Knowledge is Never Finished

The ‘Freeconomics’ of Spreading Ideas

The Sinister Idea, by Felipe Morin, with Creative Commons licenceHow do ideas shift across society, through time? Brian Aldiss once wrote that we really have no firm understanding of how an intellectual elite passes on difficult concepts to the general public. Sure, education’s a part of it, as are what Antonio Gramsci called organic intellectuals – those who engage their communities, offer what they know and learn from the experience. Social networking and blogs have diminished geographical boundaries in that sense, but if we stay focused on the Internet there’s another vital aspect of the process that not everyone considers: commerce.

You might be thinking of e-learning services or pay-per-visit news sites, but I want to suggest a more traditional medium that’s making itself over. I’ve mentioned before that academic papers are easy to dredge up online, and they’re particularly helpful if you’re interested in what I recently called casual learning with a nod to Ivan Illich. Most of those papers are available on pages maintained by their authors, although some are orphaned on project sites long after the researcher has moved on. It’s not very often that you can drag out full journal issues free of charge, but it’s becoming a little more common.

There’s certainly a commercial motive for making the results of research available online. The authors don’t benefit in any immediate sense, although their ideas are at least potentially fast-tracked into the public mind. But publishers have a great deal to gain by offering free access to selected issues of reputable journals. It costs them nothing and is likely to attract at least a few new subscriptions. In a sense this is just advertising once removed, but it could well be the doorway into what Chris Anderson recently called “freeconomics”. 

Scenic Route, by Kivanc, with Creative Commons licenceMost publishers offer free ‘sample issues’ of academic journals if you’re prepared to click through enough pages to actually download anything. But Cambridge University Press is now travelling more convincingly down the twisted route to freeconomics by offering no-cost access to recent issues of most journals it provides online for subscription. You just have to go to its alphabetical listing, chose one of the titles with an ‘H’ next to it, click through to the journal’s page and access the free issue.  

You might be a little sceptical about whether this really helps the spread of ideas, but let me give you an example of the sorts of possibilities it opens up.

The freely available issue of Modern Intellectual History, this month’s edition, includes a review essay by Harold Mah on the difficulty of assuming that experience can be the basis of knowledge. Common sense, for what it’s worth, might presume otherwise, but Mah shows how experience has been understood as both a solid platform on which to build general observations and a process of trial and error that might or might not give us insight into the workings of the world. Clearly both positions can’t hold true in every case, but Mah allows us to see that knowledge is never really finished, that learning is rarely done.

And Claire Jean Kim emphasises the importance of how we frame observations in the free-access issue of the Du Bois Review. Discussing the debate over the treatment of animals by immigrants in California, she shows how complaints about dubious ‘cultural’ practices very easily become mired in claims of racism. I briefly touched on a similar theme in my post yesterday, but Kim manages to convincingly show how the idea of multiculturalism – an open attempt to move away from past injustices – can snap back as an insular defence against criticism.

Caution - this idea has sharp edges! by rwp-roger, with Creative Commons licence“Ideas”, wrote Brian Aldiss, “are precious. Ideas are hard work.” You can certainly see that in the two examples I’ve given. But other people’s ideas are also becoming easer to access. Freeconomics might well have its own twisted barbs yet to be revealed, but in this case it really is offering something important for nothing much.

And that’s a welcome gift in this puzzling world.

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