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On Reading and Clicking

Some years ago my book a book of mine went out of print. Rather than grappling with the world of publishers and agents, in an effort to find someone who would be willing to bring out a new edition, I decided to make it readily available to all by putting it on the Internet. That meant talking to someone who could design a web site for me and the more I became involved in issues of design the more I realized I had essays, articles and transcripts of interviews that could also be placed on that site. And so little by little, like Topsy, www.fdavidpeat.com began to grow and take over a part of my life. In the end, I never got round to putting that out-of-print book on the Web. Instead it contained discussion forums on the run and a collection of writings, book reviews and the like.

Writing, whether a book or an academic paper, can be a solitary business. One spends months in front of a typewriter or computer screen trying to put concepts and ideas into the right words. Words are normally use for talking, dialogue and mutual exchange of greetings, yet an author has to take charge of words and polish them while locked away like an alchemist. Finally, months after its completion, that book or article seeks the light of day in print and one sits and waits for a reaction. I well remember my first years of scientific research when, after publishing a paper, I would look in the mail for those preprinted postcards to arrive and request a reprint. In the days before Science Citation Index the number of postcards received measured one’s success or failure. And what joy if you ran out of reprints and had to order another fifty!

Then the Internet came along and, in the case of my own web site, I found that as soon as I posted an essay or article, someone would write in with a comment or reaction from anywhere in the world. In the past I have lived in two capital cities. Now I live in a tiny medieval village on a hilltop in Italy but, in an electronic sense, I’m more connected than ever before. Armed with a few keywords I can call up a search engine and find information upon the most obscure issues of scholarship. I can dialogue with colleagues anywhere in the world, down load a thesis, upload chapters of a book as soon as its written or begin a discussion forum as I intend to do in this article.

The Internet is seductive with the speed and convenience it brings but it should also make us pause and ask where all this new technology is taking us. What is the future of publishing in an electronic age and what are the implications of more and more knowledge being available at the click of a mouse?

More and more information is appearing on the Web on a daily basis and more and more people are gaining access to it. Barns and Nobel, for example, recently announced that they will be reprinting many of the world’s classics as electronic books. Ebrary.com and Questia Media will soon have searchable databases of a large number of books and documents, all of which can be downloaded for a small fee. Columbia University, the London School of Economics, Cambridge University Press, The British Library, The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, and the New York Public Library met last April to plan a new electronic global library and will also be offering courses and “knowledge products”.

But, with information growing at an accelerating pace, will it soon exceed our individual ability to digest what is coming down the electronic pipe. I remember George Uhlenbeck, who won the Nobel Prize for proposing that the electron had a spin, telling me that the most important and the most difficult thing to learn is what not to read. There were only a few key scientific papers it was necessary to study each year, he said, the rest of them simply took up valuable thinking time.

And, with such vast amounts of information and data on the net, who will be responsible for verifying its contents? More and more it seems to me that people, even scholars, simply don’t bother to check out references or to go to primary sources. It has become so easy to cut and paste other material into our own work and then pass on chunks of information to others. Where once ideas, concepts and arguments, were welded to the printed page and bore an author’s name now they simply float around like angles in cyber space. And so I wonder about a great deal of what I read on the Internet – who wrote it, who checked it out, how many other hands have been at work modifying and tampering. Already a great deal of pop music is created by sampling, will the same apply to academic ideas and scholarship?

If one goes back to read the first issues of Philosophical Magazine in the mid 17th Century one often finds an exchange of letters whereby scientists (in that period there was little difference between professional and amateur) offer observations on the properties of coiled springs, weather and even report the bizarre occurrence of a woman who could give birth to rabbits. Those first issues are diverting to read. They present to us an active and enquiring age, yet one that appears curiously undisciplined from our present scientific viewpoint. In their pages odd gems, such as Hook’s now forgotten attempts to formulate a law of planetary motion, appear to be treated on an equal footing as casual observations and speculations on nature’s curiosities. The age of peer review and disciplined scientific writing was still a thing of the future. Yet how will our own future judge our present fumbling to control the power and potential of the Internet?

One issue is the entire future of academic publishing. Will it simply be more convenient to upload your latest paper into some electronic magazine rather than go through all that time-consuming process of getting into print? The Internet promises instant access. Will researchers working at the leading edge of genetics or elementary particle physics tolerate the long delays between print submission and publication? When Cold Fusion was first announced the entire debate by-passed the usual academic channels. Press announcements were made, open debates were held at an American Physical Society meeting in Baltimore and results were published and refuted within a matter of days on alt.coldfusion.

At first sight the Internet was offering the opportunity for instant and open debate, an appeal that could not be resisted by researchers who were pro or con the putative phenomenon. Yet in retrospect I believe it was a terrible mistake. Feelings were running too high, reputations were at stake, and accusations were flying in all directions. Debating the issue in that unmoderated way confused and obscured the scientific issues. Half thought out opinions, incomplete research and the authority of “big names” and “prestigious institutions” were obscuring the occasional report of a more careful study.

How should all this to be controlled in the future? Should scientific ideas be subject to a sort of electronic Darwinian evolution in which only the fittest survive within an academic environment that is ‘red in tooth and claw”. Will such papers finally find their way into print? Can an electronic referee system be trusted when it will be all too easy to extract an essential idea from a paper submitted for review and publish as one’s own on the same day? Would it be more honest to post a paper and invite critical comments to be posted side by side – as is the current practice of some print journals? Does it mean that the age of precedence and intellectual ownership has gone forever and that science, for example, will be truly a democratic and collective enterprise?

Once we were told to “publish or perish”. How will academic research, and the funding of individual researchers, be managed in the world of the Internet? Once a researcher’s work was measured through his or her number of refereed publications. Then by the number of citations that paper received in the literature. What happens now? Are academics to be judged by the number of megabytes downloaded from their web sites each month or how prominently their names come up on Yahoo?

We should remember the lesson and ensure that our scholarship, our ability to teach and our opportunities to impart wisdom along with knowledge are not irreparably compromised. One the other hand maybe we are simply too old. The Internet is a young person’s game, the haven for 14 year-old millionaires. Could it be that our students are about to become our instructors?

And what of these students and the tradition of learning? The great universities will always be present, yet only a small percentage of students attend them. Most students study from home at a local college and do not enjoy the exposure to great teachers or new social opportunities. For many of them it may make more sense to enroll in an Internet university and take on-line courses. The Global Educational Network, for example, is already on-line at www.gen.com ready to offer degree courses with lectures by leading academics. Does the future of electronic universities lie in just a few courses in every subject, designed by a committee of academics and each delivered by a world-expert? And if this is the case will knowledge become structured in a monolithic way with little room for differences of opinion and interpretation?

The educational experiment of The Open University in Great Britain offered adults and retired people the opportunity to obtain a degree through televised courses. The academic results were encouraging and the University is not rated one of the top in the country. However it did insist that students attended a residential period and met face to face with their tutors. In the case of Internet based universities, with students subscribing all over the world, it will be possible to obtain a degree without even being in the physical presence of a scholar or academic.

What’s more, many students are no longer bothering to go into a library or open a reference book. It is simply more convenient to go on line and download material at will. Does this mean that what becomes real, in terms of knowledge, culture and history is only that which is present on the Internet and that the rest is already dead and forgotten? After all if it’s not on the Web it doesn’t really exist.

We should also remember that the full potential of the Internet to deliver information is still in its infancy. What, for example, will be the impact of advanced search engines with full A.I. capacity that can offer an accurate profile of a student’s particular academic interests and deliver ideas and articles targeted to specific interests? At present most of that data is free, although some agencies intend to levy a charge, so that obtaining an electronic copy of an article will be not unlike the old-days of putting one’s spare change in a photocopy machine to obtain a hard copy of pages from a book. The only difference is that the volume of data exchanged is enormous. To take an extreme example, Napster, which allowed people to down load music on MP3 files for free had a million and a half users on-line at any one time and 250 million users all over the planet. In terms of the amount of raw data transfer this is unprecedented. While many aspects of e-commerce are less promising that optimistically predicted, when it comes to the physical transfer of data across the globe the opportunities for commercial exploitation are staggering. We should recall the visit made by the British Prime Minister to the laboratory of Michael Faraday in the first half of the nineteenth century. After having seen the scientist’s demonstrations the Prime Minister asked Faraday what use was electricity. “On day you will tax it”, came the reply.

The impact and future of the Internet places a heavy responsibility on our shoulders. It is a responsibility that should not be avoided. By way of a caution think back to the subtle ways in which universities changed over the last half-century. Once they were islands of scholarship, places dedicated to high standards and excellence in teaching, havens in which researchers were free to follow the most obscure line of research and enjoy knowledge for knowledge sake. Yet, as in Orwell’s fable Animal Farm, no one really bothered to look up from his or her own interests to see that the writing on the wall had subtly changed. Managers and efficiency experts had begun to enter the university infrastructure and soon the standard would be productivity and efficiency, with academics offering their clients a series of designer courses. Academic freedom became tempered by the motto “All research topics are equal, but some are more equal than others!”