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The Internet and the Future of Scholarship

The Internet and the Future of Scholarship

The effect of digital and web technologies on education and scholarship deeply interests me. While I am generally optimistic about the utility of these technologies for scholarship, including my own work, I remain cautious and keenly interested in finding solutions to some of the associated problems.

I recall a few years ago reading an article in the Atlantic entitled, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” by Nicholas Carr. What I did not realize at that time was that a lively debate followed this article at the Britannica blog between significant writers on the topic, including an exchange between Clay Shirky and Carr. You can see a “table of contents” of sorts of the whole thing here. It is still very much worth a read.

A few excerpts, first from Shirky:

The change we are in the middle of isn’t minor and it isn’t optional, but nor are its contours set in stone. We are a long way from discovering and perfecting the net’s native forms, what Barthes called the ‘genius’ particular to a medium. To get there, we must find ways to focus amid new intellectual abundance, but this is not a new challenge. Once the printing press meant that there were more books than a person could read in a lifetime, scholars had to sharpen disciplines and publishers define genres, as a bulwark against the information overload of the 16th century. Society was better after that transition than before, even though it took two hundred years to get there.

And from Carr:

What the Net may be doing, I argue, is rewiring the neural circuitry of our brains in a way that diminishes our capacity for concentration, reflection, and contemplation. This, as Shirky admits, would not be the first time that our technologies have changed the way we think. The human mind was designed, through evolution, to be highly adaptable—for better, or for worse.

And from Michael Gorman:

The reactionary text Webster’s Third New International Dictionary defines the verb learn as “To gain knowledge and understanding of, or skill in, by study, instruction, or experience.”  In the dark years B.G., “study” involved such interaction with complex texts and the outmoded concept of “literacy” involved a life-time of such interactions.  How much more pleasant it is today when we flicker from one little glittering factoid to other shiny shards of information, all buried in a mound of dross heralded by the exciting words “results   1-10 of about 533,000,000.”  Here’s richness! (to quote from one of those long, boring books we used to pretend to read B.G.)

2 Responses to The Internet and the Future of Scholarship

  1. The internet loves information. I think eventually ~all information will be on the internet – even if, at the same time, it’s also, at least for a while, elsewhere (e.g., books, journals). I think that’s the trend – and there’s reasons for it.

    The internet changes things. E.g., email over snail mail; on-line news sites over newspapers; on-line shopping over in-store shopping; on-line courses over in-class courses, etc. Anything that can be ‘done on-line’ will trend in that direction, imho.

    People like to express themselves – at every level. And if it’s free, better yet. The internet offers just that – free expression. E.g., what about all those people who think they know something about something and would like to express themselves – but don’t have the ability or time to e.g., write something up for a peer-reviewed journal? E.g., in science, I believe a lot of people get there phd’s and then can’t find a job (in science, I believe 6 people coming out of university compete for 1 position?; There are 5000 janitors in the US who have phd’s); or can’t get there paper published (in science, 9 of 10 papers are rejected; … ). And what about all the amateurs out there, who would like to express themselves? (The internet also increases education among amateurs; ie., education will increasingly happen in untraditional ways, thanks to the internet. #trend.)

    I think that the various areas of scholarship out there will eventually produce websites where the less prominent will be able to publish and interact. Think of it as ‘brain storming’ – a place where both good and bad ideas are thrown out there in the marketplace where they’ll either swim or drown. Hmmm. Is that a good idea or a bad idea? … To some extent, whether good or bad, I think it’s gonna happen anyway. The technology is here and the hunger to express and participate is here (blogging is an example of that ‘hunger to express’). And I think it’s already beginning to happen in academia. Examples can be found on-line in regard to science (I could give examples). is an interesting ‘generalized’ start. Even ‘amateurs’ can sign up and put there papers there – as far as I can tell. … (The problem with Academia is perhaps there search engine? … Topics also need to be organized (grouped better), imo. Note to Academia: evolve (improve), or perish – be replaced. Just saying.)

    To my way of thinking, it’s possible that in the end, the on-line interaction of all ideas (for free – cuz ‘free’ draws people like a magnet, lol) will become a bigger and bigger reality. In the end I wonder whether it will overtake scholarship as it is done now? Will the doors be opened to a larger audience? A larger interaction? A melting pot of ideas? A earth-sized board room of brain stormers? … One problem that will have to be overcome is ‘filtering’ – what’s good and what’s not (but hey, maybe here, think wikipedia?).

    Hmmm. … I guess we’ll have to wait and see how the trends and forces develop. … I don’t think we’ve yet seen the end-product in regard to the internet. In some ways, I think it’s in it’s infancy (particularly in regard to academia – perhaps academia likes to maintain the old, drag it’s feet, etc). … In regard to information (it’s accumulation and dessimination), I think it’s still got a ways to go.


    • Lot’s of good thoughts. Thanks for sharing. I am mostly positive about the potential of digital media for scholarship, and I think some of the ‘problems’ with it will be worked out in due time (e.g., peer-review related issues, etc.).

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