Dialog:Persons

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Persons

Wherein R and V continue their discussion of how A Place to Study works. It is neither an encyclopedia nor a library. But what precisely is it?

R 1 — OK, spill it. When you found me up there by the list of Persons born before 1875, you were very worried. What's the problem?

V 2 — You said you were worried too. That's a long list. It's going to scare people. And its going to get a lot longer. And I'll bet another, just as long, for People born after 1874 will come soon, maybe it's already there. We've got to do something to break them up to a manageable scale.

R 3 — We will. Remember, these are master lists. Topical listings of different sorts will develop. It looks a bit daunting right now. I say, "Let it grow." That's not what's worrying me, right now.

V 4 — I hope you're right. I imagine you encountered somewhere the magical number seven, plus or minus two. Long lists overwhelm our working memory and I'll keep worrying until I see some topical chunks to work with. But you said you were worried too. What's your problem?

R 5 — Well, I'm worried and I'm not exactly sure why. I've been thinking about a place to study for a long time and over the years I've studied the life and work of few of the people on the list pretty well. It's seemed clear to me that a place to study needs to include all these people and more, but now that we have them here, at least nominally, I'm realizing I'm not exactly sure what we should be trying to do with each of them.

V 6 — Whoa! If you don't know, don't look at me! Now I'm really worried. The idea seemed simple—we are going to make a place to study each of them, separately and in relation each other, with lots of people studying them and kibitzing with each other. And I guess we'd add in for good measure "to study them and their significance for self-formation and liberal learning."

R 7 — That's the idea. But often it is easy to state an intent in words, thinking that by doing so you know what you need and mean to do. I started the list and set it up in chronological order with a link to the top page on A Place to Study for each person on it and a link to the Wikipedia article about each person.

V 8 — Yes, and I looked at the cool way you made the table so that one can add information for additional persons in easily, keeping everything in order. I can see how the page for each person will hold diverse discussions of them as they accumulate over time.

R 9 — Good. I'm glad you think the mechanics of that might work. But is is not the mechanics of it that worry me. Now that the time is finally coming when we are actually going to start putting substantive content on the site about some of these people, what is it that we are going to say about them?

V 10 — So you're saying it's not clear what it means to study the significance for self-formation and liberal learning through the the life and work of other persons. I'm open to the idea that by interacting with the site and doing things on it people will be figuring out what that means. You like to talk about how perceptions and actions emerge. I can't imagine your wanting a checklist of to do's for each person to be filled out. Can you illustrate what's worrying you?

R 11 — I'll try. I made a good start on the list and had a draft of it up on the site, worked its basic mechanics out, and started adding some further persons to it. One was William Cobbett. I didn't know anything about him, but recently, a brief mention of him in an essay caught my attention. I read the Wikipedia entry on him, a pretty good survey of his life and work, and decided to add him. Then I decided to try drafting what might be a start on a top page for him. That's when a vague uneasiness became clearer.

V 12 — I don't know anything about Cobbett. What interested you and what got you worried?

R 13 — Well, I realized pretty quickly I had to check my first instincts to put up a lot of encyclopedic and bibliographic information about him. I th. . . .

V 14 — Wait! What's wrong with that? Does't A Place to Study have the mission to provide free, comprehensive resources to persons seeking to form themselves and acquire liberal learning in the digital commons? Shouldn't good encyclopedic and bibliographic information be among the the free, comprehensive resources we provide?

R 15 — Yes, but we need to do so respecting and nurturing the digital commons. We've all grown up in acquisitive societies and often react with proprietary urges in situations where those are inappropriate. A place to study is neither an encyclopedia nor a library although both are important in it. Insofar as digital resources are actually digitally held in common everyplace, all the time. We should take as our first task, not to provide resources, but to make them optimally useful, purposeful, effective.

V 16 — Don't we gain variety, quality, and efficiency through the competition between multiple providers of goods?

R 17 — Certainly up to a point, but locating that point may be radically different with respect to material goods and digital goods. That's why we have to be careful about what we take the commonsense lessons of experience to be.

V 18 — I understand your words, but I'm not sure that I grasp your thought. Why might the commonsense lessons of experience differ between material and digital interactions? For instance, you talk a lot about the digital commons as if the way it works differs significantly from a commons in a material sense. I've been reading some about economists have said about "the tragedy of the commons." They explained difficulties in making a commons serve users dependably as if those difficulties are universal economic problems, common to all possible commonses, so to speak.

R 19 — Well, in those considerations, the paradigmatic tragedy involved a communal field open as free pasturage for all the farmers in a community, for under those conditions it would quickly succumb to over-grazing as multiple flocks of sheep flourished. One can criticize the whole theory because it assumed the commune of farmers had feeble powers of collective self-governance. But a digital commons can resist the tragedy of over-use for even more fundamental reasons.