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April 30, 2003

Brains Are A Cheap Commodity

Just the other day, I heard this excerpt from the film 'Good Will Hunting':

You're a first year grad student. You just got finished
reading some Marxian historian -- Pete Garrison,
probably -- you gunna' be convinced of that till next
month when you get to James Lemon, then you're
gunna' be talkin' about how the economies of Virginia
and Pennsylvania were entrepreneurial and capitalist
way back in 1740. That's gunna' last until next year,
you're gunna' be in here regurgitatin' Gordon Wood.
Talkin' about, you know, the pre-Revolutionary Utopia
and the capital forming effects of military mobilization.

Well, as a matter of fact I won't because Wood
drastically underestimates the impact of social di--

Wood drastically...Wood drastically underestimates the
impact of social distinctions predicated upon wealth,
especially inherited wealth. You got that from Vickers.
Work in Essex County, page 98, right? Yeah, I read
that, too. You gunna' plagiarize the whole thing for us?
Do you have any thoughts that...of your own on this
matter? Or do you-- is that your thing? You come into a
bar, you read some obscure passage, and then pretend
you, you..pawn it off as your own..as your own idea just
to impress some girls..? Embarrass my friend? See, the
sad thing about a guy like you is in fifty years you're
gunna start doing some thinkin' on your own, and
you're gunna' come up with the fact that there are two
certainties in life: one, don't do that, and, two, you
dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a fuckin'
education you coulda' got for a dollar fifty in late
charges at the public library.

What immediately popped into my head is how glad I will be when someone finally writes a program to perform exactly that conversation. Instead of fifty dollars in late charges at the public library, it will be a 99 cent download from ackster.com.

I have been writing online for at least a decade, I guess. It was at least that long ago when I asked Cornel West to put up a website for the third time. It was about that long ago when I stood up at an academic conference at MIT and suggested that some people put transcripts up on the net if they really cared that their message got out. It was certainly that long ago when I was dismissed by a bagman from Harvard University Press when I suggested that some of Ella Bell's research on women in the workplace be shared publically online. Not being part of the liberal arts clique, I had no idea how cheeky I must have sounded.

I must admit that I am a sucker for academic discipline. I never had much. I was only smart, curious, perceptive and articulate. It's about all I've ever claimed to be and I often don't believe it when people I think are awfully clever say nice things about what I write. I'm an outsider to the land of the degreed, I fell off the train at an early age. Still it bucks me up to hear dissent, although I try not to go overboard on Zinn & Chomsky.

One of the few things I remember learning that still makes a lot of sense to me was Cornel's categorization of the organic intellectual. That and Paulo Friere's pedagogy were the first inkling I got that I was not simply a piker who thought he was smarter than he actually was, but that perhaps my originality was something of value. I only had the smallest clue when I read some quote, I think by Voltaire, about the sciences confirming the humanities and vice-versa. Sure I knew about computer programming, but what did I know about life, and writing essays, and understanding whatever it is that liberal artists understand? It wasn't until my thirties that I finally got over my elbow patch envy. Before that, all I could say was that yes, I did read and enjoy John Updike.

None of that alters the fact that I could save myself and others a great deal of time by knowing when and when not to quote Weber (or Pete Garrison or James Lemon). Others may have the academic equivalent of a relief map and a GPS nevertheless, I still feel the thrill of getting to good sized ideas by dead reckoning. And so I have used the augmentation of the computer mediated communications to good effect, happily linking here and there and using its socratic interactivity to slake my thirst.

Sooner or later this may be all there is to much of academic research. It will all be there in some academic blogosphere. Instead of a million monkeys, there will be a million scholars worldwide who will finally rest, having made it all plain as day for anyone who would bother querying the interface. And so the future of reality television may be assured after all. We'll require an age of kicking up dust in realtime, a rebirth of poofy sleeves, skin tight britches and swordplay. Once the Interpretation Algorithm begins cranking out Strunk-perfect conjectures on all soft thought we can go out and play.

Today, writers write to get paid, and they speak, or so it seems to an outsider, ever mindful of what others steeped in the same fluids might absorb. There is a good deal of contempt in all that which I have taken personally over the years in my attempts to insinuate myself into various conversations. It reminds me of a comment I recall vividly from a dreadhead assistant professor holding court in the corner of some Fort Greene model's brownstone party. He was talking about how arrogant whitefolks would take issue with him on some topic or another. He would then drop the bomb that he was a he was a university professor at a top ranked school and that these same whitefolks would save money their entire lives so that their kids could sit in his class. For what? So they could say the man in dreads is just acting black. OK so that's tangential, but what if it's not?

What if the answers are all there and what we really like to do is fuss about them just because we're not ready to shutup and listen? Or perhaps nobody has the time and energy to organize the answers better, and their minds are cluttered with ultimately insignificant nuances. The more words published, the lower their value, especially if they're all mostly right. I'm not suggesting that an Interpretation Engine replace college professors, but that like chess computers, it gives them an opportunity to admit that they're in it for the fun of the exchange and banter - that any idiot script kiddie could know the difference between Lemon and Garrison; that most academic publication is like Obfuscated Perl Contests.

As it turns out, MIT is revolutionizing education by giving it away. This is the fissure that may crack much of academia wide open. More power to them.

Posted by mbowen at April 30, 2003 11:44 PM

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