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Marginalia's Manifesto

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The unsettling fact is that in the most connected and complex moment in history, we are suffering a crisis of fragmentation, disintegration, and loss of meaning.

 

Precisely when we need history to transcend and contextualize our conflicts we employ it to mobilize the base; when religion remains as important as ever, and becomes one of the defining forces in the contemporary world, a leading newspaper admits it does not understand it, a confession reflecting the wider truth that elite culture has little comprehension of its own historical context.

 

We have information and processing power on orders of magnitude unimaginable even a generation ago and yet the European project is under threat, America elected a nationalist, and the far right’s power is growing. Information has exploded, yet education is in crisis. The very conditions that make the university successful – specialized research – threaten to undermine its relevance and credibility.

 

The fragmentation of higher education parallels the balkanization of the global community and the new tribalism the Internet has helped create, with each group closed into its own sphere of interests and information, custom-made to confirm its biases. The common element that binds these fragmenting forces, whether in education or the digital world, is that the forces of universalization and emancipation are being undermined by their own technologies. The greatest technologies of the last two centuries, the research university and the Internet, created the modern knowledge culture and the information revolution. Yet both face major challenges.

 

The university, ever more sophisticated in its specialization, has raised questions about its relevance and capacity to speak to the broader problems that do not fit neatly into an academic niche. Big questions are left unanswered, and often unasked.

 

Filling the vacuum of meaning are demagogues and hacks, peddling shallow solutions to profound problems. If people can only choose between narrow experts who cannot even explain why their work matters or popular books explaining everything, they choose meaning, and for a good reason: We cannot live well without answers to big questions about humanity, history, and society – it is precisely anxiety about those questions, about our role in the world and the future of our children, that motivate so much of the extremism in politics.

 

The solution to shallow answers to big questions is not to deny the questions but answer them with depth and responsibility, using the disciplines of the university but linking them to each other and the larger questions that unite us all.

 

Creating access to ideas that are both responsible and relevant is a daunting demand. It means going against the grain of both the current form of the Internet and the university itself to enhance the unique strengths of both.

 

The Internet has created a platform on which information can be instantly accessed and shared. But the rise of increasingly sophisticated personalization algorithms has revealed a flaw in the idea that the Internet alone can spread knowledge. Personalized searches and targeted advertising undermine peoples’ power to break free from their biases, to escape the echo chambers of their own provincialism.

 

The Internet, offering freedom and knowledge, has created a crisis of privacy and misinformation: fake reporting, marketing masquerading as news media, and the dubious use of personal data by large corporations all threaten the integrity of ideas on the Internet while highlighting the vast difference between information and knowledge.

 

Indeed, the problem today is that there is too much information. But responding to a crisis of over-information was part of the origins of the research university, as Chad Wellmon has shown in his recent book, Organizing Enlightenment, and distinguishing information from knowledge is a crucial role of scholars. Knowledge is what the research university is designed to create, and since its inception the modern university has revolutionized the world, curating and preserving past insights while forging new frontiers and disseminating knowledge through journals and books.

 

Yet the research university is an elite institution to which few people have access. The insights of scholars are tucked away behind pay-walls or hidden in obscure and expensive books. The university helps take information and create knowledge, but can that knowledge reach a broader public?

 

We need a new commons, a site where the very conditions that enable collaboration create public accessibility and social relevance.

 

At the heart of the new commons lies a renewed vision of science and the humanities on a platform that integrates the best insights of academia with lucid discussion of their broader relevance.

Traditional journalism has played a key role in democratizing knowledge but it cannot bridge the gap between scientific insight and public access. Journalists do not have the time or expertise to interpret and explain scholarship.

 

A digital commons must exist at the margins of both journalism and scholarship if it is to create a new pathway between and beyond their borders. To do this requires integrating the scientific power of the university with the democratizing potential of the Internet.

 

If that seems utopian – building a transnational network of accessible and curated knowledge, bringing the university into the public sphere without sacrificing the power of expertise or tolerating the damaging effects of specialization – that’s because it is.

 

The Republic of Letters has always been utopian. It imagines a borderless world, where knowledge is free and serves the public good. The Internet has been shaped by similarly utopian aspirations, ideas of free information that would overcome human tribalism and ignorance. If these ideas have not realized their potential, they have changed the world and given us the power to criticize their failures.

 

A digital commons that transcends regional disputes – whether of disciplines or nations – may not resolve any arguments, but it can keep them going in a time when the suppression of debate and ideas represents the greatest threat to global freedom.

 

Call it pragmatic utopianism, a vision of the good that responds to real problems – ignorance, anti-intellectualism, hyper-specialization, fake news – without renouncing its idealism. As a scholar and editor, I call it home.

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