Sunday, October 09, 2011

The Politics of Knowledge

Any book about Wikipedia must confront the issue of what Larry Sanger has called The Politics of Knowledge.  There is a nice piece by him in The Edge which gives you the general flavour.  Should we be told what knowledge we need?  Or do we know what we need already?  It's  a difficult paradox, that Plato would have appreciated.

Sanger's view is clear:
In the Middle Ages, we were told what we knew by the Church; after the printing press and the Reformation, by state censors and the licensers of publishers; with the rise of liberalism in the 19th and 20th centuries, by publishers themselves, and later by broadcast media—in any case, by a small, elite group of professionals.  But we are now confronting a new politics of knowledge, with the rise of the Internet and particularly of the collaborative Web—the Blogosphere, Wikipedia, Digg, YouTube, and in short every website and type of aggregation that invites all comers to offer their knowledge and their opinions, and to rate content, products, places, and people. It is particularly the aggregation of public opinion that instituted this new politics of knowledge.
We should not be told what we know.  This whole approach to knowledge contrasts strikingly with the view of education that I grew up with, which I shall attempt to characterise, and which I shall try to defend.

When I grew up in 1950s Britain, when broadcasting was under the shadow of a man called John Reith.  Reith's whole philosophy of broadcasting was unashamedly anti-populist or 'elitist' (if you like).  His endeavour was to carry to the greatest number of people everything that was best in every department of human knowledge, endeavour and achievement, and to avoid whatever was harmful.  The arbitrators of 'best' and 'harmful', of course, were the elite group of producers who ran the BBC.  Reith was often criticised for setting out to give the public not what it wanted but what it needed, to which he replied "the answer was that few knew what they wanted, fewer what they needed".  As if to say, the public, the crowd, do not know what they need to know, and so must be told.

So, in the 1950s, there were only three BBC stations, all state-controlled.  There was the 'Light Programme', the most popular, devoted to what is now called 'British Light Music', of which Puffin' Billy and Barwick Green are archetypes (interesting how these tunes are engraved in the collective subconscious of my generation), as well as 'variety shows' and comedy. The "Home Service" was the channel for news, features, and slightly more demanding drama . Finally there was the "Third Programme" which was unashamedly highbrow and 'elitist', consisting of classical music concerts and recitals, and scientific and philosophical talks, poetry readings and classic or 'experimental' plays. Anna Kallin (who naturally has no Wikipedia biography) was responsible for much of the philosophical and cultural programming, of which this page gives you a strong sense.

It's easy to be critical of this approach now.  Yet it had a wonderful effect. It was on the radio, free for anyone to listen to, and brought directly into the living room the contrast between between 'high' and 'popular' culture. The very idea of 'high' culture, and the idea that some kinds of knowledge are better, was made manifest.  It must have inspired many young people to get an education.

If you believe in the distinction between high and popular culture, you cannot avoid the Reithian  approach to broadcasting, or something like it. It is a logical consequence.  Popular culture by definition is what the populace want, or think they want.  High culture by definition is higher and better.  It is what the populace needs, and is what they should want (even though they think they don't want it).  If you believe in the distinction at all, you cannot avoid an 'elitist' approach like this.  That is the Reithian politics of knowledge.

If you don't believe in it, you may as well get the general public to write down what they know, or what they think they know.  That is the Wikipedian politics of knowledge.

Which is right?  I welcome Larry Sanger's views.

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