The Tragedy of the Knowledge Commons

Friday, September 5, 2014

by Bruce W. Fraser

Several years ago, my seven-year-old and I were out walking when we met a young man who had recently returned from military service in Afghanistan.  In response to my son’s obvious fixation on the titanium rod protruding from his shorts, the man volunteered that he had been injured in a skirmish with Taliban fighters near the Pakistan border.  Once out of ear-shot, my son peppered me with questions he would not dare pose to a stranger, and I found myself reconstructing the possible circumstances of the veteran’s injury, the reasons for war, and the probable course of treatment he had received after his wound. After a thoughtful pause, my son remarked: “Well, at least he got to keep his foot.”

The statement was disarming. It was also nonsensical. Then I remembered that the titanium rod had been punctuated with a running shoe that housed an artificial foot. My son had observed the metal bridge between the man’s thigh and his shoe and concluded that it constituted a mere interruption; from his point of view, the flesh-and-blood foot stood at a distance, but the man should be grateful that he managed to keep it intact.

The oddity of my son’s remark is the result of the natural cognitive gaps accompanying stages of a child’s development, but it also reveals something important about communication. Just as my son’s truncated understanding of physical systems influenced his interpretation of our social exchange, the interpretation of even the most mundane and transparent assertions depends on a shared set of assumptions about how the world works, ranging from knowledge about physical processes up the chain of abstraction to human motivations and values. Those who have a mature understanding of body systems take for granted that, given the current standing of our medical knowledge, a human foot must be attached to the rest of the body if it is to persist; to say “I lost my leg as well as my foot” in the context of our sidewalk conversation is redundant, just as saying “I’m flying to Spain and I’m taking my left foot with me” is unnecessary unless we are addressing a highly irregular set of circumstances.  When people know how the world works, most of the information that supports successful communication remains in the background; if this were not the case and we had to spell out every piece of information relevant to interpreting what people say, conversation would never get off the ground: “I’m flying to Spain, and I’m bringing my left foot with me…and my right foot…and my left knee…and I’m flying by commercial aircraft…and….” Communication would bog down in an endless conjunction of informational tidbits.

Public discussion and debate, like personal conversation, is possible only if people share a relatively uniform understanding of the way the world works, a common method for discovering and verifying truth, and an orientation that unites the community around a vision of personhood, responsibility, and social obligation.  Without this rich tapestry of shared meaning and purposes, communication would get lost in quarrels not only about “the facts” but about people’s intentions and beliefs.  In effect, it would be as if we were speaking different languages, each person’s method of communication tethered to a different way of looking at the world.

Thus, this shared framework serves as a kind of “commons,” a communal foundation for meaningful public discourse that makes cooperation and progress possible. Like a physical commons, which provides material support to a community, this framework is an invaluable public resource; it is the membrane that keeps society in tact; it is the set of practices, traditions, and understandings that unifies a mere collection of individuals into a cohesive community. E pluribus unum.

Unlike a physical resource, however, this common ground is a product of experience and learning, the collection of hard-won truths garnered from generations of practical and intellectual toil. For this reason, the commons is perhaps more aptly referred to as “The Knowledge Commons.” When this resource is exhausted or exploited, when knowledge is fragmented by new forms of communication or otherwise torn asunder, the inevitable consequence is a breakdown of communication at a fundamental level.  

In what follows, I will defend a simple if somewhat paradoxical contention:  The Knowledge Commons, though essential for community life, is inherently unstable and eventually collapses under its own weight. This is what I mean by the term “tragedy” in connection with the title of this essay, i.e., that some defining and laudable feature of the Commons is the very thing that is its own undoing -- that the Commons is destined to undermine itself. In this regard, I am referring obliquely, if quite self-consciously, to Garrett Hardin’s use of the term “tragedy” in his 1968 essay “The Tragedy of the Commons.”

To be clear, I am not referring here to the significant but accidental developments that erode our ability to understand each other.  It is certainly true that our knowledge of the world has been fragmented by a variety of recent developments, all of which are connected at some level – the influence of the public relations industry, pervasive commercialism, niche media markets that cater to and reinforce various ideologies, the decline of traditional news media, the advent of the internet, and the widespread access to information technologies. The correlate of these developments is a corresponding decline in civic engagement, including participation in local government and awareness of public affairs, and a preoccupation with the trivial over the true.  Yet these eventualities are symptoms of the deeper problem, of the tragedy of the Knowledge Commons. They are contingent historical facts, but they are unfortunate rather than tragic.

In contrast, the tragic nature of the Commons derives from the cumulative effect of building an ever-larger edifice of knowledge, one generation to the next, leading inevitably to a point at which the individual is incapable of understanding it all. Human ingenuity has led us to a point at which the tools used to acquire and share information far outstrip the individual’s ability to absorb, evaluate, and act on the information available.  A similar point was made in the early 20th century by the journalist and media critic Walter Lippmann, in response to the bourgeoning mass media and public relations industries.[1] The point is far more pressing now, given the exponential advances in the field of technologies: Overwhelmed by the deluge of information that comes through various media, the mind retreats to the comfortable world of opinion, prejudice, and feeling.  The consequence of this retreat is a declining public rationality and a corresponding rise of dogmatism and factionalism. We witness this phenomenon in the increasingly caustic public rhetoric about issues such as gun control, healthcare, and religious freedom. It is evident in the unwillingness of our politicians to seek legislative compromise and in our own refusal to see the humanity in others who hold different views than our own. 

In short, we are both too smart and not smart enough for our own good. We have the ingenuity to invent the technologies that support a massive collection and distribution of information, but no one person, however intelligent, can make sense of it all. The result is a world in which people are overwhelmed, and their responses to information become more primitive and less rational. Human beings naturally seek out information that confirms existing beliefs and stereotypes, psychologists tell us, rather than views that challenge or refine what we think is true. In an age when every conceivable point of view is represented somewhere on the Web, the person on the street can believe whatever he or she likes, regardless whether it is grounded in reality, and find some measure of support.  In such a world, the fabric of public communication gives way and is replaced with islands of superstition, bigotry, and illusion.

It is at this juncture that the paradoxical nature of my thesis becomes plain. People must communicate, and despite the fact that we pursue knowledge beyond the point that supports rational, public discourse, we are compelled to rebuild the Commons on the heels of its decline. We have no choice, at least if self-interest and the necessity of working together to achieve common goals can be taken as axiomatic. Moreover, the collapse of the Commons is never complete. Some of the most central truths survive ages of deep irrationality and conflict, such as the truths of mathematics and some of the more central findings of the natural and social sciences (I would like to believe, also, that some truths of the humanities manage to persist, such as the importance of human dignity and kindness).  While tragedy by definition is unavoidable, the choice of what to do about the consequences is within our control.

Many courses of action can and should be taken to preserve or rebuild the Commons, from educational reform to structural adjustments to the media landscape (through legislative action or private partnerships[2]). The avenue that interests me here is the relationship between institutions of higher learning and the communities they serve, a relationship often developed around the themes of public service and civic engagement. Despite the frequently parroted criticisms of higher education these days, academe remains the bastion of the Commons, the home to objective research, thoughtful scholarship, and a fair measure of creativity.  Yet many of the resources essential to the revitalization of the Commons are locked away in the ivory tower, utilized by aspiring intellectuals and scholars but sequestered from the public.  These assets must find their way into the community; they must be utilized to address the most pressing challenges of our times, and they must be applied in a way that brings citizens and future graduates together in collaborative ventures.

To be sure, recent decades have ushered in stronger ties between private industry and the university, especially where academic research most clearly translates into higher profit margins, but this relationship has not constructively impacted public knowledge. Business is in the business of making money, and while private industry may predicate its activities on a particular (and changing) vision of the consumer’s self-image, it does not thereby promote public rationality or enlightened self-interest. It is also true that while the sciences have found application in the private sector, the disciplines most useful to the revitalization of public knowledge, (i.e., those, such as literature and philosophy, that cultivate the imagination as well as the mind), have remained isolated and abstract.  Rebuilding the Knowledge Commons depends upon making the intellectual capital of the humanities and social sciences available to the public in a way that encourages rational deliberation and puts the core narratives and ideas of disciplines such as history and psychology in direct contact with the personal stories and interests of community members.

The upsurge of interest in “service learning” in recent years represents one such attempt to bridge the gap between the ivory tower and practical world of tar and asphalt. Under the supervision of an instructor and a community partner, students volunteer their time and energy to address a community need. By design, service learning is intended to bring the means and instruments of the classroom – and hence a key aspect of the Commons – to bear on challenges facing local communities. Through the application of what they learn in textbooks to such questions as how to integrate green spaces into community redevelopment plans or how to alleviate pervasive poverty, students learn the value of academic subjects and how they are connected to the interests and circumstances of their fellow citizens. Consequently, service learning brings people of different backgrounds and circumstances into close proximity and encourages them to work collaboratively toward common goals. In such contexts, the interplay of human interests and ideas goes a long way toward breaking down stereotypes and building a framework to support effective communication and progress. In other words, service learning is an effective method for repairing or rebuilding the Knowledge Commons.

While this application of knowledge may seem unremarkable where subjects such as business or nursing are concerned, the value of service learning in disciplines such as English, History, and Philosophy is actually higher. The origins of these and other “academic” disciplines in antiquity reveal how closely connected they are to the health of both society and the individual citizen. In ancient Greece, philosophy and literature gave coherence to experience, either as the handmaiden of civic virtue (philosophy) or as the epic tale of gods and heroes that infused the hardship of daily life with meaning (literature). Then and now, these subjects prove essential to the formation and maintenance of a world view that gives coherence to both the social and physical worlds.

The contemporary application of philosophy and literature through service learning (to continue the theme above) recreates these primal linkages between civic life and the intellectual resources of higher learning. Civic problems and issues suddenly become the subject of discourses about responsibility, personhood, and moral obligation, allowing the knowledge in the classroom to assist in solving practical challenges. Conversely, categories and concepts often disassociated from the everyday lives of students and the professoriate become substantive and real, challenging conventional ways of teaching and thinking.  This interplay of interests and resource is a key ingredient to the health of the Knowledge Commons.

As an example of the power of linking classroom instruction to the community, consider a project currently being run by Jonathan Glover, an English professor at Indian River State College. He teaches an American Literature course in which students volunteer at local public schools helping children to read (in partnership with The Learning Alliance, a community group focused on improving literacy and college readiness in the K-12 environment).  At first glance, there may appear to be only a distant connection between the teaching of literary criticism and reading, but Dr. Glover challenges this notion.  By helping young students find the connections between phonemes, morphemes, and the semantic landscape of the English language, Glover’s college-age students are increasing their awareness of the complex linguistic relationships at the heart of literary criticism and analysis. They are also brought face to face with the connection between literacy and civic life, which is a theme running through the texts Glover’s students read for his class.  

Community engagement and service are laudable in their own right, but projects like the one Glover is running with the Learning Alliance illustrate the value of service for academic pursuits as well as the community.  Specifically, it challenges the longstanding misconception on the part of many academics that public service is somehow extraneous to their disciplines, distracting them from the “pure” inquiry to which they are accustomed; it also challenges frequently-held belief among students that their studies are disconnected from the “real world.” The reality is that community life is the context in which the humanities and social sciences take shape; divorced from the concerns of everyday life, academe gets lost in the minutia of increasingly idiosyncratic and abstract pursuits.  By rebuilding the connections between academia and local communities, we have the best hope of both revitalizing higher education and repairing the damage to the Knowledge Commons caused by a highly fragmented and commercialized media landscape, the rise of the consumer mentality, and the exponential growth of publically available information.

Faced with the problem of what seemed an overwhelming media landscape in the 1920s, Walter Lippmann suggested that policy makers, journalists, and the public be counseled by a highly educated independent body of researchers and intellectuals. Given the amount of information available to all citizens, this group of “publicists” would make sense of the world’s complexities and guide public discussion in an objective, rational way. Lippmann’s proposal proved undesirable, largely because it struck many as elitist and undemocratic, but his concerns were legitimate.  In light of the increasing fragmentation of the Knowledge Commons, some mechanism that revitalizes and stabilizes the public sphere, that rebuilds the Commons, is necessary for the preservation of our democracy.  Linking academia and community on the model of service learning is more democratic than the solution proposed by Lippmann, but it is predicated on the same basic insight: The most powerful and enduring intellectual resources at our disposal must be put to work in the service of public rationality, if we are to prevent the decay of community life and the capacity for self-governance.  This proposal also has the advantage of building on an existing movement in education, one that began with the admirable goal of increasing civic engagement among students, and hence citizens, but is compatible with the goal of reinventing the Commons.

My son is 11 now and amused by his earlier assumption that a human foot could persist at a distance from the man who lost it.  As he matures, his experience and education shape the way he views himself and his relationship to the world, filling in cognitive gaps and preparing him in some measure for the complex social and physical worlds around him. Yet the vast, modern landscape of information and interests, refracted continuously through the lens of mass media, threatens to isolate him, as it does all of us, in a solipsistic world of personal interest and prejudice.  The counterweight to these isolating forces is constructive, social interaction – engagement with others that integrates what he learns in the classroom with the needs and interests of his community.  My hope is that with the right kind of education, one that emphasizes civic engagement and social responsibility, he will come to grasp enough of the fabric of the Knowledge Commons to contribute meaningfully to the social world he inhabits.  Time will tell.


[1] . Lippmann, W., Public Opinion, 1922

[2] Society’s institutions must be periodically tweaked, and sometimes re-engineered, to assure that the public has reasonable access to a stable set of truths.  The concept of a core curriculum in secondary education is one example of this kind of engineering; the founding of the Federal Communications Commission through the Communications Act is another.

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