Dustin @Lifehack has pointed out that the model for personal productivity that I proposed yesterday seems to be an academic model. While I see where he’s coming from, I think there’s a much larger question to consider: is the Internet and its knowledgeworking minions killing the role of academia?
(Introductory Sidebar: I will be using “the Internet” as shorthand for all of the stuff that goes on on the Internet. Also, “institution” will be used in the sociological sense, as in “structures and mechanisms of social order and cooperation governing the behavior of a set of individuals” (definition from Wikipedia).)
Perhaps it seems hyperbolic, but I’m starting to think more and more that it’s the case. Think about some of the historical roles of the academic institution in society:
- It allowed a place for the free discussion of ideas
- It allowed a place where people could receive advanced education above the basics of that required for citizenship.
- It served as society’s evaluator of who had knowledge and who didn’t.
- It employed people whose jobs were not to produce things but rather to produce ideas.
The Universities in the past were the one place where scholars could discuss ideas without (too much) fear of State or Church intrusion, coercion, or punishment. Not surprisingly, many of the arguments that were used to advocate freedom of speech and association were arguments started from scholars at Universities who didn’t want State or Church “oversight” into their research.
A heavy portion of the educational model adopted by States focused solely on making competent workers and citizens. What many people don’t realize is that States have done this not for the sake of the citizens being educated, but for the continuance of the State. (I’ll stay away from the rathole of the state of American education today.)
Universities and college’s provided a place where people could go beyond basic arithmetic and writing and learn science, math, literature, and most of the other stuff we still learn today. It’s important to realize the first universities were private, meaning that the State at the time was not in the business of higher education.
The idea of academic degrees is modeled off the way tradesmen are certified. The main point is that society needed a way to determine and document who had sufficient knowledge to teach or do certain subjects, and Universities leveraged their credibility and evaluated the ability of their students to fulfill those roles.
The rise of the academic institution created yet another class (the clergy and aristocrats were the others) of people whose role in society excluded them from manual labor. This is a critical function, since you can’t really do a lot of theorizing, writing, and such while you’re out in the fields chasing goats.
The rise of the Internet and knowledgeworkers seriously threatens this historical role. I’ll show this point by point:
- It allows a place for the free discussion of ideas.
- It allows a place where people could receive advanced education above the basics of that required for citizenship
- It serves as society’s evaluator of who has knowledge and who doesn’t.
- It employs people whose jobs are not to produce things but rather to produce ideas.
Free speech is nowhere more prevalent than on the ‘Net (okay, outside of China). Furthermore, the old academic model required people to be in the same spatio-temporal location, whereas the Internet now allows for asynchronous communication, collaberation, and idea dispersal.
It’s probably not an understatement to say that anyone able to teach themselves can become competent in any body of knowledge if they spent enough time doing research online. This will become even more true as knowledgeworkers continue to create informative, accurate content and as the search engines continually get better at finding that content. This seriously threatens academia, since a) the information is free, and b) the academic institution has claimed a monopoly on knowledge since the Middle Ages. What happens to any institution that attempts to have a monopoly on a resource that people can get elsewhere for free?
The Internet hasn’t quite managed to do this one yet (perhaps because certain institutions want to have a monopoly on that privilege?). Internet experts, however, do currently have the power to be recognized as such, and will often be funded by academic institutions to teach classes in the subjects they are experts in, but there’s simply not much of a model for the Internet that can separate popularity from knowledgeable expertise. (Sidebar:I’d rather have Merlin Mann teach a course in Productivity Theory over most profs I know and have seen anyday; likewise for Steve Pavlina in Internet Commerce)
I think it’ll be a long time for there to be any real advances made here, and if they are they’ll probably piggyback on academic models. Think about how many academic institutions that we currently have that are going the online route and how poorly they are being received as legitimate academic institutions.
Successful websites and blogs generate enough income that people are now quitting their full-time jobs. If the experts are right that anyone can potentially make money online, then we have another institution and class of people (besides politicians, clergy, and academics) that are exempt from manual (marketplace) labor.
The real question is whether the Internet is competing with the Academic institution or whether it’s simply supplementing or replicating the roles of the academic institution. I think it’s pretty clear that it’s competing, especially as more and more would-be scholars bail from academia to become (you guessed it) knowledgeworkers.
If I’m anywhere close to right, Dustin’s insight that the model I’ve proposed seems to be an academic model is partially right. But that’s only because many of the same functions of academia are being either replicated or taken over by the Internet. It would be no surprise, then, that knowledgeworkers would need to ask themselves the same types of questions that academics must ask themselves.
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