Hacking the Academy: the Cathedral and the Bazaar of Knowledge

Maybe it is reasonable to define a new revolution in the academy, revolution caused by extremely rapid development of the Internet, new digital tools and active online communities. But on the other hand there is a strong need to keep an appropriate criticism to this new trends and capabilities.

First of all, there is no single Internet but many internets. Although the technology and tools which are used in US, Poland or elsewhere could be the same (see Google), there are so many different systems of education, law (especially copyright issues) and needs in the field of history. Americans can find new academic publications on Google Books and use this tool in their research, but in Poland it is hard to do this because of the local legal restrictions and no agreement with publishers. We cannot deny Google Books its international character and range, however, it does function in different systems. Similar challenges concern the public domain issue: in US, UK or in Poland there are different styles of defining and using it (see the case of American wikipedian Derrick Coetzee and National Portrait Gallery of London).

Let me add to this the problem of the digital divide. While discussing changes in academic style of (co)working and publishing one must remember about that limitation. It is not only a case of the accessibility of computers and internet connection to students and professors, but more a question of skills needed to be active on the internet, and administrative schemes of using this medium in the academic work. If university as an institution is not interested in engaging its employees and students to use new digital tools during normal academic work, digital strategies will always be only a margin, and those who will be using them still remain strange but harmless technological freaks.

And such a situation is a great challenge for academic hackers. If academic institutions and the system of education react too slowly to new possibilities given by the Internet, new tools and grassroot online communities acting independently outside the university (as for exemple citizen historians), academic hackers can build a connection. Still being a part of the institution (as a student or lecturer) they can work out new paths of cooperation and new strategies of academic work.

To hack the academy is to work with a strong connection to the academic world, but independently, without any administrative restrictions (especially over the rigid defined borders of scholar disciplines). My own project – Historia i Media from 2005 is just a proposal of adacemic hack in the subject of digital humanities in Poland. Without any institutional formal support from any Polish university and having a financial support only for a few months (thanks to the one of Polish NGOs), for years it has been the main polish interdisciplinary internet source of news, articles, comments and discussions about humanities computing. Of course hacking cannot be reduced only to publishing news on the Internet, but it is also participation in conferences and presence in popular media (to promote digital humanities to the wide audience).

But one single academic hacker is nobody without the community, which educates him, provides new information and inspiration. It is a wide community of people who use internet to communicate, share ideas and sometimes cooperate. Eric Raymond’s famous text can be a great inspiration here: the Bazaar – not the Cathedral is a philosophy of knowledge hacking. Without Twitter and blogs written by digital historians Historiaimedia.org would not exist. Knowledge and experience are widely and independently spread over the borders of countries and institutions without any costs on the internet.

Raymond writes about Linux developement, but his remarks can be related to our situation: hacking the academy release your ideas and experiences early and release them often (Twitter, right?). Thanks to the Internet the circulation of knowledge can be very dynamic: neither university (as an institution) nor wide audience wants you to build great narrations or strong meta-theories about digital humanities, it is better to show them the most interesting and valuable trends, resources and case studies, to educate them both about the possibilities of using internet and digital tools to do history.

As Jean-Francois Lyotard has written already in 1979 in his work The Postmodern Condition – thanks to the rapid technology development the university had lost its power as a guard of the knowledge. Today it needs to find new patchs of functioning on the knowledge market, crowded by great and powerfull commercial and international institutions like Google together with new quite independent players (hackers?) from the scholary Internet. Dominick LaCapra in his article The University in Ruins? stresses that the crisis of the university may be interpreted as something positive: it is an opportunity to develop new methodologies of academic work and overcome the traditional (but today inefficient) static divisions of the disciplines (a great exemple of this is can be digital history).

It may be a great challenge for the Academy and very encouraging perspective to recognize the role of knowledge hackers and use their potential. But there is one very important and difficult aspect of academy hacking: the piracy.

Maybe it is not only a problem of academy, which cannot use in the proper way the great capabilities of the digital scholary communication, as – for example – the Open Access or Open Educational Resources (OER) movement. Having no legal access to the academic materials online they use P2P networks or file hosting sites to illegally aggregate books, articles, scripts or even software used in the academy work. They do it in the community: not only groups of students from one university course exchange notes and materials over the institution, but also loose and scattered communities can digitalize and republish illegally educational materials. Without any knowledge of the academy and usually against the copyrights. Are they academy hackers too? The strategy of Bazaar wins with the Cathedral thanks to its activity, innovation and staying beyond the limits of the institutionality.

See also: One Week, One Book: Hacking the Academy