Skype, Socrates and how learning 2.0 will marginalize the ivory tower and bring back the symposium

I was listening to Etienne Wenger’s presentation today at the Nordic Voice conference and it helped me bring things into focus. I’ve spent much of the last couple of weeks babbling about knowledge and what it means to know, and not really considering what this will mean.

Boring historical background stuff that i find fascinating

Socratic symposium
Imagine trying to be ‘intelligent’ or ‘informed’ in the time of Socrates. This was a time where there was no real writing, people still got most of the their information, political or otherwise, in person or through a friend, second or third hand. Imagine how this would work out in reality. If you wanted to be informed about everything that was going on, not only in Athens, but in other cities as well, you would have to have a vast network of people that you knew, and trusted, who would come by your house regularly to tell you about it. (Of course, you could go to their houses, and this would certainly be a cheaper proposition, but not nearly so convenient.) Plato’s ‘the symposium’ stands as the best recorded example of this.

How would one acquire these ‘friends’? Well, it was possible to acquire them by money; if you were the sort of person to put on lavish banquets, to attract many people and hope that some of the informed people would come, this might work. But you would also attract very dull people, and this would obviously only work for the very rich. For most people, you would have to have something to exchange, you would want to BE one of the people who would be invited. This would force all but the most fantastically brilliant in a society (say… Socrates, who could be a little odd, and condescending, but was still on the whole charming) to be polite, to be interesting: that is, to do things that made people want to be involved with them.

Silent reading and 2500 other years of stuff
Enter the book. Socrates hated the idea. He thought it would upset the fabric of society, and make people lose the ‘real’ things they needed, like oratory and memory. With the coming of St. Augustine, some 800 years later, you have the first recorded instance of a person reading silently, and the transition was complete. Learning became anti-social, instead of supremely social. Something that happened in quiet, dank rooms instead of in the open air over beer. People still gathered together to do it, but one person talked about material they’d worked on in their room for a year and hundreds of people listened.

Skype and the backchannel
Now, we have a free Skype presentation (really a conversation) with people on a backchannel, all live. We have all the people who’ve heard about it and are interested coming over to join in on the fun. The meaning that is being made here is far more complex and contextualized than any that could be made in an office by a single person, or even by a group of people at a single institution. This morning, on the Etienne Wenger conference, there were people from all the continents (save Antarctica, reticent those Antarticans, penguins not being very interested in things other than fish). They were cross-examining and adding their own opinions, their own context, to the conversation.

How could the ivory tower possibly compete with this? Indeed, how will they even know, or get invited to join in the conversation that goes on if they remain aloof to the meaning that is being made in this kind of webcast? They will have to learn to communicate their ideas so that practitioners of their ideas (and now I’m sliding over to ed-theory particularly) if they want to be part of the conversation. They will need to be like the Greeks who wanted to be informed, they will need to be polite, inclusive and willing to be part of a larger community, or they will be left behind.

I don’t mean to say that academics aren’t polite, I’m sure they’d offer you a coffee if you went to their office. But they will need to bring learning, philosophy and they’re unique brand of intepretation back to the people for it to be valid, and to do so, they will need to learn the new way of speaking…

2 Responses to “Skype, Socrates and how learning 2.0 will marginalize the ivory tower and bring back the symposium”

  1. Will R. Says:
    Hey Dave…Skype as Socrates…hmmm…you’ve got me thinking. Speaking of which I can no longer Skype you or Skypechat with you because it says your settings aren’t allowing it. Something on my end? I have questions!!!


  2. barbara Says:
    When did “backchannel” become a word?


    Barbara in Maine (snowing here too)

Author: dave

I run this site... among other things.

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