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<nettime> Phil Agre: Supporting the Intellectual Life of a Democratic Society (2001)


< http://polaris.gseis.ucla.edu/pagre/intellectual.html >

  Supporting the Intellectual Life of a Democratic Society

    Philip E. Agre
    Department of Information Studies
    University of California, Los Angeles
    Los Angeles, California 90095-1520
    USA

   pagre {AT} ucla.edu

   [1]http://polaris.gseis.ucla.edu/pagre/

   [2]Ethics and Information Technology 3(4), 2001, pages 289-298.

   Please do not quote from this version, which may differ slightly from
   the version that appears in print.

   6500 words.

   "Democracy has many meanings, but if it has a moral meaning, it is
   found in resolving that the supreme test of all political institutions
   and industrial arrangements shall be the contribution they make to the
   all-around growth of every member of society" (Dewey 1920: 186).

   1 Introduction

   What is a digital library for? Here is one way to look at it: the
   purpose of a digital library is to support the intellectual life of a
   society. Now, this is a familiar role for a library. We are already
   accustomed to thinking of libraries as repositories of cultural memory,
   resources of information, and promoters of literacy. But as information
   technology becomes radically cheaper and more ubiquitous, and as
   information services become knitted into the fabric of daily life, we
   are in a position to ask more deeply what an intellectual life is and
   how to support it. Existing scholarly and library practices reflect the
   wisdom of centuries, and we should think twice before throwing them
   out. Instead, I propose that we recover the underlying logic of these
   practices, abstract the aspects of them that have lasting value, and
   then generalize, extend, and democratize them -- that is, make them
   available to, and adapt them to the purposes of, the citizenry in
   general and not just to elites. This requires a sustained analysis of
   intellectual life. Intellectual life is both deeply individual and
   deeply collective at the same time, and analysis will be required
   particularly to understand the relation between these two levels.

   The paper proceeds largely through an informal phenomenology of
   intellectual life. By way of preparation, section 2 confronts
   prevailing stereotypes about intellectual life and section 3 emphasizes
   the diversity of activities and purposes within which an individual's
   intellectual life can be embedded. Section 4 then describes some senses
   in which an intellectual life is a space largely apart from the rest of
   life. Section 5 describes the role of personal questions in an
   individual's engagement with books, and with intellectual tradition
   generally. Section 6 sketches the phenomenology of intellectual life at
   a more detailed level by describing the fragmentary groundwork on which
   intellectual life is built; this analysis suggests the potential value
   of technological support for an individual's ongoing engagement with a
   personal library. Section 7 concerns the place of intellectual life in
   the overall life of the individual, and suggests that new technologies
   might permit the institutions that support the intellectual lives of
   academics to be democratized. Section 8 turns to the intellectual life
   of a democratic society as a whole, and suggests that the institutional
   supports for the intellectual lives of professional political advocates
   might be democratized as well. Section 9 generalizes the point by
   suggesting the role that new technology might play in the creation of
   lightweight institutions to support intellectual life. Section 10
   concludes by considering the potential role of a particular set of
   institutions, those derived from the collective cognitive processes of
   the professions.

   A comment is perhaps necessary on my use of the phrase "digital
   library". My purpose in this paper is not to provide detailed technical
   proposals, nor to engage with the specifics of digital library research
   as it is currently developing (e.g., Arms 2000, Borgman 2000). Rather,
   I want to gather some conceptual raw materials for long-term
   strategizing about the directions that digital libraries might take.
   "Digital libraries" in the narrowest sense refer to networked computer
   systems for the storage and retrieval of large collections of digital
   texts and image. The engineering of digital libraries thus draws
   equally upon computer science conceptions of system architecture and
   library science conceptions of information organization and management.
   As basic problems are solved and traditional functionalities become
   available in a fully digital medium in a scalable way, it will become
   possible to rethink more ambitiously how digital libraries might
   support the intellectual life of a society. A networked digital
   library, after all, is not localized geographically or confined by
   physical architecture, and so it can become deeply intertwined with the
   collective cognitive processes of the many social groups whose
   activities it is meant to support.

   By "digital library", then, I mean to suggest the full breadth of these
   potential tools of intellectual life, and I am not especially concerned
   with the boundaries between the concept of a digital library and
   related concepts such as digital archives, knowledge management tools,
   online discussion forums, distance education, personal Web sites, and
   so on. In particular, I am not concerned with the traditional
   distinction between library materials, whose permanent value makes them
   worth cataloguing, and other materials whose temporary or otherwise
   limited value has historically excluded them from library collections.
   The proper definitional boundaries of the concept of a digital library
   is a question to be explored, that exploration begins with a general
   sense of the requirements for the digital libraries of the future, and
   those requirements presuppose in turn a three-dimensional understanding
   of the nature of intellectual life. Of course, a library can support
   other social functions besides intellectual life -- entrepreneurship,
   for example, or entertainment. But I will focus on intellectual life
   because of its deep connection to personal and social well-being.

   2 Class stereotypes

   One cannot begin to discuss intellectual life without confronting some
   destructive stereotypes. Intellectual life, first of all, is not
   confined to intellectuals. Intellectuals as a class do exist, though
   they are defined and organized in different ways in different cultures
   [1]. They can play a valuable role. But a democracy cannot depend on
   intellectuals alone. A democracy requires the intellectual effort of
   all its citizens, and it must value intellectual practices other than
   those associated with high culture.

   Everyone has an intellectual life; everyone has questions and thinks
   about them. But many unfortunate dynamics have conspired to prevent the
   intellectual life of democratic society from reaching its full
   potential. Intellectual talent and achievement are often treated as the
   status markers of an elite, and the formally meritocratic procedures of
   democratic education can be used to increase the stigma associated with
   modest educational success. Intellectual snobbery can be used to
   control people, and it provokes intellectual insecurities and defensive
   reactions. The very attempt to discuss intellectual life can be
   perceived as an attempt to lay a burden of judgement on people whose
   lives are too demanding to enable them to live up to it, and
   intellectual aspirations may be culturally marked as a betrayal of
   one's group, for example as "acting white". The norms of intellectual
   life may be interpreted as attempts to bias political rules or to
   pacify dissent, and indeed such interpretations have often had much
   basis in truth.

   Intellectual life has often been caught in political conflicts. Burkean
   conservatives long questioned the wisdom of attributing rationality to
   the lower orders, much less educating them, lest they take it upon
   themselves to devise a new social order (Herzog 1998). The founder of
   modern public relations, Edward Bernays, was a nephew of Sigmund Freud,
   and was quite open in his project of using Freud's ideas to keep social
   decision-making power in the hands of an elite few (Ewen 1996). This is
   not a democratic vision of intellectual life. Marxism, for its part,
   has often celebrated the worker-intellectual, and particularly the
   collective intellectual efforts of working people. Such Marxist texts
   as E. P. Thompson's (1963) "The Making of the English Working Class"
   are the foremost depictions of popular intellectual life. But in
   practice the Leninist vanguardism of most organized Marxism has
   promoted the opposite approach, in which the workers are molded and
   judged in terms of the degree of conformance between their views and
   the world-encompassing theories of the intellectual-activist elite.

   What's missing in each case is a democratic spirit of trust in the
   intellectual judgement of ordinary people. Modern scholarship has gone
   a long way toward valuing popular culture, often applying the
   interpretive methods of literary criticism and anthropology to recover
   its intellectual and political content (Grossberg, Nelson, and
   Treichler 1992). Poetry slams, for example, are a novel intellectual
   practice whose participants, largely young African-Americans, are often
   simply unacquainted with the effete stereotypes that afflict poetry
   elsewhere (Clines 1997). Skepticism about a broad-based intellectual
   life, then, is partly a result of narrow definitions, partly a lack of
   imagination, and partly a real cultural problem that a new generation
   of social innovators, armed with appropriate new technologies, can hope
   to overcome.

   3 Diversity of intellectual life

   Talking in a loose way about ordinary people, however, inevitably leads
   to a stereotype along the lines of "Joe Sixpack" that is no more
   helpful. To get beyond the stereotypes of intellectual life, therefore,
   we must appreciate and analyze its diversity. Too narrow a conception
   of intellectual life, after all, will surely bias the design of digital
   libraries in favor of some culturally prominent model. Consider, first
   of all, the wide range of purposes that have been ascribed to
   intellectual life at various places and times: understanding of
   oneself, collective consciousness, cosmopolitan rationality, overcoming
   prejudice, deepening oneself, cultivating an inner life, as a component
   of social or political practice, investment in human capital, therapy,
   casting off tradition, reproducing tradition, and so on. And as a
   concrete matter in people's lives, an intellectual life can be embedded
   in a great variety of activities: religion, amateur science, travel,
   political participation, psychological self-help, collecting, fandom,
   social climbing, conspiracy theorizing, entrepreneurship, professional
   development, trivia gathering, family genealogy, aspiring to write and
   publish, involvement in the art world, an intellectual hobby relating
   to one's profession, and so on.

   It is thus clear that an intellectual life need not look "intellectual"
   in any stereotyped sense. In particular, an intellectual life is not
   just for introspective people; it can be equally relevant to someone
   who stays immersed in practical action and mixing with others. Fiction,
   music, and television can certainly be part of intellectual life, even
   if much of the output in those media is not intended that way [2].
   Intellectual life includes the many cultural projects, such as the
   growing movement in the United States to reunite the black and white
   descendents of slave-owners (Fulwood 1999, Henry 2001, Richardson
   2000), that make a personal journey into the raw material for social
   reflection. Different kinds of intellectual life can have very
   different architectures, from the armchair to the cafe table to the
   teenage bedroom or monastic cell, or indeed the laptop and airplane
   seat, and digital librarians can aspire to deliver information services
   that are fitted to the form and customs of each of these locales. The
   study of religious texts makes an outstanding site for the application
   of digital libraries. Bible study, after all, is the origin of most of
   the West's ideas about reading, and numerous religions have large,
   global study-communities that would benefit from technological support.

   4 Intellectual life as a space apart

   Looking at these diverse embeddings of intellectual life, it is clear
   that prevailing images of intellectual life tend to abstract it from
   relationships, conversations, feelings, and histories. Yet intellectual
   life really is to some extent a space apart, and it is worth
   considering just how. To speak of an intellectual life does not
   disparage other parts of life. In fact, colloquial usage usefully
   treats one's intellectual life as one "life" among many -- social,
   professional, emotional, personal, and so on. These "lives" can have
   various qualities: compartmentalized, integrated, in conflict, and so
   on. A given individual might devote disproportionate effort to some of
   them while the others atrophy, and the atrophy of any "life" is
   regarded as unhealthy. A healthy life, accordingly, is said to be
   "full" or "balanced". An intellectual life can become stale just as a
   love life or professional life, yet the pain of a stale intellectual
   life seems harder to identify. I will return to the nature of this pain
   later on.

   Intellectual life can be distinguished from more instrumental concepts
   such as training in that one follows questions wherever they go.
   Perhaps one does not follow a question "for its own sake", a
   meaningless idea. But questions do often arise that lead one beyond the
   bounds of a particular task, or even of a profession. One's
   intellectual life is the place where such questions are pursued without
   any clear idea of how the effort will pay off. An intellectual life is
   a space apart, then, from any clearly defined purposes or payoffs. It
   is a cauldron on the fire, a refuge or ballast or source of
   perspective. It prevents one from being too caught up in the ups and
   downs of daily life. The ideas that emerge through intellectual
   reflection may be a step more abstract than the immediate problems of
   life, and the effort of understanding them must be amortized over an
   unclear stretch into the future.

   Intellectual life can be pathological, either because the ideas
   themselves are disturbed or because one is trying to live in one's
   head, without paying attention to the inconvenient complexities of real
   life. Bordo (1987) accuses Descartes of just this, and traces a
   philosophical tradition of unhealthy detachment (a "flight to
   objectivity") from the messiness of involvements with real people and
   things.

   An intellectual life requires a safe space, which can be solitary or
   among the like-minded. Intellectual life can provide a respite from the
   real world or a resource for engaging with it; either is legitimate.
   One's intellectual life might evolve its own language to express the
   things one has seen or conceived, and much translation can be required
   to make these observations useful again in the world.

   We are a finite species, however, and we constantly need fresh
   intellectual fuel. In this sense and others the intellectual life is a
   place only halfways apart -- not a distant planet but a separate room,
   walled to be sure but trafficking in a controlled way with the larger
   world.

   Intellectual institutions have also been understood as places apart,
   the university for example, and the structure of an intellectual
   institution becomes internalized as a cognitive structure [3].
   Intellectuals are to some extent a separate society, and when they live
   by one another's judgements their separateness grows. This separateness
   is inevitable and harmless up to a point. After all, abstraction has
   its uses, not least the making of distant connections that would not
   otherwise be made in the thick of real life. But the intellectual life
   can be a space apart in other ways. Intellectual life is not just for
   people with leisure, and new forms can surely be invented that fit into
   busier ways of life. Or perhaps life itself needs to be adjusted. If
   the road to social advancement lies through education, then the real
   haves and have-nots are the ones who have or do not have quiet to
   study, already a scarcer commodity than computing power.

   5 Questions

   One of the great recurring traumas of school is being compelled to read
   (what students call) "dry" texts. Reading works best with a question in
   mind, and teachers have generally forgotten what it's like to lack
   questions for the texts they teach. The notion of reading with a
   question is central to the hermeneutic method, itself derived from
   Biblical study, for which repeated readings lead to successively deeper
   interpretations. Everyone has questions, and in the ideal world
   everyone would be matched with whatever book speaks most squarely to
   the questions that they have at a given moment. Some questions are
   simply factual, and reference services are well-equipped to deal with
   these; others are framed as topics that can be translated to a subject
   catalog. But most questions are deeper, and little is known about them.
   The questions that children bring to fairy tales, for example, are very
   basic and mostly unconscious. Many questions are existential, or
   diffuse, or else they consist precisely in the search for a name for
   something that is only halfway grasped. They may arise from personal
   circumstances sufficiently complex and private that they can't be
   communicated. They may be intuitive or abstract.

   The problem is much harder for fiction than for nonfiction. But in each
   case, society does a poor job of matching people to books. Librarians,
   book store owners, critics, interview hosts, and others all play their
   parts, and technologies such as recommender systems (Resnick and Varian
   1997) are part of the answer as well. Yet much more can be done to
   provide people's intellectual lives with the steady streams of
   individualized stimulus that they need. And so it is worth inquiring
   more deeply into the questions that people bring to reading. One
   approach locates questions in standpoints: the structural epistemic
   situations that the practical world creates for the people who are
   assigned to various positions within it. That approach is too narrow,
   but one aspect of it is more broadly valid: questions, like other
   aspects of self-understanding, are grounded in identity, that is, in
   the continuing narration of self that makes both the self and the world
   intelligible. The identity at stake can be conceptual, professional or
   political, or it can employ some other person as a hero or role model.
   Many authors and texts are meaningful in relation to national
   identities.

   Just as identities are public phenomena, questions likewise tend to
   have a public character: even when they are unconscious, secret, or
   half-formed, they arise through a project of self-fashioning that
   engages with and draws upon the symbolic resources of a culture. Yet
   the questions can be hard to capture: most people will have no practice
   in the public performance of their questions, and will be unaccustomed
   to articulating them. The questions can best be found in established
   genres of public testimonial, such as testimonies of religious
   conversion, literary memoirs, political consciousness-raising stories,
   and the self-narratives of psychoanalysis and support groups. These
   stories will include much else besides the questions that brought a
   person to a text, or that took form in engagement with that text. But
   that is much of the point: questions arise in the fullness of life. To
   the extent that people can recognize themselves in the testimonies of
   others, perhaps we can understand how to recommend books.

   It would also help to have tools for exploring the space of books much
   faster. One can often tell at a glance whether a book promises to be
   hopelessly dry, and it is easy to imagine trawling thousands of
   superficially relevant books each year looking for the few that hit
   home, provided that the trawling can be done in stray moments on the
   subway. The ultimate goal is to fuel intellectual life by creating a
   culture in which everyone has the ongoing expectation of easily being
   able to find just the book that speaks to their current question -- a
   hermeneutics not just of a single text but of intellectual history as a
   whole. This kind of semi-directive exploration is not just for
   professional scholars and the leisured rich. Made efficient with
   technical support, its practices can multiply to meet diverse needs.

   6 Dynamics

   Intellectual life is a process. It is not wholly goal-driven nor wholly
   methodic, yet it must be actively pursued if it is to keep moving. A
   theory of the intellectual life implies a theory of cognition -- a
   theory of the interaction between innate mental capacities, cultural
   forms of intellectual activity, and the practical and intellectual
   environment.

   Intellectual life tends to unfold as a set of independent strands, each
   of which is liable to be called to mind by a text, a thought, or a
   life-situation that it happens to speak to. Intellectual life is thus,
   in the short term, inherently fragmentary. Fragments of thought emerge,
   and they are often lost unless they are captured in writing or shared
   in conversation. Notebooks and dictation machines are artefacts for
   capturing those fragments, and much better artefacts are easy to
   imagine [4]. The practice of capturing these fragments gives the
   fragments, over time, a discrete, packaged quality, yet practice and
   effort can be required to notice one's own fragmentary thoughts, as
   opposed to losing oneself in the object of the thoughts. The objects of
   thought can obviously be diverse, and yet any object, if engaged with
   in a sustained way, can serve as a sort of oracle, leading thought in
   directions that are just as telling about the thinker.

   To be useful in the long run, thought must be externalized, as for
   example in a notebook or in letters. Externalizing an idea compels one
   to give it form and structure using language or diagrams or some other
   representational practice. Having been externalized, the thought now
   becomes available for inspection. In its new form, slightly
   defamiliarized, it will suggest further thoughts. Articulating a
   thought using the grammatical structures of language, for example, will
   cause it to be analyzed it into parts that can be varied separately,
   thus providing the basis for unanticipated connections. The very fact
   of externalizing a thought somehow clears it out of the mind -- if not
   from memory then at least from the fear of forgetting it -- and makes
   room for more. This kind of iterative externalizing of ideas is also
   central to design work (Schon 1983). The gathering of fragments in a
   permanent medium such as paper also makes it easier to notice patterns
   among them (Goody 1977).

   Many new thoughts involve analogies between distant ideas, or else they
   apply an existing idea to an unexpected object. The mind will not
   spontaneously draw abstract structural analogies between ideas that are
   expressed in different terms, but it is extremely efficient at making
   connections between ideas that are expressed in similar or overlapping
   terms. "Transfer", to put the point in psychological language, will not
   automatically map complex formal structures to one another (Lave 1988),
   and so the production of new ideas depends heavily on the terms in
   which an individual expresses the old ideas. A simple conceptual
   framework can thus have immense heuristic value when it is used to
   analyze a variety of problems in different fields; even if the concepts
   themselves do not dictate any answers, they can mediate analogies that
   suggest answers by framing the issues in an unexpected light. This
   method is widely used in business, for example, whose concepts can
   often be expressed in simple two-by-two matrices.

   The connections that emerge in intellectual work often draw one back to
   previous reading. A text read for one purpose, or even casually, often
   becomes significant through a new connection -- a new question that it
   can address. Read with a new question in mind, the text will offer up
   new answers. That is why it is said that an educated person lives with
   books, as well as simply owning them. Over time a personal library
   acquires its own structures and meanings, whether through highlighting
   or through the mental traces of the questions and answers that have
   threaded through it. But much of one's reading, for example a daily
   newspaper, does not become part of a personal library unless one has
   the foresight and discipline to copy or clip it. A digital personal
   library would be an important aid to intellectual life. This is
   different from Bush's (1945) original vision of the Memex, a personal
   device that stores all of the world's documents. The personal library,
   by contrast, contains only those documents that one has actually read,
   with perhaps an annex for those documents that one wishes to read.
   Intellectual life would be amplified if anyone could easily return to
   anything they have ever read, using whatever sketchy summary of it --
   even a distorted memory of a single striking point -- happens to come
   back to mind. A personal citation file can help with this recall, but
   one cannot produce citations for every newspaper article. The space of
   personal reading will always be small enough that massive content-based
   indexing and loosely constrained search will be computationally
   feasible. Design of the necessary algorithms would be facilitated by
   empirical study of naturally occurring desires to recover an article
   (or passage in a longer text) that one has once read. These
   recollections of previous reading are often sketchy, and they are no
   doubt often transformed in memory in the ways described by Bartlett
   (1932). A search engine could obviously employ potentially false
   queries if it computes similarity measures, but perhaps it could also
   employ a model of memory.

   7 Alignment

   Like any part of life, an intellectual life requires effort. But it
   also has rewards. It brings a wider range of ideas to bear on practical
   questions, and it makes alternatives visible that may have lacked names
   before. It alleviates boredom; indeed, boredom may almost be defined as
   the lack of an intellectual life. Many people engage in activities that
   even they regard as worthless in an attempt to medicate their boredom,
   and it seems reasonable to hope that a developed intellectual life
   would lead to a better use of time.

   I have described how intellectual life evolves through an interaction
   between a very personal process and regular inputs from intellectual
   history. But where does it evolve to? Given that it emerges in
   fragments and finds its own direction, one might imagine that an
   intellectual life becomes ever more fragmentary until it dissolves into
   white noise. And this might be a problem for people who suffer from
   schizophrenia. For most people, though, the fragments resolve into a
   picture. Intellectual life is a matter of discovery. It is a way of
   discovering what one finds interesting -- many people don't know -- and
   what one cares about. Something is there to be discovered simply
   because of the coherence of any person's own personality. It is an
   intellectual calling -- a research topic, a life purpose, a cultural
   project, an institutional role, a business to found -- the exact form
   of which will depend on the individual and the environment.

   And as intellectual life leads to places outside the bounds of one's
   existing life, the time may come to get a new life. Some people are
   satisfied to have an intellectual hobby that provides a diversion from
   the other parts of life. But just as often, a fully pursued
   intellectual life leads to a new conception of oneself: the
   realization, for example, that one is actually a political activist, or
   a caregiver, or a religious convert. A fully pursued intellectual life
   may also require social support, such as a network of intellectual
   friends.

   Little is understood about the life changes by which people bring their
   various "lives" (intellectual, social, professional) into alignment.
   The process can be intimidating and dispiriting, and it can be done in
   a way that hurts other people. But embedding in a new intellectual
   network is central. For intellectuals this reembedding is supported
   naturally by the institutions and rituals of research: one cites the
   relevant authors' work and then meets them at conferences.
   Intellectuals have powerful incentives to build networks, given the
   system of peer review, and they can draw on existing networks that have
   been rigorously reproduced for centuries.

   Similar mechanisms ought to be available to anybody. Non-intellectuals
   may not have the same incentives to build intellectual networks, but
   they have incentives nonetheless. A network of like-minded individuals,
   knitted together by relations of mutual respect, is a source of
   intelligent conversation. In particular, it is a source of the most
   important kind of intellectual conversation, the talking-through of
   halfways-formed ideas. Just as ideas can develop by being iteratively
   externalized into a notebook or iteratively posed as questions to the
   existing literature, soliciting the responses of others is an efficient
   way to defamiliarize one's ideas and propel their development.
   Intellectuals have plane tickets and research libraries to use in
   searching for interlocutors, and Internet technologies now provide
   similar tools for everyone else. Although the cultural language of
   intellectual community among non-intellectuals is not yet
   well-developed, Internet discussion forums have obviously provided a
   generation of experiments in that direction. Ideally this should lead
   to a new kind of social mobility: the continual building and rebuilding
   of intellectual community that aligns with individuals' unfolding
   intellectual lives.

   These generalized intellectual institutions will obviously require some
   new cultural beliefs. The necessary beliefs are part and parcel of the
   existential situation that generations of democratic organizers have
   called empowerment. They start with the belief that one can have a
   whole life, including a developed intellectual calling and an
   intellectual network to support it. They require individuals to find
   their own thoughts valuable -- indeed to know what their thoughts even
   are -- and to trust that their thoughts will lead somewhere. They
   require developing and trusting a gut sense of what one finds
   important.

   8 The embedded public sphere

   The analysis of individuals' intellectual lives, then, leads to
   collective phenomena. What is the intellectual life of a society? It is
   not a "group mind". That kind of metaphor begs many questions and makes
   social phenomena sound more coherent and harmonious than they are.
   Rather than rely on such loose talk, one must analyze the array of
   institutions through which collective cognition is organized, including
   the conditions of access to those institutions.

   The modern history of ideas about the intellectual life of a society
   begins with Vico and Herder, who originated the romantic idea of
   discrete and organic civilizations, each with its own immanent phases
   of intellectual development (Berlin 1976). This sort of theory made
   sense in the context of political unification projects in Italy and
   Germany, and in this tradition there arose a sophisticated vocabulary
   for talking about a society's collective intellectual legacy, the
   unconscious contents of its culture, the state of its language as
   expressed in works of literature, and so on. In such a context, a
   digital library could be understood as a representation of a collective
   inheritance.

   But geographic mobility and cultural diversity challenge the picture of
   discrete civilizations, and the emergence of a global movement for
   human rights based on liberal premises challenges the radical
   communitarianism of the romantic theory. Real commonalities do knit
   modern societies -- mass media, political events, economic conditions,
   a shared legal system, ecological problems, market-driven dealings
   across community lines, and so on. But these produce overlaps and
   interactions among subdivisions, not an organic whole. The romantic
   theory of a society's intellectual life was powerful but misleading.

   Every society has many intellectual subtraditions, both among
   intellectuals and among other sectors, and many intellectual social
   histories have yet to be written [5]. But intellectual life is always
   embedded in an institutional order, and in a democratic society it
   would seem particularly important to investigate the intellectual
   workings of the sphere of public debate. There is much to investigate.
   Despite simple views of the public sphere as a floor that any
   individual citizen might take, in fact the opinion columns of
   newspapers are dominated by accredited producers of opinion in
   universities, government, industry, and think tanks. Ordinary citizens
   are nearly invisible, except as props, in letters to the editor, and in
   sound bites chosen by journalists, in most of the institutions of
   public debate. This division of labor makes some sense. Because
   individual human beings are inherently limited in their cognitive
   capacities, political movements must distribute arguments to their
   followers. Otherwise no individual, full-time intellectual or not,
   would be able to formulate winning arguments on a full range of complex
   modern issues.

   It is not a scandal, then, that the average citizen is primarily a
   consumer choosing among arguments on offer; political cognition is a
   collective phenomenon. Of more concern is the institutional order by
   which arguments are produced. In the world of professional issue
   advocacy, issues are identified with individuals and groups. Careers
   are made by pioneering an issue, building a network of other
   professionals whose own issues abut it in some way, developing a base
   of financial support, and cultivating the media. Conference organizers
   and journalists will accordingly develop a mental look-up table that
   associates every issue with the advocates who have identified
   themselves with it. These professional networks are knitted tightly
   enough to frustrate access to the media and other necessary gatekeepers
   for any ordinary citizen who is not part of the system. The Internet
   can help to circumvent the system to a degree, but even the largest
   Internet audiences do not approach the scale of the mass media. Once an
   advocate becomes associated with an issue, therefore, that position is
   self-reinforcing. Publicity makes that advocate the natural choice for
   further publicity, so long as the issue remains live.

   More subtly, the constant flow of demands to argue a position provides
   the professional advocate with an encyclopedia of rebuttals. Neither
   intelligence nor will-power can substitute for these opportunities to
   rehearse a progressively more bullet-proof repertoire of arguments [6].
   The advocate has an intellectual life, of course, and the day's
   news-events provide points of departure -- "hooks" in news jargon -- to
   publicize one or another of the strands of thought that constitute the
   advocate's evolving position. Ordinary citizens often feel fear at the
   prospect of exercising a public voice (Mansbridge 1980, Schudson 1997:
   301-302), and justifiably so, given their lack of access to the
   professional's opportunities to refine their arguments. No matter how
   clear their thinking might be, ordinary citizens under the present
   system cannot be confident that their arguments will hold up in the
   public arena.

   Full democracy therefore requires institutions by which ordinary
   citizens, as an extension of their intellectual lives, can rehearse and
   refine arguments about the matters that concern them. A voice that has
   internalized potential replies is more rational, other things being
   equal, and it is more effective. Independent scholarship and political
   analysis is often brittle for lack of this kind of testing, and new
   intellectual institutions can hope to change this.

   9 New models

   How, then, can a new generation of digital library technologies support
   the intellectual life of a democratic society? Any answer will depend
   on the institutions in which intellectual life is embedded. The
   technology and the institutions will evolve together. Both of them
   will, in turn, require new cultural forms and practices. To see the
   connection, imagine a hypothetical system for matching individuals with
   potential intellectual friends. If everyone maintains a digital
   notebook and other electronic aids to intellectual life, then advanced
   content-based comparison mechanisms should be able to match individuals
   who are thinking along similar lines. Introductions might be made
   automatically, leaving the individuals to take it from there. Such
   schemes have been used for many years, in fact, within some highly
   regimented environments such as the French electric utility [7]. They
   are not completely implausible. The question is whether the individuals
   follow up. This will only happen on a large scale if following up has
   become a culturally accepted commonplace. Otherwise the prospect of
   conversing with an utter stranger will be too abstract and unfamiliar.
   Lacking conventional rituals it will require trial and error. And the
   participants will have little sense of the probability that the match
   will succeed.

   What is required, therefore, is an institutional and cultural framework
   to provide the necessary sense of adhesion. This framework need not be
   complex, and the culture of self-published 'zines (Duncombe 1997) may
   provide a model of the kind of lightweight institution that is
   required. Along with new technology, then, we need new cultural forms.
   The two are indissociable. New lightweight publishing models could make
   intellectual communities easier to build and sustain. Open Internet
   forums might provide a bad model because they cannot guarantee any
   level of discourse. The necessary cultural form may be more like a
   club. Technologies and institutions are also required to help authors,
   musicians, and others to build audiences. The existing functionality of
   publishers may be unbundled, with distribution occurring electronically
   and publicity services purchased as needed. Ubiquitous digital library
   services should make it easier to organize reading groups around a
   single text, as a million people can gain access to the same text with
   almost no overhead. Some communities are organized around
   paraliteratures, such as fan publications. Improved self-publishing
   tools will make such communities easier to organize.

   Schools and universities can provide distributed frameworks, both
   technological and institutional, for the ongoing intellectual lives of
   their alumni -- a permanent seminar. Schools can also facilitate the
   most basic cultural change that a democratic intellectual life will
   require. Education is often rightly concerned with the content of
   various subject matters, but students should also learn process skills.
   "Learning how to learn" includes study skills, of course, but it also
   includes the broader set of skills for building an intellectual life.
   This includes the skills of building an intellectual community for
   oneself. Those who are unacquainted with these networks of intellectual
   relationships may find them constraining. With personal experience of a
   democratic intellectual culture, however, it will become clear that
   they are actually a means to freedom -- the freedom of a way of life
   that is aligned with one's own intellectual calling.

   10 The professionalization of everything

   Those who labor under the traditional stereotypes about intellectual
   life will find these scenarios implausible. Yet society is clearly
   moving in the direction that I described at the outset: the spread of
   formerly elite intellectual institutional forms to broader populations.
   In the area of work and occupations, this trend might be called the
   professionalization of everything, and it is a major potential area for
   digital library work. A dynamic and knowledge-intensive economy
   obviously requires workers to keep their skills up to date, and that is
   a significant role for digital libraries all by itself. But
   professionalization is much deeper.

   Workers who expect to change jobs several times in a career must
   maintain professional networks, starting for example with former
   coworkers. As work itself becomes more knowledge-intensive, and
   especially as all jobs become learning jobs that require the production
   of new knowledge, every occupation becomes professionalized to some
   degree. Professions are not simply monopolies on knowledge but
   institutions for recognizing and transferring innovations.
   Organizations are increasingly formalizing similar institutional forms
   within themselves, such as the consulting firms that collect digital
   reports on each client project, or the World Bank initiative to
   reconstitute itself as a global technology-enabled knowledge bank in
   the area of economic development (Wenger and Snyder 2000).

   Ubiquitous digital library services can provide the technical substrate
   to generalize these institutional forms more widely. There is no
   reason, for example, why school children cannot participate in global
   communities of peer-reviewed publication. At the high school and
   college level, an adapted online scholarly journal model should
   certainly replace the dysfunctional institution of the term paper that
   only the teacher will ever read (Downing and Brown 1997). Peer review
   requires effort from one's peers, of course, but the current model
   places impossible burdens for evaluation and feedback on teachers --
   burdens that teachers routinely drop. Putting such models into practice
   in the early years of school could have an immediate and tremendous
   impact on culture. Citizens would grow up accustomed to having a public
   voice, to receiving intellectual responses from others, and to
   participating in a global intellectual culture. The cultural conditions
   of democratic intellectual life will have been achieved.

   Endnotes

   [1] On the role of intellectuals in society see Barber (1998); Barzun
   (1959); Bauman (1987); Bender (1993); Bozoki (1998); Eyerman (1994);
   Eyerman, Svensson, and Soderqvist (1987); Fink, Leonard, and Reid
   (1996); Goldfarb (1998); Gouldner (1979); Gramsci (1992); Lears (1993);
   Le Goff (1993); Michael (2000); Morison (1956); Perry (1984); Rabinbach
   (1997); Sadri (1992); Shils (1972); Staloff (1998); and Watts (1994).

   [2] See, for example, Liebes and Katz (1990, especially Chapter 8),
   Lindlof (1987), Walkerdine (1990), Willis (1990).

   [3] I allude here to Vygotsky's (1978 [1934]) idea that cognitive
   processes arise through the internalization of organized processes of
   social interaction. See also Wertsch (1985).

   [4] Journalists refer to the practice of capturing fragments of thought
   relevant to a prospective article as "gathering string".

   [5] Those that have been written include Feierman (1990), Ginzburg
   (1980), Munck (2000), Steele (1997), and Vandergrift (1996).

   [6] Collins (1998) makes a similiar point about the history of
   philosophy.

   [7] Saadi Lahlou, Electricite de France (EDF), personal communication,
   November 1995.

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References

   1. http://polaris.gseis.ucla.edu/pagre/
   2. http://www.kluweronline.com/issn/1388-1957
   3. http://www.ilt.ac.uk/public/cti/ActiveLearning/al7pdf/downing.pdf


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