Using the site
V and R puzzle over how operationally the pursuit of self-formation and liberal learning differ from the encyclopedic effort to provide an authoritative summary of knowledge about things. They discuss distinctions such as that between the letter and the spirit in Corinthians and between use value and exchange value in economics. They seek to differentiate, rather inconclusively, an autonomous participation in the pursuit of person understanding from the accumulation of impersonal knowledge about things encountered in the world.
V 1 — I've got a simple question. Unlike Wikipedia, you encourage original thinking here. People go to Wikipedia for information about this or that, but here they come to do something. But you know, on Wikipedia everyone can edit. The whole humongous thing has been created by its users, so people go there to do something too. Is there really a difference?
R 2 — I think so, even though there's much overlap. Here curators will do a good deal of collaborative, self-corrective editing in Wikipedia's sense—drafting, changing, correcting in the course of shared work. But much of what curators do here will be independent, creative work attributed to them personally. They will foster their own self-cultivation and liberal learning in public on the site. The consequences of this difference should become quite significant, greatly strengthening the aura of the curator.
V 3 — I'll take your word for it for now, but you would be more convincing if you explained more fully the difference between editing on Wikipedia and curating on A Place to Study.
R 4 — Well, you have just exemplified it by asking me to explain my expectation. Encyclopedia articles basically summarize what current authorities about any topic hold to be the state of knowledge about it. As such, the encyclopedia article is a well-known form and the challenge is to apply it to potential topics in an informative, accessible, and authoritative way. To everyone's surprise, Wikipedia has shown how crowd sourcing can create sound, full, clear articles, covering an unprecedented range of topics with superior if not perfect authority. Although here we also have to get our facts straight, we don't primarily generate authoritative summaries of knowledge on A Place to Study. Rather we select various cultural resources and exemplify and assess their potential use furthering self-formation and liberal learning.
V 5 — Uh, that helps a little, but consider an instance—the Wikipedia entry on cooking is all about selecting and preparing foodstuffs for consumption, affording people nutrition and pleasure. How's that different from writing about cultural resources for self-formation?
R 6 — Oops! I wasn't clear. We don't inform; we exemplify and present, authority comes from within the recipient. Curators here engage in self-formation and liberal learning and invite friends to partake in doing it with them. The point of view differs. An encyclopedia concerns the state of knowledge about things. A place to study manifests person's state of mind in thinking about oneself possibly doing things.
V 7 — Can you explain the significance of that difference? I understand that encyclopedias have to establish the authority of their articles in the minds of readers. In its early years, Wikipedia had a problem with that, but for the most part now its articles largely have ample authority for general use by most everyone.
R 8 — Authority has always been highly problematic with respect to self-formation and liberal learning—"not of the letter, but of the spirit; for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life." Critics have lampooned officious teachers of the liberal arts and anyone paying slavish attention to them since ancient times. The interaction between each person and their circumstances varies uniquely. Self-formation and liberal learning come about as persons foster them through their exercise of judgment, expression of taste, weighing purpose and conviction.
V 9 — So friends of the site shouldn't expect to get stuff from it on the authority of the site's contributors or through their adherence to explicit, well-designed guidelines. But what will they be getting? You are not Paul bringing a New Covenant to the Corinthians. Why shouldn't the curators and their friends just go off and do it all on their own?
R 10 — If I may, let's think about this question the other way around. Why should curators on the site—the persons generating the stuff here—come here to work and create stuff? It is a place for them to study and there won't be much of anything for others to come to get if the curators don't join up and do a lot of work here. Unlike the editors on Wikipedia, they are not aiming to collectively be authoritative on what they create. Why might people devote effort to creating stuff here?
V 11 — Hmm. . . . I think I see. It's fairly simple. They come here to study, to foster their self-formation and liberal learning in interaction with each other and visitors to the site, actual or hypothetical. In doing that, they may specifically do many different things, which others might find interesting, provocative, relevant, insightful, and on. But others won't or shouldn't find what the curators here do to be authoritative, for what they've done they did contingently, autonomously, on their own account. No one gets anything. They all partake in the interaction, even the cultural resources here are significant not in themselves, but in the interactions that persons have with them, here on the site, or anywhere else for that matter.
R 12 — Yes. Forming oneself and learning liberally is not something happens by or through the cultural resources here; it takes place through what people do with the cultural resources, here and elsewhere. Starting with the curators here and what they study, the character and quality of their interactions with resources furthers their self-formation and liberal learning. Educators, people in general, put too much store on everyone engaging the same materials, this or that handful of "great" books, as if only certain materials have the power to cause illumination. We deepen and broaden our self-understanding and autonomous judgment by interacting across our differences in response, each distinctively, to a vast cornucopia of potentially illuminating opportunities .
V 13 — OK, let's get more concrete. A Place to Study uses MediaWiki and Wikipedia designed it to provide each account with a User pages. Will that feature be used distinctively on A Place to Study?
R 14 — I hope and expect it will. Editors on Wikipedia work anonymously, usually with pseudonyms. On A Place to Study, curators work under their actual names, and their User page should express who they are as actual persons. Each curator's first-person experience and view of life can and should enter into what he does on the site, how he interacts with others.
V 15 — Won't many people be uncomfortable working in pubic that way, showing drafts, working in progress, uncovering hopes, fears, and aspirations to friends, foes, and the great world of strangers?
R 16 — Yes, but a lot of the discomfort results from contingent conventions. Would you have thought 25 years ago, even less, that billions of people would have posted a detailed photographic record of their daily lives in the local newspaper? We will encourage curators to do something more interesting and valuable than that.
V 17 — OK, but please explain, perhaps with examples.
R 18 — Curators should think of their User pages of the primary locus for contributing to the site. We want people who join the site as curators to make a sustained commitment to it. Self-formation and liberal learning really go on through the whole of our lives. Although we don't charge subscription fees or subject users to a lot of advertising, we will ask that they commit effort to the site, effort that they value for its own sake. If no one feels that doing that in the company of others who are similarly engaging in self-formation and learning liberally has value for its own sake, the effort will fizzle.
V 19 — Hmm. I'm beginning the think that in the eyes of the person acting, doing something "for its own sake" means something close to "use value," as distinct from "exchange value," and that open source collaboration on the internet provides a way to pool use value with minimal attention to exchange value. A lot of food for thought there. . . .
R 20 — I agree, and we won't get to the bottom of it right here and now. But for now, I'd put it this way. Using the term "physics" very broadly, we can say that the physics of production and exchange in the material world, and the economics deriving from it, differ radically from the physics of production and exchange in the digital world. This difference gets obscured by imposing the legal arrangements developed for production and exchange in the material world on production and exchange arrangements in the digital world. But those legal principles have no standing in natural law, and bit by bit people will develop new principles to permit them to act effectively in the digital world. We contribute to that process by finding the interstices in which we can disclose unexpected possibilities of human activity in the digital world.
V 21 — So we should think of A Place to Study as a probe trying to optimize the use value of self-formation and liberal learning, minimizing the ways the physics and economics of material production have conditioned those activities in the past.
R 22 — Well put! Let's see how far we can take it with that as a regulative principle for who does what, how and why on A Place to Study.