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Monday, December 26, 2011

The Cultural Commons, and the Commonwealth of Information

If ever I were asked to give a TED talk, this subject would probably be it...

What are the "cultural commons"? It's the idea that any society has a common set of culture that it learns from and refers to. That, within a society, you can make short hand references to shared ideas and experiences via similie and metaphor.
From prehistoric times to the classical period of civilization, the cultural commons were often defined by religious organizations, or historians recalling previous events. But, access was open to the Agora. The only limitations were occasional illiteracy among the public. Even then, there were enough public orators that shared tales. You might be illiterate, but you weren't ignorant...Social media was composed of things like sagas, plays, songs, dances, speeches, libraries....

In Western Civilization, with the ascendance of Christianity as a unifying institution, this began to change. A monopoly over most forms of social media was given to religion. Literacy & education were the province of the holy orders, with royalty often being assisted by holy clerics. The church was the social network, the entertainment, the source of ideology.. Bards and troubadours were common enough, but not of enough numbers to matter. Copies of the Bible were a rare privilege granted to but a few.. Access to the depths of the cultural commons was limited, while most had to content themselves with the shallows.

The dawn of the Renaissance brought the tensions caused by paradoxes and contradictions in Church teachings to a crisis point. And then, Gutenberg brought forth his printing press... The religious schisms caused by Martin Luther's 95 Theses, the challenges to Church authority over heads of state that the English Tudors brought, redefined the church's role in what was to become the Republic of Letters. Literacy began to increase in the middle classes, as they took larger roles in entrepreneurship and mercantilism.

But, a side effect was the rise of expertise and specialism in scholarship. Non-religious orders called colleges formed about the various disciplines. The access to the cultural commons became dictated by educational institutions, according to the social class and educational expectations of student performance.
The American experience of settling the frontier did little to change this paradigm. Local communities still often were dominated by a single church, a single school house, that shaped the communities' culture. When these communities grew and diversified, social clashes occurred, segregation of communal culture was common. Cities were made of neighborhoods composed of ethnic and religious majorities.

The rise of the Industrial culture did little to change this paradigm, either. Instead it co-opted it for it's own purpose. Public education, with emphasis on national identity and good citizenship, avoided challenging local identity. With some exceptions... Often, it seemed that education was designed to take children of various talents and plug them into the industrial complex in the roles of workers, supervisors, managers and vice-presidents. Again, social standing would be influential. The better your family stood in status, the better your access to education, the better off your future would be. Private schooling, and legacy scholarships were the benefits of being upper class. Social mobility was based on monetary resources.

Globalization of industrialism exported this paradigm: other cultures, long isolated from or little affected by Western Civilization, was forced adapt and adopt. Become assimilated into the Republic of Letters, or lose the opportunity to participate.

The cultural commons had become more democratic in access, but still lacked motivation for access. One's social identity still played a large role in influencing desire to participate in education. Reading, if you were not a scholar, was often considered a hobby, or a means of being informed of what you needed to know. It was a given that due scholarship was necessary for social advancement. Yet the system of education also was using guidance counselors to shape the experience for the student, in order to alleviate possible disappointments. And education boards would decide what you needed to be educated in. A social studies class might consist of learning what was thought pertinent about a foreign country, such as exports, resources, type of government.. But,gave little understanding of what life was like there, how the quality of infrastructure affected the lives of it's residents

So, now, we come to the end of the Twentieth Century, globalization of communication, the Internet... And the dawn of the Commonwealth of Information. We are now connected to so many cultures, have even greater access to the cultural commons of other societies. Now, we can immerse ourselves in the depths of the cultural commons of the entire world. New virtual communities are sharing common experiences in disseminated information. New institutions are being constructed, new ideas about ourselves and our identities are being defined.

The old institutions, long in tooth, but still mightily influential, push back. The rise of radical conservative religious movements? The increasing oppressive violence of regimes? The legislation to control Internet content? Could these not be seen as reactionary impulses of cultures afraid of change? Afraid of loss of status? Afraid of obsolescence?

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