What the Internet Tells Us

Tom P. Abeles


The problem with the future is that it is elusive. We think we have it in our sites; but when we take that first step, not only is the future changed, but so has the past as seen from our new "present". The "internet" is a paradigmatic example, particularly for The Academy (post secondary education). Understanding the future is time dependent. The speed of change depends, again, on one's time perspective. Thus, prediction is hampered in many dimensions. The "University" has changed and there is struggle within the institution, its faculty, and community to adjust the optics to try and clearly see what it has become, its existence in the future-and to accept or respond.*

Framing the Question

Scholars in Alexandria made their living by helping individuals access the archives in the library and accepting pupils who wished to study certain subjects. Eventually we saw the founding of schools where philosophers and pupils searched for "truths" in a collegial atmosphere. The modern university of Kant, Cardinal Newman and von Humboldt arose in the 17th century and we saw its evolution into the current form in the 18th century where the university became, in part, a place for continuing the collegial search and, in part, a place to prepare students for participating in the larger society.

Today we see this split in universities in the form of graduate schools and undergraduate programs. But, these institutions still are developing around the original idea of scholars assembling for collegial purposes and students coming to obtain knowledge. While one could explore the radical changes surrounding the knowledge search, with the rise of science seen in the founding of the Royal Society in England, or the ruptures in science, religion and philosophy with the rise of the Enlightenment in Europe, the basic structure of the "university" remained unchanged until the arrival of the computer and, particularly, the internet as seen with the World Wide Web and, more recently, Web 2.0 with technical advances putting access on smart cell phones and similar personal digital assistants (PDA's).

This has created a significant cultural shift. It leaves the universities with only two functions, fundamental research and certification of individuals in selected areas of competency. The first function will become more critical in the foreseeable future, particularly in the STEM arena (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) because of the need to concentrate expensive physical resources. The control over certification will help retain the traditional undergraduate program; and the non-academic portion of a college will keep many students on campus. But the fundamental draw, the concentration of knowledge in the library and in the scholars, themselves, has lost its sinecure.

Disruptive Technology1

In thinking about the shift, one needs to consider the element of time. We consider the loss of the dinosaurs to have been "catastrophic" yet this event occurred over centuries. If one is a mayfly, one sees change differently than if one is a Galapagos tortoise or a giant redwood. Thus the shift which we are seeing, while caught up in the idea termed "Internet Time", will be spread across several generations and will change as it becomes concrete. One can only grasp the full shift from a vantage point in the future. But we recognize the change and the stress which it is causing in the now clichéd terms of Marc Prensky, "digital natives/digital immigrants"2.

One of the first places where this has become visible is in the traditional scholarly journal. The first one was published by the Royal Society in England3 and it became a vehicle for communicating research where information in that time was cloistered just due to the inertia in dissemination. Today, it is claimed that there are thousands of these journals. And today, for the academic, the journal's significance has much to do with the advancement and even retention of a faculty member's position in the institution. Thus the proliferation of articles and journals often weighted more towards factors that have little to do with the relevance or significance of the content.

The internet, other than offering a method for rapid communication of critical scholarly ideas makes visible the non-critical nature of the academic journal for scholarly exchange. In fact, the flexibility and ubiquity of internet access points out the historic nature of the journal. Other than tradition, there is no substantive argument that can be raised for the perpetuation of the scholarly journal. In fact, given the internet, it becomes increasingly clear that many of the defenses raised on behalf of the academic journal can be inverted to show that these publications often are used to suppress emerging ideas by hegemonic intellectual communities. The conflict between neo-classical economists and the emerging heterodox school serves as a paradigmatic example.

Brick space research versus "click" space scholarly activity is also being challenged by the internet. The fact that many researchers have closer collegial relationships with a network of remote colleagues than they have with faculty housed in offices on either side of theirs speaks to this clearly. We have known this because most faculty look towards annual conferences to network with kindred researchers; and, today, they maintain such contacts via a variety of electronic tools on the internet.

Most are familiar with the idea that brain surgeons perform delicate operations by using computer controlled tools where progress is monitored on a screen. Today, these surgeons do not even have to be in the same country where the operation is being performed. This points out that much laboratory research can be carried out remotely whether it is brain surgery or a student maintaining a garden on the other side of the planet.

Like hospitals in urban areas that share expensive equipment, or physicists that share accelerators for nuclear research, the idea of collaboration from remote locations will increase experimentation at reduced cost and increase the collegial idea of research groups. This shift and the changes in how academic knowledge is reported and shared will change the nature of research in the universities. Already governments and funding agencies are seeing that consortia offer potential savings in underwriting research efforts, particularly where capital costs are significant.

There are two rising factors which make this more interesting. The first of these is the decrease in the number of tenured positions in universities in the United States (currently below 60% and falling4) in many instances due to the rise of virtual universities, both independent for-profit institutions and programs within traditional post secondary institutions. Secondly, we are seeing the rise of the idea of school being preK->16/20 which creates a continuum of faculty and not the extreme difference between post secondary institutions and K-12 schools. Simultaneously, with the rise of virtual institutions, students will cease to move primarily in age-graded cohorts. This further reinforces the ability of individuals to gain knowledge at a pace commensurate with the need, cementing the education continuum from preK->gray along with expectations for what knowledge is to be made available and by whom.

Another factor is the increasingly available knowledge base, including full course lectures, on the internet. This is particularly true as more universities put their entire course catalogues on line at no cost. What is left, of course, is the need for individuals to become certified through obtaining a university degree, as suggested previously.

The net has also given rise to several varieties of "public intellectual", or a person who seizes the podium and speaks, almost ex-cathedra about issues ranging from morals and public policy to the impact and future of an armamentarium of existing and emerging technologies. While, in the past, these individuals might be drawn from the ranks of the academy, the internet has given new meaning to the term5.

Plato talked about the "philosopher-king"6. And the idea has been revived in current times where the "philosopher" was an academic. Nicholas Maxwell, a British philosopher, has talked about the idea of "wisdom" coming primarily from the academic community7. The economist, Edward Castronova, in his book, Synthetic Worlds8, suggests that academics should provide the guiding "wisdom" and Sherman and Smith, in "The Climate Challenge and the Failure of Democracy"9 have suggested that democracy should default to a quasi fascist government informed by the wisdom of The Academy.

Interestingly this idea has been challenged with the rise of the internet and the simultaneous populist movement for e-democracy. In other words, the internet has taken us from knowledge locked into libraries and the heads of scholars to a world where a lay person can successfully challenge the academic for the bully pulpit within the area where they have spent years of careful study. There are some areas, largely what has been defined as STEM subjects where scholars seem to retain their position. But within the arena of the humanities and social sciences, the gauntlet has been thrown down by the lay public as well as scholars within the STEM community. There is the famous New Yorker magazine cartoon by Peter Steiner which reads "On the internet, nobody knows you're a dog"10.

Pick a topic such as "climate change" or "global warming". Careful search of the internet can provide sufficient bibliographic information that would allow one to sit on either side or directly on the fence regarding this critical issue. Interestingly, one climate researcher says that this arena is a growth area where the model builders on either side continue to marshal resources to construct opposing models or nuanced arguments for either side. All is accessible by the internet for a person with a university degree and good library skills. This is true if you are an investigative reporter, a business dependent on the resultant political response, or a lay member of, for example, an environmental organization.

Picking Up the Pieces

One needs to realize that one of the key effects of the internet is to expose the problems that have been building within The Academy, globally. The first is that campus or brick space collegiality has significantly shifted. Disciplines are now joined by the World Wide Web more firmly than the specialty and subspecialty associations have been able to accomplish in the past. This increases the isolation of the academic on his or her campus. This has been increasing as promotion and tenure committees seek outside experts because they are unable to adequately evaluate the quality of the academic's work. The internet could provide the vehicle whereby colleagues are able to gain the necessary knowledge if they were also not caught in the same evaluative process.

The students are also caught in the equivalent of a publish/perish bind but do not hesitate to turn to whatever resources they need to pull materials together for their courses. This drives them to connect to colleagues across campus and, even, globally via the internet, often, to the chagrin of the academics who are responsible for the courses. Yet, these team approaches to problem solving are exactly the skill sets needed on the job.

The interesting facts are how they connect. Technology has rapidly moved from desktop to laptop to tablet and finally through iPods to smart phones. Connectivity has moved most of their knowledge onto what is now being called "clouds" where Facebook and YouTube are parts of that cloud. For academics and their institutions, this also means that the brick space campus has gone to click space, on campus servers, to clouds where the applications are all on virtual computers maintained by a number of services such as Google.

Academics may raise serious concerns, but momentum is evident. In Japan, novels on the best seller list have been written by "screenagers" on their smart phones and uploaded to a site which stores these ideas of budding authors11. Knowledge, in the form of videos are now downloaded onto smart phones and portable media devices such as MP3 players, and in China, the leading cell phone provider sells English courses12.

Edgar Allen Poe has written a short story, "The Facts in the Case of M Valdemar", where a consumptive individual was hypnotized to eliminate his suffering in his last few days. Interestingly the individual lived on. One day his best friend realized that the patient was still hypnotized and proceeded to break the trance whereupon the patient immediately collapsed and disintegrated. The question that we have in front of us at this moment is whether or not the brick space academy is in such a trance.


*It should be noted that there is a paucity of references and footnotes. In the past, there was a requirement that scholars cite or give "credit" to the work of others. Absence of such documentations allowed scholars to dismiss writing as not being "scholarly" and thus not worth considering. For sciences, at one time, citations were critical because, pre internet, past work was difficult to access. Thus content of articles were largely composed of past materials so the work could be duplicated and advanced.

Some of this "rigor" spilled over to the humanities and social philosophy arena when the Enlightenment philosophers believed, like the Cargo Cults, that adopting of such practices would take them a long way to becoming a "science" with all the concomitant successes and legitimacy.

While The Academy has taken a micro step by putting scholarly journals on line, and in some cases, as open access, it has intentionally avoided facing what industry and the larger community of researchers, using the internet, have found critical to information dissemination, evaluating and certifying. It, in essences has mapped bricks into clicks rather than embraced the vision-clearing opportunities of the internet which further scholarly communication and exchange. There has been valid fear that the academic guilds would lose their sinecure, which, in fact, has happened.

**Also, note that there are references to "Wikipedia", a site eschewed by academics who even forbid their students from using such "unvetted" materials. For the purpose of this article, the citations selected provide the level of detail needed and those wishing to either challenge the references or to search elsewhere can use these references and the internet to expand support of the ideas presented here.


Tom P. Abeles, a former tenured professor of environmental sciences and liberal studies, consults internationally in the area of e-learning and edits the academic journal, On the Horizon, His firm also consults internationally in the area of renewable energy and sustainability.



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9 Shearman, David and Joseph Wayne Smith, The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy, Praeger, Westport, CT, 2007

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