While every age has its pleasures and its vices, its perks and its drawbacks, the current one rocks the world like few before it. (I’d like to say any, but I’m cognizant of making statements that I might later regret.) The advent of the Internet and especially Web 2.0 has ripped a titanic-sized hole into the fabric of our hierarchical society, long guarded by gatekeepers: from the educator to the cartographer, the librarian to the shopkeeper, the Internet has radically changed the way we interact, access information, and enter into the creation of content.
This kind of cultural shift is reminiscent of the one that churned British society when Queen Elizabeth I not only ascended the throne but refused to take on a reigning husband. While the hierarchy of monarchy and of the Church remained intact, a woman on the throne, answerable to no man, pushed the very limits of acceptability. While Western culture of the 21st Century considers itself democratic, open, and free, perhaps even beyond the need for this type of disruption, even brief consideration begs the question. There’s always the issue of degree and perspective, isn’t there?
Web 2.0 not only allows users to participate in the broader community but to collaborate, create content, download and mash-up others’ content, and collectively build knowledge. In fact, Web 2.0 creates a space in which the “users are as important as the content they upload and share with others” (Greenhow, Robelia & Hughes, 2009). This means that anyone, expert or amateur, who connects from anywhere, from the towers of Ivy League to the garage of an oil-stained mechanic, can add to the collective knowledge even as they download and self-educate. This new world can seem chaotic, since there are few formal structures guiding the process, but it has allowed for an interesting phenomenon: producers and consumers are no longer easily distinguishable and “information is constantly created and cross-referenced, and flows in all directions” (Goodchild, 2007).
This seems to be a frightening notion to those who follow in the long tradition of gatekeepers and those who deeply believe in the limited access to sacred knowledge. After all, the peons and plebeians are hardly educated, scholarly, reflective, or cognitively developed enough to 1) understand the complexities of the issues they examine; 2) grasp the nuanced responsibilities and risks that accompany such knowledge; 3) or utilize said strategies or knowings in appropriate ways. These attitudes are reflected in descriptions of the new communities developing around fields formerly guarded by such gatekeepers. For example, within the Geography and Cartography branches of science, there is a distinction extended to the Neogeographers who fall into the category of Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI), and while these neogeographers add much to the current mapping knowledge, they are still referred to as amateurs, non-expert, and non-formal. In fact, as Fischer (2010) cites Goodchild (2008) as he notes that, “Neogeography is considered to fall ‘far short of replacing the activities of professional geographers’” and neogeographers fail to “extract scientific knowledge and theories from geographic information” (pg. 2-3). These distinctions speak to the cultural underpinnings of expertise, the privileging of certain types of knowledge, and the desire to protect what has long been a hierarchical and closely guarded field.
I’m cautiously optimistic, then, because this dissonance, this disruption, these rumblings – this is the initial predictor of coming upheaval. And while I deeply hope this educational revolution is peaceful and contemplative, considered and purposeful, it will not be successful if we do not find ways to embrace the amateur-expert, find order in the chaos, and honor the contributions of those less formally educated (but who have self-educated via the affordances of Web 2.0) – those who do not “look like” the educators – or the students – of old.
Fischer F. (2009): Learning in Geocommunities. An explorative view on geo-social network communities. In: Thomas Jekel, Alfons Koller und Karl Donert (2009): Learning with Geoinformation IV – Lernen mit Geoinformation IV. Heidelberg. Wichmann.
Photo Credit: Wikipedia for Elizabeth I. The “Rainbow Portrait”, c. 1600, an allegorical representation of the Queen, become ageless in her old age