Remember the early and mid 1990s? You discovered the internet. All of a sudden it seemed like you could find information on everything you could possibly imagine. The knowledge base of the internet quickly became so important that the New York Times fashioned a web page, CyberTimes Navigator, to help its reporters use web resources, and journalism schools followed suit. Librarians came to promote Information Literacy, based on principles of Evidence Based Medicine, to help web readers discern fact from fanciful opinion in cyberspace. National Public Radio and the New York Times with extraordinarily large world news staffs both developed into major web presences, information resources that went far, far beyond the “hard news” jimmied between eight column rules in the old Times. Information was the new exchange token of power, and if you wanted to play a role that counted in this new world, the means to do so were right at your fingertips, clicking away on keyboard. As the years moved by, hopeful purveyors of IT planned to put cheap notebook PCs with internet access into the hands of poor rural children across the world, and they preached their plan like they were heralding the Kingdom of God among us (the $50 Aakash computer is the current candidate for cyber-saviour). The astonishment at all this has given way to a assuredness that knowledge is universally available to poor and rich alike, and that Dale Carnegie’s dream is truer today than he could ever have imagined: Access to Knowledge will enable to poor to overcome their situation and join the ranks of the influential and enjoy the good life.
What’s wrong with this picture? “The Secret of Zenon Pylyshyn,” as I call it.
ZENON PYLYSHYN is a foundational figure in the interdisciplinary field of Cognitive Science. His early training was as an engineer, but he took his doctorate in experimental psychology and for thirty years has been a professor of both Psychology and Computer Science. He wrote a key textbook on the Computational Theory of Cognitive Science — i.e. the basis for using computer computations to model mental processing. One of Zenon’s specialties is the relationship between our mental visual imaging and our visual sensory experience. (Cognitive Science provides access to e.g. the processes of perception and cognition that are obscured by our everyday subjective experiences.) Zenon’s expertise in visual representation, could conceivably contribute to resolving The Hard Problem, i.e. the relationship between the physical brain and consciousness. Zenon recently lectured at Yale and revisited his seminal 1973 paper on visual representation, “What the Mind’s Eye Tells the Mind’s Brain.” It has been cited in more than 200 publications. Shortly afterward I went to a computer in Yale’s Bass Library to look up the article. It was no easy trick to access, and this is the key issue at hand here.*
Wikipedia mentioned the article, but did not give a full citation and provided no link. The paper was published in 1973 so I anticipated I might not be able to track down a digital file of it. Google Scholar gave one link, to the American Psychological Association’s PsyNet, where you could buy a copy for $11.95. For any person who reads a lot of journal literature in any field, this is absurdly expensive and untenable. (Since my first draft of this essay, I have come across an even more egregious example of this type of practice: an 8-9 page article from New Testament Studies for sale at $30, or a 24-hour rental for $5.99.) However, I was on the Yale University campus on a library computer with access to many data bases. I took the opportunity to widen my net in searching for Pylyshyn’s work, to include books and even non-scholarly sources. A quick scan of the global library data base WorldCat showed that Pylyshyn’s books were not available in ANY public library systems of the entire Northeasterm US except Nassau County,NY. Much of his work has been published by MIT Press so it is unlikely to be found in your local B&N superstore. One might try interlibrary loan at your local library, but anyone who has suffered the months of waiting for ILL will take a long pause before pursuing this course. This means effectively that for almost anyone without library access at a college or university, the seminal work of one of the major figures of Cognitive Science is unavailable. Further, a search of LexisNexis (a global news data base only available to the privlleged few who can afford it) showed that in the past 30 years, i.e. since 1980 Pylyshyn had never even been mentioned in a news publication). An additional search of InfoTrac, a newspaper and periodicals data base (includes consumer mazazines) offered to public library patrons, showed nothing for Zenon Pylyshyn going all the way back through 1980. National Public Radio archives: Zilch, except a comment apparently by him, among other reader responses, to a political campaign. The work of Zenon Pylyshyn, one of the foundational researchers in Cognitive Science, one of the most important, cutting-edge, fields of science today is unlikely to even come onto the radar of all but a few specialists or university students. If it does, it will be at best discouragingly difficult in the extreme for most folks who may be interested to obtain any of his published work without buying expensive books (pieces of some can be viewed on Google Books). And that this situation exists probably would never even occur to most web cruisers today.
On the other hand, I was able to quickly get a PDF of the article — ONLY because the Yale Libraries subscribe to a data base that includes digital files of the journal, Psychological Bulletin, that goes back to 1973. And through the Yale Library system I was also able to read an electronic copy of a book of his lectures, Things and Places without every getting up from my computer. (this and five other books edited or authored by Zenon were in the Yale Libraries online course catalogue, Orbis).
Truth be told, the proliferation of information on the internet obscures the fact that most accurate and up-to-date knowledge is in large part only available to the privileged. You are not going to get to it from your home or business internet connection, or Starbucks WiFi, or your public library. It is accessible through specialized books and journals from scholarly, scientific, medical or business publishers that are outside the reach of most people, even specialists, and sometime only reliably available within the libraries and data base networks of the most elitist univernsities, like the Ivy League and UCBerkeley. (If you are a student, staff or faculty at Yale, e.g. you can retrieve books within four days from say, Harvard, MIT, Columbia and other Ivy League schools through a process called BorrowDirect; it is only available through Ivy League member institutions. This gives you near-immediate access to more than 50 million volumes at your fingertips within four days. In an institution like Yale, you are also provided with a searchable data base of US doctoral dissertations and Masters’ theses, PubMed (NIH and Library of Congress data bases) for the latest medical research, LexisNexis for legal reseach and world news sources going back decades.
I had a talk recently with a new friend who is doctoral student in literature from Brazil, doing research at Yale for the 2011-12 term. He expressed astonishment at the database resources that are available through the Yale Libraries, and has let his friends back home know that they are significantly handicapped as scholars without access to such information. He was so overwhelmed by the sea of literature available at Yale on his subject — a Brazilian novelist writing in Portugese, that he had to reconceive his dissertation. (I’m sure that Yale grad students are hardly surprised to hear this.) I remember another exchange with a Midwestern biblical scholar who manages the principal academic email list in “Historical Jesus studies.” He was distressed that he could not access a new dissertation on the Temptation stories in Mark, because, he said, his university did not not subscribe to the necessary component of ProQuest, the US data base of dissertations and masters’ theses. I had access, but the PDF format did not allow copying of selections. Trying to observe fair use, I arranged with a friend to make OCR snapshots of the dissertation’s conclusion, about 20 or so pages, then mailed the immense-sized image files in several emails. The process was absurd. Clearly it is not only Everyman, but doctoral students and established scholars, and presumably scientists (?), who are are handicapped by a lack of access to specialized knowledge in their fields.
Some may argue that after all, who needs such resources other than academics who earn their living by trafficking in the arcane? Religion offers an easy example of the effects of the divide between academic scholarship and non-academic knowledge. I have many, many friends who are either practing Catholics or practicing Buddhists. They are generally very well educated. But there is a vast gap between the religious knowledge of many of them and that of scholars of Buddhism. or say, biblical studies. Sadly, the gap is worse for Buddhists, who are subjected to unsupportable hype about Buddhism as the rational, scientific religion, or other historically ignorant nonsense like: Buddhism is the peaceful religion, Buddhism is more pluralistic and accepting of other religions, Buddhism is not a missionary religion, and the like. This is exactly the sort of situation that breeds religious exclusivism (“I’ve got the real truth”), intolerance, and triumphalism. Access to professional, non-sectarian biblical scholarship, e.g., is promoted within the Catholic Church, and its theologians are largely in practice rather pluralistic and willing to confront episcopal and curial authority. In contrast, Zen teachers can be rather anti-intellectual, and traditional Tibetan Buddhist scholarship, historically developed in monastic colleges, allows for debate among monastic students, but is self-perpetuating and scarely promotes the independent minded scholarship of university scholars in Buddhist Studies. There is probably a perceived “risk” that these scholars may “undermine” the Dharma, and the authority of the lineages and thus, individual teachers. Without ready access to independent scholarly research on Buddhism, it was no surprise that enthusiastic American Buddhists naively subjected themselves to moral charlatans. In fact even today Western Buddhist true believers are not quite ready to face the scholarly scrutiny of their beliefs and practices, let alone rigorous interdisciplinary exchanges and challenges. Catholics are certainly more willing to challenge the party line on say, birth control or recently, gay marriage. Many have a historical understanding of both scripture and dogma. But they are usually reliant on the local clergy who have minimal training in scripture and theology. Only a fortunate few have the time to find their way alone through the sea of relevant literature. University courses are the best way to get roadmaps to learning, and given the foundations, access to specialized journals and academic books is necessary to keep up. (A great example of the the preacher/scholar divide: contemporary scripture scholarship indicates that in the background of Saint Paul’s very heated rhetoric about homosexuality is the Greek view that if a male youth is penetrated by an older man, he will be deformed and unable attain his “full manhood,” and will thus be unable to be a complete male Greek citizen — the issue here is virility, not morality. (Plato of course contends that Alsibiedes’ homosexuality led him to become a traitor, but that’s a subject for another day.) One can’t expect that local Catholic clergy are going to keep up with this sort of thing. Cordoning off scholarly journals and books through library access restrictions make it difficult for the “average” religious practitioner to bring an informed challenge to the party line.
The learning advantage of the privileged extends further. I cannot speak for other Ivy League Universities. But at Yale, faculty, staff, students and affiliated spouses have long-term borrowing privileges with the Yale Libraries; customarily books can be checked out for six months, sometimes a year at a stretch. For “outside researchers,” borrowing priviliges are $840 per years (less for alums). And this does not allow the usual access to subscribed journals and data bases, where the largest part of library budgets for content are spent today (or except for alums, to ILL). Additionally, faculty and staff — and their spouses — at Yale can audit any course they wish absolutely for free, with the instructor’s personal permission. (Alums are expected to pay $500/course, except at the Divinity School, where they may attend for free). Individual professors do invite auditors according to their own discretion, and they are usually very welcoming. But the official university policy: is if you’re not on the list of the priveleged, sorry, life is tough, ain’t it?
When poor Lazarus lay at the Rich Man’s gate, he had apparently lost all hope of receiving food from the glutton inside (Luke 16:19-31). He did not even raise a hand to beg. In the theodicies of the time, it was thought that those who suffered were doing so because of their sins — getting their just deserts. (I think of this as the Jewish version of karma.) It is not unlike the American myth of meritocracy, which justifies the deprivation of the unfortunate and maintains the privileges of the lucky and their offspring. Those who win the cosmogenetic lottery enter the world with higher IQs, good looks, and smart, attentive and often wealthier, parents; they probably receive better health care and nutrition, and often receive a superior primary and secondary school education (often financed by local housing taxes in wealthy towns) that prepares them to attend the elite universities of the US and UK. They go on to the best grad schools and get the best jobs in academia and industry, and in turn (many of them) breed the next generation of their kind. No surprise that income of one’s parents is the best indicator of a person’s own later income (exceptions notwithstanding).
Restrictions on access to knowledge may be further exacerbated by the quality of available education outside first tier universities. It has been many years since I attended state universities (North Texas and the University of Iowa). But my feeling then was that university professors in large state schools were not terribly interested in whether you succeeded academically or not. At Yale you are coddled. Prescheduled make-up exams are common practice. Exam preview classes are standard. Professors are solicitous, and if you didn’t finish a term paper or thesis, okay, we’ll work something out for you to turn it in during summer or next semester. Perhaps all this has become common in non-Ivy universities, and I am just unaware of it. But among the cosmic lottery winners, it guarantees that the privileged are looking out for the privileged, to help ensure that they will succeed.
I acknowledge that audio files of many university course lectures from UCBerkeley have become available on the internet. Yale has put 35 introductory courses online, excellently produced with video, audio formats and transcripts. MIT OpenCourseware puts out a lot of hype about its free course materials, but the quality is terribly inconsisent, and often consists of near-useless, incomplete lecture notes. Courses like those at UCBerkeley are a good way to introduce yourself to a field, though the audio quality is often poor, and staying with it alone takes a good deal of self-motivation. These are neat resources, and I’ve used them. But to really become very familiar with any field one needs access to university library holdings, specialized journals and data bases. (All of this will still not give most folks the understanding that comes from writing papers for grad school courses and having them critiqued. But it will get take a very long way.) The losers of the cosmic lottery do not such access, except at prices that only the Gates and Buffets and high earners at Goldman Sachs can afford.
A couple final points. First, online access even to trade and consumer publications has become increasingly restricted by paywalls. Secondly, the cost of academic press books has become utterly irrational and often, thievery. I was recently writing a review of a book on Multiple Religious Belonging, from Routledge. It was under 400 pages, as I recall, and the price was $140.* Recently I was in a course on reading German for doctoral students, in which the main text was a few hundred pages, in paperback, and in its 6th edition, it had been out for decades and is THE main university text for German reading courses (the price cannot be justified on the basis of lower print runs.) The price : $97.
The romantic notion of Dale Carnegie — and notebook computer manufacturers — that making knowledge available to all will even the playing field for the poor has become a deceit (perhaps it always was), at the very time that most of the public believes that access to knowledge has grown exponentially. Yes, the internet has made it possible to disseminate knowledge further than our grandparents probably never dreamed of. But along with more traditional practices of educational elitism (and its accompanying ideology of meritocracy), it has through various tools that restrict access to specialized knowledge, increased the advantage of the privileged few.
*It should be acknowledged that in some ways Yale is a very open campus. The public is welcomed to lectures like Pylyshyn’s, and symposia, colloquia and conferences on everthing from Modern Hellenic or Iberian and Hispanic studies to cognitive science, cosmology and has daytime access to the (very basic) undergraduate library stacks, and the Divinity School Library stacks. Borrowing privileges are offered to outside researchers, though at very pricey rates. I am very much aware that I would never have been able to write this without Yale Library computer access. (I have learned to negotiate a maze of obstacles to computer access that have proliferated in just the past few years. perhaps made easier by the fact that I am former Yale Library employee. It has not been easy, and I imagine these obstacles have been sufficient to deter most interested parties.) But access to more specialized books, data base tools and specialized journals, and electronic materials for advanced courses are essential to bridging the aforementioned divide. I hope that everyone able to exert effective influence on this situation will do so. Here are several recommended approaches. 1) Strongly “encourage” gatekeepers such as publishers and library IT personnel to find ways to make specialized online information easily available to all who may be interested. Encourage university senior faculties to follow the example of Harvard in making faculty work available to aall, and to provide — as many already do — electronic access to their work through their personal web sites. Open Access journals are a also a very promising trend that deserves institutional financial support. 2) Make university library stacks universally available to the public (albeit giving priority for borrowing to institutional scholars who most need access. 3) Following and improving on the example of UCBerkeley, make university courses generally available to the public online — along with best study materials, including electronic course packets. 4) Increase the availability of course access on-site to non-institutional auditors. (I am aware that some — though emphatically not all — Yale professors and their teaching fellows have been very generous-hearted in accommodating auditors, official university policy notwithstanding. This modus has even been formalized, e.g. with Paul Bloom’s Devane Lectures, offered to the public at no charge — including course materials, but to Yale students for course credit and with weekly sections facilitated by teaching fellows. It’s a great model for future course development.)
My respects to those who feel that it takes all the energy they can muster to keep their chin above water and their feet out of the jaws of sharks below. These are very hard times, and sometimes academic learning does amount to scrutinizing minutia. I take no offense if for the moment you choose the latest episode of Homeland over the concerns here. I think of this essay as just my very modest contribution to the growing global ethos of fairness, where inequity and privilege (with its accompanying ideology of meritocracy) are no longer considered acceptable norms.
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*1/14/12 update: Textbooks for courses I’m attending this semester in Social Psychology, Introduction to Human Neuroscience, and Introductory Statistics are priced are $150, $113 and $142, albeit discounted “on the street.”
*9/30/13 update. The aforementiy.” To access it go to http://bit.ly/19c9HCd . This reflects a trend among academic scholars, to make their work free, either via their web page, through a forum at their university, or by paying the publishing journal a fee to make it “open access.” There has also been a growth in scientific publications that are free to the reader, though in the case of some, e.g. the Frontiers journals, the authors themselves cover the cost, which can run about $2,000. (This is not vanity publishing; the work is peer-reviewed and the publisher is quite respected, apparently even among senior investigators.) The Public Library of Science articles are free, and Nature Publishing has put increasing emphasis on providing open access. Perhaps 90% of American psychologists now make their work available free on their web page, sometimes with a delay (presumably at publisher’s insistence. Philosophers and biblical scholars — or perhaps the journals in their fields — e.g. are not nearly so generous. If memory serves me here, the Chronicle of Higher Education not long ago reported that ca. 50% of scholarly literature was now available for free, one way or another. Unfortunately this will hardly suffice.
Comments are welcome, whether they agree with the author or not. But they need to be attributed, with name, city and country.