Digital Dissemination and a changing global landscape
Monastic schools (Latin: Scholae monasticae) were, along with cathedral schools, the most important institutions of higher learning in the Latin West from the early Middle Ages until the 12th century.(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monastic_school accessed 04.10.17)
Before the printing press, elitist professors and religious clerics had the final say in the dissemination of academic and religious material. This hoarding of knowledge within tight-knit circles, along with the high price of manuscripts, meant that knowledge remained outside of the grasp of many people. The revolutionary change in the way information is disseminated has penetrating consequences for individuals and for the world.
W. Boyd Rayward in a paper entitled “The Historical Development of Information Infrastructures and the Dissemination of Knowledge” notes that:
The advent of the computer, telecommunications, the Internet and the Web has profoundly affected access to and systems for the management of information. These developments represent the emergence of a new and to some degree revolutionary communications infrastructure.
For there to be a profound effect on access to information, there first needs to be a profound change in the way that information is disseminated. This change toward digital dissemination impacts a myriad of facets within everyday living.
For digital dissemination to have a positive impact on individuals and societies, the problem of access needs to be solved. In recent times, libraries have facilitated dissemination. It was through library books that Malawi teenager William Kamkwamba learned how to harness the power of the wind and create an electricity generator for his family. William has now marketed his technology and is earning an income away from the traditional and risky enterprise of farming in an area prone to drought. Knowledge, in this instance, literally is power. Libraries are playing their part to solve the problem of access. The American Library Association notes that in 2012, “there were 340.5 million user sessions on public access Internet computers at public libraries”. Similarly, Google has rolled out free WiFi services in selected cities around the world. While this free service has its moral dilemmas, we are slowly solving the problems of access.
Digital dissemination is an ever changing landscape. The online, pay-walled, version of the OED defines the word disseminate : “To scatter abroad, as in sowing seed; to spread here and there; to disperse (things) so as to deposit them in all parts”. Unfortunately, seeds that tend to sprout roots the quickest are weeds. Just because there is more information readily available, does not mean that this information is worth having. We truly are in the era of ‘Fake News’, and fake authority. If left unchecked, anyone can claim authority on any given subject. James O’ Sullivan states that:
Academics, as educators and public servants, have a duty to explore the scholarly potential offered through the many new publishing mechanisms presented by contemporaneity’s obsession with mass communications, but remain responsible for ensuring that, where the process might change, the product, even when re-envisioned, retains its scholarly value. (386)
Academic dissemination and true seeds of knowledge have the ability to lift people out of poverty, just as library books lifted William Kamkwamba and his family. Adam Feuer writing for The Technology Innovation Management Review outlines how Open Source Microfinance Software (Mifos Initiative http://mifos.org/) is changing lives. This is a humanitarian project and shows us again, another extreme of the phrase ‘knowledge is power’. Open source software, freely available information, as well as training courses such as those provided by the likes of MIT have the ability to change lives. All we have to do is nourish the seeds and opportunities that are thrown in our direction.
The changing landscape of how seeds are sown, how knowledge is disseminated, presents new challenges to authors and scholars whose bread is buttered by the dissemination of their books and research results. Instead of the traditional author/editor/publisher model, scholars are now their own publishers. O’ Sullivan notes:
The main difference between new digital structures and traditional constructs is to be found in their scope and rate of dissemination. In the digital network, the scope becomes global and the rate of dissemination accelerated exponentially. (392)
As digital consumers, we have more available at our fingertips than ever before, with more information being published faster than ever before. O’ Sullivan calls the advent of self-publishing ‘scholarship 2.0’ (391), likening it to web 2.0, where participation is encouraged. Peer-reviews happen organically as a scholar cultivates social networks of colleagues from across the globe. Publishing and review efforts become a collaborative process rather than an insular pursuit.
Imagine a world where knowledge is at the fingertips of the many, not just the privileged few. As we witness the progressing availability of the internet and worthwhile content on the World Wide Web, perhaps we will witness more entrepreneurial efforts of people like William, desperate to lift themselves up from the hardships of previous generations. But perhaps we won’t. Is the acquisition of knowledge supposed to be a journey packed with obstacles to stretch our spoon fed brains? Was it starvation that spurred William on, desperate for greater things? Would he have entered that library if all was fair and comfortable in Malawi? Of course there will always be people with amazing ambition, and I believe William Kamkwamba to be one of them, however regardless of the greater availability of information thanks to new and ever evolving digital dissemination methods, great things will only happen if we have the interest, the compulsion, the drive to make them happen.