Saturday, 4 May 2013

The Nature of Philopolis, pt. 3

Here are the links to the first and to the second installments.

            But there is one great technological innovation that is currently gutting radio and television, and forcing us to rethink the whole way that we engage with other people: the internet. (It’s interesting to think that only a few years ago, that word was a proper noun and therefore required an upper-case letter: “the Internet”. How banal it has become.) The internet has interactive power unlike any technological development this species has ever seen, and the world has never been smaller as a result.
            With information on-demand on the internet, has someone stepped in to fill the intellectual void once occupied by Chautauqua? Yes: TED, the conference on “Technology, Entertainment, and Design.” They hold two annual, in-the-flesh conferences, but their main source of popularity are the ubiquitous TED Talks (videos of the 18-minute presentations) that are available free online, 24/7. TED has effectively taken the online, public intellectual scene by storm, and holds it with a strong grip. But once again, like Chautauqua, TED is not really interactive: they are talks, someone presents his or her ideas, and the audience listens. The audience is not actually involved in the creation of knowledge; they are receptors rather than participants. TED is immensely successful in getting the general public into contact with academic knowledge, but TED and Philopolis differ on the philosophical position of the relationship between a community, the academics who are part of that community, and how knowledge is produced.
            Also, TED’s historical roots are in the Sciences, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, STEM, areas; Philopolis is firmly rooted in philosophy. Both have since expanded beyond those original boundaries, but Philopolis still seems to hold a strong contact with philosophy by pitching it as a “philosophy + X” type of event. We can therefore explore anything, but philosophy will be part of the discussion as the overarching point of assembly.
            TED and Chautauqua have this in common: they both aim to disseminate knowledge broadly and accessibly within the broader community. Chautauqua occupies a niche, and it’s a campy market (literally as well as figuratively). The ubiquity of radio and television, and later the internet, have made Chautauqua a niche because what it offers is the richness of learning in person, in a setting that is completely dominated by the spirit of learning and populated by those who share that spirit. (It’s what a university would be if grades weren’t an issue, and they weren’t driven so hard by employment concerns, research quotas, and a dated model of scholarship.)
            TED one-ups Chautauqua by improving on their dissemination model. Everything is free and available online. What is sacrificed, though, is the sense of community, as one only feels distantly related to others through TED talks. There’s something neat about the feeling that people all over the world are watching the same video as you are. But there is an appreciable difference between that feeling and the feeling of actually sitting together in the same time and place and watching this together. 

Here is the fourth installment of the series.

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