Saturday, February 17, 2007

Distributed Knowledge Networks

If knowledge is power, American universities are engaged in an effort which is likely to make a lot of people in a lot of different locales a lot more influential.

As recapped recently in the Wall Street Journal ("Yale on $0 a Day," 2/15/07), an increasing number of eminent colleges and universities are making their course material available to the public for free on line. Not surprisingly, MIT's "OpenCourse Ware" spearheaded the effort in 2003, and by this November, it intends to publish syllabi and class notes from all of its 1,800 courses. Yale will be producing digital videos of undergraduate lectures beginning this Fall 2007. The list goes on, and this is just the beginning. We don't know what is happening in this domain outside the U.S, at the moment, but, certainly, other countries cannot be far behind.

A lot of eclectic and curious people like us could be even more tempted to never get up from our computers now that we can sit in on lectures from great profs on subjects ranging from orangutans to the Old Testament. This new step in the trend toward an ever-increasing availability of a never ending quantity of information will have a number of consequences. Here are four positive ones that we're thinking about:

1. More people are going to be informed on a wider range of topics. Teachers, especially good ones, turn data into knowledge and wisdom. They use memorable stories to make their points. People in China are going to use well-formulated analyses of American history to understand facets of the developmental challenges of their own societies, and vice versa. People in Micronesia are going to become more articulate in explaining the consequences of global warming. People in India are going to be debating the relationships between South Asian ethnic groups by translating Samuel Huntington's arguments into their own terms, and the English are going to be refuting Toynbee's ideas about the importance of creative elites by directly quoting Vietnamese intellectuals explaining the way that Ho Chi Minh simply spoke the will of the masses rather than shaping it. Cocktail parties all over the world are about to become even more interesting.

2. The Internet has already brought the thinking and the impact of the few to the many, and the availability of better and better information, information formulated into knowledge, is going to accelerate that phenomenon. Everyone will be able to tune in to Noam Chomsky's analysis of Middle Eastern dynamics and then watch Bernard Lewis challenge them. Meditation and concentration techniques will be incorporated into emerging web software and enable us to enter quasi-hypnotic states in which we will absorb this huge volume of information by using the whole brain. We'll be watching physics lectures by MIT's Walter Lewin in a quiet mind state as a result of our interaction with a feature of operating system that stills distracting noisy thoughts, like "Where did I leave my keys?!"

3. Video streaming will mean that more people will be able to learn and to know without necessarily having to read. Understanding will come from being present while teachers who really know how to explain things are talking. Just as advancements in graphic software have improved the visual component of presentations, so will the digitalization of lectures encourage higher and higher visual production values in the classroom and the need to accomplish that will drive down the costs of doing so.

4. The "democratization of education" is a feature of the adaptive quality of humanity's place in the world system. Many of us adhere to a dystopic view of world conditions. Being depressed about the prospects for greater peace is understandable, for example. War seems to be proliferating, for example. Yet, the world system produces antidotes to these ills, and the spread of knowledge and wisdom challenges the threat of annihilation. Barak Obama is a living example of what can happen when everyday people, disadvantaged people, gain access to insight: a guy from nowhere, the child of a broken home, just happens to be really bright and energetic. He's able to parley his talent into becoming a serious contender for the American presidency. How many other thousands of people are there like that who will thrive on a great education without having to pay for it?

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