¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 In these notes I look at the comparisons between aspects of our early modern period, around the 1700s, and our contemporary Internet society (i.e. post-Berners-Lee). These are arbitrary waymarkers. Sometimes I jump back to earlier times, to our pre-print scribal culture (e.g. Clanchy, 2012) and even before that, our pre-scribal oral culture (e.g. Ong, 1982). In particular I am interested in those parts of contemporary academic practice that may be forced to change, e.g. by shifts in such practices as publishing, or those parts that it may be desirable to change, e.g. formulating ideas, analysing data, drafting and even some aspects of peer reviewing; or those parts where new kinds of knowledge are being created, enlarged, shared, exchanged, and communicated, e.g. in the development of such ideas as ‘crowd wisdom’ (Shirky, 3008) or network knowledge (Rheingold and Weeks, 2012; Siemens, 2004)*.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 The first is simply a belief that the use of the term ‘innovation’ is, in the broader public mind at least, almost always associated with the future, with the new, with the unprecedented; innovations always come from the future. Conversely, the idea of innovation is often linked with a changed attitude towards the past and in extreme cases we are exhorted to forget the past, to start again, look to future, to be ‘going forward’ (… isn’t that what Pol Pot tried to do?) into a new future where today’s problems have been solved (no waste, plenty of fuel, stable climate etc.) and we all live in peace and harmony again. Well, perhaps not to that extreme, but there is always a hint, and innovation is always cast in terms of optimism, and even a kind of cure for some present ills.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 This leads to my second reason: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (George Santayana, Reason in Common Sense, The Life of Reason, Vol.1). That should be a good enough reason on its own – in looking back at periods of change we can see how the context of the times influenced and shaped how people did things, and to forget those influences and constraints would be risky.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 We can see that our forebears’ were innovating too, bringing into existence artefacts, ideas, ways to do things that we now find so familiar we assume that they have always been there; everyday stuff too, like knives and forks, the properties of crockery; or sewage systems, clean water, and on-demand energy.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 1 In looking back, we can learn what kinds of motivations inspired or defined particular innovations (the telescope, the microscope, the calculating machine, indexing systems) and we can learn too about the innovation process, about how some survive and spread and others displaced or die out. And above all we can discern what it is about our contemporary academic practices that deals with similar problems, and what it is about those practices that is new and different.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 To do this I draw on the authority of Peter Burke (2000) to articulate the principle behind this kind of history, an approach based on waht I think of as ‘soft dissonance’:
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 “One purpose … may be described as ‘defamiliarization’. The hope is to achieve … a kind of distanciation which makes what was familiar appear strange and what was natural seem arbitrary. … to make use … more conscious of the ‘knowledge system’ in which we live, by describing and analysing changing systems in the past. When one inhabits a system, it generally looks like ‘common sense’. Only by comparison can one see it as one system among others.” (Burke, 2000, p2)
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Such an approach informs a number of historiographic works as diverse as the emergence of electrical power and its transformative effect on social life (Marvin, 1990) or to analyses of the role and function of labels on new kinds of artefacts such as recorded music, photographs and films (Gitelman, 1999).
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 These notes, then, are a study of innovation, but not typically the kind that is explicitly invented. The innovations looked at here are innovations of social practice, specifically those do to with the recording, sharing, and debating, of knowledge. These emergent innovations often arise ‘with the grain’ of some new technological and sociological forms. It is an exploration that looks at continuities (similarities) with the past and discontinuities (novelty and difference) with the present.
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 1 This is not to take a technological determinist position. While technological forms do not determine outcomes, they afford some outcomes with great facility than others. The idea of affordances is, at a later stage, put forward as one way to address the complex nature of technological and sociological interactions. For now, I am indulging in loose language that at times make it appear that I am taking a deterministic stance, but at other times I hope I am also taking the position that social desires, epistemological imperatives and political necessities are absolutes. Within this see-saw position it also clear that while on the one hand human learning is fairly constant over many generations, at different times and in conjunction with different technical and social possibilities human learning can take on different styles and realize some potentialities rather than others (e.g. the power and value of mnemonic memory is greatly reduced in modern society compared with say its importance in societies dependent on oral representation and reproduction.
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 One important general trend throughout history is what I think of as the widening franchise of knowledge. It is a simply feature of the technology and the large size of the human population that, for our age, it making a difference. I am unsure at this stage how profound a difference it makes to the growth of knowledge to have a billion or more people actively using one of the largest debating chamebers and librarary the world has ever seen. It is different and while perhaps the way that people learn is relativbely unchanged in cognitive terms siucne the dawn of our own species’ time, the constraints and affordances of that social activity are now very different from what they were 400 years ago, or 1100 years ago or 25000 years ago. Thus the technological means have some effect, at times possibly a determining effect, but it is not a simple cause-effect relationship
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 This is a very sweeping notion and I recognize that it is at risk of being too web-centric and speakign as if knowledge is always readily represented in this ‘second order’ medium. However the physical and the mental always converge and overlap, and today even this distinction is becoming blurred. The idea of a physical object (its design) can now be sent via the network to a special printer, cutting machine or other fabricator (e.g. see Wikipedia and as an example of a consumer product see MakerBot). And then there is the internet of things, that our physical devices, such as sensors, cameras, all kidn sof tools and gadgets , can be amplified by the network.
¶ 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 * The sociological science of networks suggests that opinion formation, beliefs and influence and well as knowledge are circulated and amplified by the web. This too has continuity – such network effects are discernible in the explosion of knowledge during the early modern period – but there are unpredictable, surprising effects too, not the least of which is the speculation that knowledge itself is generated from the network. Cf Weinberger’s phrase: “the smartest person in the room is the room itself” (Weinberger, 2012).The room was crowded at the time he said it, and I shouldn’t wonder many were also peering through their screens the web even while ostensibly listening to his talk.