Sent: Tuesday, February 27, 2001 7:53 PM

To: David Weinberger

Subject: on academic philosophy

Hi David,

just read your February JOHO on academic philosophers as gatekeepers.

Here's a couple of thoughts. I have a lot of empathy.

I've just fucked up my Phd after 7 years, and I'm feeling pretty out of sympathy with academia. I worked in an area (ArtificialLife) which allowed a lot of interdisciplinary reading and dialogue between AI, philosophy, biology, psychology etc. I loved the interdisciplinary atmosphere, I loved the discussions, I loved hanging out with smart and enthusiastic students. But I was also unable to discipline myself, too easily sidetracked by one idea after another. My actual work seemed narrow, and lacking in content. I couldn't read real academic papers because of the extraordinary dullness of the language. My eyes slipped over the words and equations, taking in nothing.

So I screwed up. I wrote a pathetic thesis in the last 6 - 8 months of my 7 years. I didn't sleep properly. I wrote sarcastic footnotes and made puns and used ironic quotations, because I was too tired to care that this wasn't the correct way to write. The examiners said I demonstrated no understanding of scientific method (in fact I read too much Popper and Feyerabend) - and worst of all I didn't cite hundreds of other sources to demonstrate that my work was the result of systematically reading all the possibly relevant literature.

Naturally enough, failing is very very painful. It's great to be in academia when you feel you have a right to be there. But the moment you fail, you feel delegitimized. How can you sit in on a talk and ask demanding, critical questions of a speaker when you (and your colleagues) all know that the speaker is qualified but you aren't?

At the same time, I've been an avid reader of web writing, of Cluetrain, of the weblog phenomenon. In a sense I feel like someone realizing that they're gay, and struggling to accept their sexuality. On the one hand I'm seduced by the sense of freedom, the exuberance of web-writing. And the possibility : "I can take my research, my philosophical thinking and writing to the web. I can discuss freely. I can say something meaningful using aphorisms, or anecdotes, or weblog entries. I don't have to be scholastic to contribute to knowledge."

OTOH there is a repressed side, where the academic super-ego still dominates. "Publishing outside the official journals, without peer review, is for the eccentrics, the nutters. Only those whose work isn't valuable enough to publish in journals will resort to vanity publishing on the web. That's for the coloured crayon brigade. Without the self-discipline to organize your ideas into a thesis format, to survey the relevant literature, your ideas will be half-baked. " And perhaps its true.

Anyway, that's where I'm coming from. But when I read your piece something clicked into place for me, and weirdly web cultural theory has made me suddenly more sympathetic to academia. The realization I just had was that "citing is linking". Of course, in a sense, that has been obvious all along. But culturally the two stood (at least in my mind) for entirely opposite things. Citing was part of the mystic rites of academia. Boring days in the library searching and photocopying papers that said pretty much nothing more than you expected them to (or that a dozen others also said) in laboured detail. Why does it matter to note that Hegel said something similar two hundred years ago? I'm saying it now!

Whereas linking stood for the alchemical magic of the web. The chain reaction that let the world's online knowledge reach critical mass and explode in a utopia of free discussion. When I think about the hyperlinked web, I am happy that due to blogrolling hundreds of weblogs say pretty much the same things, each from a slightly different perspective. I am happy with pages that serve no function other than to link other resources and whose only real contribution is that they present a different clustering criteria for these resources.

Suddenly, now I realise that citing is linking, I can forgive exegetic philosophers that behave the same way. Perhaps when your correspondent sent you a large list of previous philosophers who have made similar points, the spirit isn't RageBoy's cynical "shut the fuck up" but a present of a page of links to other resources,

Thinking about it, before computers could automate the process, the skills of "scholarship" (a word I used to detest) were the only way for humans to animate a web of hyperlinked information. And of course, (I think optimistically) now that computers DO automate the process for us, we really don't need to do it for ourselves. There is no other magic of scholarship that we need to concern ourselves about.

What, Panglossian? Me?

regards

phil jones

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