Excerpts From A Discussion About DIY Education

For some years now I have been an active contributor to a terrific listserv called the Institute for Distributed Creativity (iDC), run by Trebor Scholz of The New School in NY.  From now on I’m going to cross-publish my iDC posts here. My first such reposting is below.

Subject: Re: [iDC] Can DIY education be crowdsourced?

On Tue, Sep 13, 2011 at 4:01 PM, Jon Ippolito <jippolito@maine.edu> wrote:

For any ranked list is a hierarchy, and as such fundamentally at odds with a scholarly network. A list of artists or academics with numbers next to their names is a pitiful representation of their impact on the field. Ultimately, ranked lists are, like standardized tests and representative democracy, a convenient excuse for not thinking.

Jon, I am very sympathetic to your critique of peer-reviewed elitism but I think you are mistaken in supposing that ranked lists are antithetical to scholarship. Lists are fundamental to literate culture, as are standardized tests (though not representational democracy, however), both within academia and elsewhere, such as industry, politics, economics, etc. Far from being an excuse for not thinking, lists and standards are very much catalysts for thinking, but only for certain kinds of thinking, geared towards certain specific ends, those ends reflecting literate values such as ‘progress’, ‘objectivity’ and ‘fixity’.

And this kind of thinking has taken literate scholarship – along with literate politics, economics, industry, etc. – very far indeed in a shockingly short time. But it has done so at the expense of other kinds of thinking based on other – non-literate – values. Until recently, the only place those values were manifested was in oral cultures, which have been marginalized and trampled by more efficient literate cultures. In such cultures ‘progress’, ‘objectivity’ and ‘fixity’ simply do not exist. Or to the extent that they do it is as aberrant alternatives to the norms of ‘cyclical’, ‘subjective’, ‘ephemeral’ being and thought.

Today, however, digital culture is not only propagating an epistemology based on similar non-literate values, but it is doing so in a hyper-efficient fashion, threatening literate culture with marginalization just as literacy did to oral cultures, people and ideas. So suddenly literacy is on the defensive, not just in academia but in law and art and industry and elsewhere, and everywhere for the same reasons. For digital practices reflect a different value system. One in which literate lists and standards are subservient to dynamic non-linear relationships. Which is why your next comment…

One way to defeat rankism is to abandon lists altogether in favor of clouds. Unlike ranked lists, clouds of influence can be contextual (relative to the subculture being measured), multiple (applicable to more than one subculture), variable (reflecting changes over shorter timescales than a global metric), and net-native.

… is so brilliant, because it gets straight to the heart of the problem. Which we experience as cultural but which is technologically-determined and can be technologically resolved. For dynamic clouds (and Amazon reviews for that matter) are a non-literate architecture that offer all kinds of useful possibilities that are unavailable to literate administrators of printed standards and lists, which academia still relies on, not only to manage students but also ideas, i.e. peer review.

There is a lot of inertia still, a huge amount actually. But if a really scalable, accessible and practical peer-to-peer education platform were to emerge within the next 5 years and gain the sort of massive global traction that facebook or YouTube suddenly and unexpectedly did, it could have an instantaneous and extremely destabilizing effect on academia. Not saying it will. But it could.

Either way, those are some big clouds on the horizon.

Best,
John

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