchange isn’t the most edifying or encouraging of these new movements (I’ll return to that below), but I think it is a revealing example.

If it is right that we are at the beginning of something akin to the loosening of the reins of knowledge experienced by the 15th century Catholic Church, then I think those who currently hold the reins of knowledge need to be aware of this. And those who currently hold the reins are universities.

Now, I am in no-way comparing my co-workers in modern British universities to the powers of the medieval Church (!) (although the evil nature of this latter institution has been exaggerated and its role as a force for good minimised); no, I do not think my colleagues are motivated by power or driven by a desire for political control or even, I may say, by unhealthy amounts of personal gratification. I am too old skool; academic values are too deep in my bones to think anything other than that most academics and intellectuals are driven by the ‘spirit of pure and independent enquiry’. This is my personal and professional experience. It is also true, I think, that many outside universities – in business, government, the media etc. could learn much about values, working practices and ethical behaviour from those within.

But my feeling is that the new democratisation of knowledge will not respect the walls – imaginary or concrete – erected by the universities. The dam is beginning to break. When those, still in the majority, who make up no part of our current knowledge structures can get their hands on knowledge and start to interact  with it, manipulate it for their own ends,  create new standards and methodologies, they will question the current means of ‘knowledge production’ (Gibbons, Limoges, Nowotny et al, 1994). In this respect, if nothing else, the democratisation of knowledge born of the web will put pressure on a change in the power structures of knowledge, just as the explosion of easily accessible books did for the Church in the 15th century. Universities are ‘remarkably resilient’ as this blog reminds us today, but they will not survive if they do not adapt to the waves promising to break over us all.

It is easy to be pessimistic about this new spreading out and propagation of knowledge. There is the worry about what it is doing to our minds, that it is making us superficial, pancake people, constantly distracted and unable to concentrate or learn properly. And the examples of trolling, baiting, provocation and tit-for-tat one witnesses on Twitter between those of very different views can be depressing from a social or political point of view. But we should not be too down. I imagine similar fears about a loss to culture or risk to social order were expressed in the first great download of culture from an oral tradition to a written tradition.

Movements which have more widely democratised knowledge have turned out to be good in the end. It is not because people knew too much that the horrors of Hitler and Stalin were committed, and one has to wonder if their great propaganda machines would have succeeded today. I don’t take a pollyanna-ish view of ‘the new media’. I know there are dangers and much is uncertain. But I believe the democratisation of knowledge has been and will continue to be a good thing. We at universities need to be alive to the fact that great changes are afoot however and to be prepared for this new wave of knowledge democratisation.


Popkin, Richard H

1979 The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza. University of California Press: Berkeley California. ISBN 0-520-03876-2

Gibbons, Limoges, Nowotny et al

1994 The New Production of Knowledge: The Dynamics of Science and Research in Contemporary Societies. Sage Publications Ltd. ISBN 978-0803977945

Photo under a CC license from Geograph

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