Monday, March 17, 2008

We all know something

I want to go to a conference like this.

"In his 2004 book The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowieki captured the spirit of the collaborative trends in media and society. The combined individual activities of many can provide an accurate understanding of even the most complex issues. “We all know something” is the underlying theme driving much technological and societal change. Although the well-crafted reasoning of experts will continue to play an important role in conferences, the more informal discussions and presentations at “unconferences” offer valuable exposure to—and, more important, the opportunity to contextualize—cutting-edge ideas.

The real emphasis should be less on technology and more on the affordance of the open dialogue that now defines the primary value of conferences. Whether a small-table discussion, a chat at the bar, or a contribution to the conference wiki, blog session, or Twitter-fest, the common defining theme centers on control. Instead of listening passively, conference attendees in each of these scenarios experience a high level of engagement and ownership. Web technology, to date, has best symbolized this important shift, since its decentralized structure does not reflect as strong a central position for the speaker or teacher."

It is surprising that those of us who preach about the open classroom so often subject others or let ourselves be subjected (some may say abjected) to such structure.

Like many, I believe that knowledge is social and that institutions that push toward proprietary or even secretive ends are so anathema to democracy that they should be avoided at all cost. Indeed, the costs of insular "knowledge" is high. Look at what the class of experts known as Wall Street has recently wrought. Look at the "experts" who got us into the war now entering its fifth year.

So it goes that we do not need to comprehend every detail of a topic to be informed about it. Understanding physics is necessary to understand how to build a missile. It does not take physics to understand that bombs are bad. Of course, we cannot be experts or even well informed about everything, but, on the other hand, we cannot abdicate our responsibility to inquire and to inform ourselves about the world around us.

My point is that if we are truly believers in democracy and building knowledge from within the social realm, we must learn to live in it, teach in it, and to demand it from others, whether in politics or academic conferences.

Large conferences, like large classrooms, are built on a flawed model. While they are efficient at delivering specific types of information, they are inefficient at creating new knowledge. The opportunities for networking and Q&A are simply too limited, and, as everyone knows, networking and social connections are why everyone goes to conferences. That probably why I've always felt more at home at, say, SE17 rather than the MLA. It's probably why I am happy at Whittier College too.

Here's a quote from John Dewey that alway lingers in the forefront of my thoughts: "A class of experts is inevitably so removed from common interests as to become a class with private interests and private knowledge, which in social matters is not knowledge at all."

While expertise is a real and valuable thing--would I want a neophyte building a bridge or a plane I was about to use?--it is all too easy for experts to forget that their power and "value" is socially determined and not intrinsically tied to their so-called knowledge. This is as true for the teacher as it is for the economist or the carpenter. While it may sound like knowledge represents one more market in which ideas are traded, that only remains true to a point. Dewey's phrase means more, because, implicit in the idea of an expert class lies the idea of class power. Once a group of, say, economists gain political favor (in academia or in Washington or Moscow), it becomes easier for that group to wield more power, to use political and social influence to skew the marketplace for ideas. The market, thus skewed, becomes less a bazaar and more a cathedral (to use the famous computing metaphor).

Expertise leads to more specialization and, often, self-aggrandization: I understand x and am therefore valuable to you; you should pay me more. I write complicated arguments based on math, philosophy and Science(!); you should pay me more. Our society tends to believe the experts even when the evidence should easily convince us of the contrary. How many CEO's leave companies in ruins while they grow richer? How long will it take to see that Greenspan's long reign and his bubble(s) are not the work of a good economist but that of a good politician? How many profs from Harvard or Yale supported the war in Iraq?

Don't believe me that specialists think they are really special? Look at this article by Harvard prof G. Mankiw:

NO issue divides economists and mere Muggles more than the debate over globalization and international trade. Where the high priests of the dismal science see opportunity through the magic of the market’s invisible hand, Joe Sixpack sees a threat to his livelihood. This gap in perspective grows especially wide whenever the economy experiences short-run difficulties, as it is now. By all indications, the issue could come to dominate the presidential campaign.
See? Economists are magicians, priests, scientists! Everyone else is a muggle-minded "Joe Sixpack." Again, let me ask how long will it take to see that Greenspan's long reign and his bubble(s) are not the work of a good economist but that of a good politician? How many profs from Harvard or Yale supported the war in Iraq (or go about blindfolded yelling "free trade!")?

Those are simple questions, and some would say naïve, but that is my point. Power, beliefs, news, hierarchical structures can make us blind to our own power and to the powers that be. Power makes us forget to be like children and to ask the simple questions, the ones that matter. Simple questions, like the simple needs of shelter, food and community, are the foundation for democracy and democratic economies, and, while simple answers are rare and should generally be avoided, simple questions are often the most revealing.

Sorry to be so long-winded, but I think this is important. I will be attending some unconferences this summer to hopefully learn something from some experts and to ask them some simple questions. Just think: what if Colin Powell had presented his "proof" that Iraq had WMDs at an unconference rather than the U.N.? What if the NYT's W. Kristol actually had to answer to some of the lies he gets from Newsmax? (I'll refrain from linking to that trash.)

Now I'm not saying that organizations and institutions have no place, for I think they do, but permit me to believe that if our world contained a little more democracy, a little more Web 2.0, it just might be a better place.