Supporting the Intellectual Life of a Democratic Society

Philip E. Agre
Department of Information Studies
University of California, Los Angeles
Los Angeles, California 90095-1520

Ethics and Information Technology 3(4), 2001, pages 289-298.

Please do not quote from this version, which may differ slightly from the version that appears in print.

6500 words.

"Democracy has many meanings, but if it has a moral meaning, it is found in resolving that the supreme test of all political institutions and industrial arrangements shall be the contribution they make to the all-around growth of every member of society" (Dewey 1920: 186).

1 Introduction

What is a digital library for? Here is one way to look at it: the purpose of a digital library is to support the intellectual life of a society. Now, this is a familiar role for a library. We are already accustomed to thinking of libraries as repositories of cultural memory, resources of information, and promoters of literacy. But as information technology becomes radically cheaper and more ubiquitous, and as information services become knitted into the fabric of daily life, we are in a position to ask more deeply what an intellectual life is and how to support it. Existing scholarly and library practices reflect the wisdom of centuries, and we should think twice before throwing them out. Instead, I propose that we recover the underlying logic of these practices, abstract the aspects of them that have lasting value, and then generalize, extend, and democratize them -- that is, make them available to, and adapt them to the purposes of, the citizenry in general and not just to elites. This requires a sustained analysis of intellectual life. Intellectual life is both deeply individual and deeply collective at the same time, and analysis will be required particularly to understand the relation between these two levels.

The paper proceeds largely through an informal phenomenology of intellectual life. By way of preparation, section 2 confronts prevailing stereotypes about intellectual life and section 3 emphasizes the diversity of activities and purposes within which an individual's intellectual life can be embedded. Section 4 then describes some senses in which an intellectual life is a space largely apart from the rest of life. Section 5 describes the role of personal questions in an individual's engagement with books, and with intellectual tradition generally. Section 6 sketches the phenomenology of intellectual life at a more detailed level by describing the fragmentary groundwork on which intellectual life is built; this analysis suggests the potential value of technological support for an individual's ongoing engagement with a personal library. Section 7 concerns the place of intellectual life in the overall life of the individual, and suggests that new technologies might permit the institutions that support the intellectual lives of academics to be democratized. Section 8 turns to the intellectual life of a democratic society as a whole, and suggests that the institutional supports for the intellectual lives of professional political advocates might be democratized as well. Section 9 generalizes the point by suggesting the role that new technology might play in the creation of lightweight institutions to support intellectual life. Section 10 concludes by considering the potential role of a particular set of institutions, those derived from the collective cognitive processes of the professions.

A comment is perhaps necessary on my use of the phrase "digital library". My purpose in this paper is not to provide detailed technical proposals, nor to engage with the specifics of digital library research as it is currently developing (e.g., Arms 2000, Borgman 2000). Rather, I want to gather some conceptual raw materials for long-term strategizing about the directions that digital libraries might take. "Digital libraries" in the narrowest sense refer to networked computer systems for the storage and retrieval of large collections of digital texts and image. The engineering of digital libraries thus draws equally upon computer science conceptions of system architecture and library science conceptions of information organization and management. As basic problems are solved and traditional functionalities become available in a fully digital medium in a scalable way, it will become possible to rethink more ambitiously how digital libraries might support the intellectual life of a society. A networked digital library, after all, is not localized geographically or confined by physical architecture, and so it can become deeply intertwined with the collective cognitive processes of the many social groups whose activities it is meant to support.

By "digital library", then, I mean to suggest the full breadth of these potential tools of intellectual life, and I am not especially concerned with the boundaries between the concept of a digital library and related concepts such as digital archives, knowledge management tools, online discussion forums, distance education, personal Web sites, and so on. In particular, I am not concerned with the traditional distinction between library materials, whose permanent value makes them worth cataloguing, and other materials whose temporary or otherwise limited value has historically excluded them from library collections. The proper definitional boundaries of the concept of a digital library is a question to be explored, that exploration begins with a general sense of the requirements for the digital libraries of the future, and those requirements presuppose in turn a three-dimensional understanding of the nature of intellectual life. Of course, a library can support other social functions besides intellectual life -- entrepreneurship, for example, or entertainment. But I will focus on intellectual life because of its deep connection to personal and social well-being.

2 Class stereotypes

One cannot begin to discuss intellectual life without confronting some destructive stereotypes. Intellectual life, first of all, is not confined to intellectuals. Intellectuals as a class do exist, though they are defined and organized in different ways in different cultures [1]. They can play a valuable role. But a democracy cannot depend on intellectuals alone. A democracy requires the intellectual effort of all its citizens, and it must value intellectual practices other than those associated with high culture.

Everyone has an intellectual life; everyone has questions and thinks about them. But many unfortunate dynamics have conspired to prevent the intellectual life of democratic society from reaching its full potential. Intellectual talent and achievement are often treated as the status markers of an elite, and the formally meritocratic procedures of democratic education can be used to increase the stigma associated with modest educational success. Intellectual snobbery can be used to control people, and it provokes intellectual insecurities and defensive reactions. The very attempt to discuss intellectual life can be perceived as an attempt to lay a burden of judgement on people whose lives are too demanding to enable them to live up to it, and intellectual aspirations may be culturally marked as a betrayal of one's group, for example as "acting white". The norms of intellectual life may be interpreted as attempts to bias political rules or to pacify dissent, and indeed such interpretations have often had much basis in truth.

Intellectual life has often been caught in political conflicts. Burkean conservatives long questioned the wisdom of attributing rationality to the lower orders, much less educating them, lest they take it upon themselves to devise a new social order (Herzog 1998). The founder of modern public relations, Edward Bernays, was a nephew of Sigmund Freud, and was quite open in his project of using Freud's ideas to keep social decision-making power in the hands of an elite few (Ewen 1996). This is not a democratic vision of intellectual life. Marxism, for its part, has often celebrated the worker-intellectual, and particularly the collective intellectual efforts of working people. Such Marxist texts as E. P. Thompson's (1963) "The Making of the English Working Class" are the foremost depictions of popular intellectual life. But in practice the Leninist vanguardism of most organized Marxism has promoted the opposite approach, in which the workers are molded and judged in terms of the degree of conformance between their views and the world-encompassing theories of the intellectual-activist elite.

What's missing in each case is a democratic spirit of trust in the intellectual judgement of ordinary people. Modern scholarship has gone a long way toward valuing popular culture, often applying the interpretive methods of literary criticism and anthropology to recover its intellectual and political content (Grossberg, Nelson, and Treichler 1992). Poetry slams, for example, are a novel intellectual practice whose participants, largely young African-Americans, are often simply unacquainted with the effete stereotypes that afflict poetry elsewhere (Clines 1997). Skepticism about a broad-based intellectual life, then, is partly a result of narrow definitions, partly a lack of imagination, and partly a real cultural problem that a new generation of social innovators, armed with appropriate new technologies, can hope to overcome.

3 Diversity of intellectual life

Talking in a loose way about ordinary people, however, inevitably leads to a stereotype along the lines of "Joe Sixpack" that is no more helpful. To get beyond the stereotypes of intellectual life, therefore, we must appreciate and analyze its diversity. Too narrow a conception of intellectual life, after all, will surely bias the design of digital libraries in favor of some culturally prominent model. Consider, first of all, the wide range of purposes that have been ascribed to intellectual life at various places and times: understanding of oneself, collective consciousness, cosmopolitan rationality, overcoming prejudice, deepening oneself, cultivating an inner life, as a component of social or political practice, investment in human capital, therapy, casting off tradition, reproducing tradition, and so on. And as a concrete matter in people's lives, an intellectual life can be embedded in a great variety of activities: religion, amateur science, travel, political participation, psychological self-help, collecting, fandom, social climbing, conspiracy theorizing, entrepreneurship, professional development, trivia gathering, family genealogy, aspiring to write and publish, involvement in the art world, an intellectual hobby relating to one's profession, and so on.

It is thus clear that an intellectual life need not look "intellectual" in any stereotyped sense. In particular, an intellectual life is not just for introspective people; it can be equally relevant to someone who stays immersed in practical action and mixing with others. Fiction, music, and television can certainly be part of intellectual life, even if much of the output in those media is not intended that way [2]. Intellectual life includes the many cultural projects, such as the growing movement in the United States to reunite the black and white descendents of slave-owners (Fulwood 1999, Henry 2001, Richardson 2000), that make a personal journey into the raw material for social reflection. Different kinds of intellectual life can have very different architectures, from the armchair to the cafe table to the teenage bedroom or monastic cell, or indeed the laptop and airplane seat, and digital librarians can aspire to deliver information services that are fitted to the form and customs of each of these locales. The study of religious texts makes an outstanding site for the application of digital libraries. Bible study, after all, is the origin of most of the West's ideas about reading, and numerous religions have large, global study-communities that would benefit from technological support.

4 Intellectual life as a space apart

Looking at these diverse embeddings of intellectual life, it is clear that prevailing images of intellectual life tend to abstract it from relationships, conversations, feelings, and histories. Yet intellectual life really is to some extent a space apart, and it is worth considering just how. To speak of an intellectual life does not disparage other parts of life. In fact, colloquial usage usefully treats one's intellectual life as one "life" among many -- social, professional, emotional, personal, and so on. These "lives" can have various qualities: compartmentalized, integrated, in conflict, and so on. A given individual might devote disproportionate effort to some of them while the others atrophy, and the atrophy of any "life" is regarded as unhealthy. A healthy life, accordingly, is said to be "full" or "balanced". An intellectual life can become stale just as a love life or professional life, yet the pain of a stale intellectual life seems harder to identify. I will return to the nature of this pain later on.

Intellectual life can be distinguished from more instrumental concepts such as training in that one follows questions wherever they go. Perhaps one does not follow a question "for its own sake", a meaningless idea. But questions do often arise that lead one beyond the bounds of a particular task, or even of a profession. One's intellectual life is the place where such questions are pursued without any clear idea of how the effort will pay off. An intellectual life is a space apart, then, from any clearly defined purposes or payoffs. It is a cauldron on the fire, a refuge or ballast or source of perspective. It prevents one from being too caught up in the ups and downs of daily life. The ideas that emerge through intellectual reflection may be a step more abstract than the immediate problems of life, and the effort of understanding them must be amortized over an unclear stretch into the future.

Intellectual life can be pathological, either because the ideas themselves are disturbed or because one is trying to live in one's head, without paying attention to the inconvenient complexities of real life. Bordo (1987) accuses Descartes of just this, and traces a philosophical tradition of unhealthy detachment (a "flight to objectivity") from the messiness of involvements with real people and things.

An intellectual life requires a safe space, which can be solitary or among the like-minded. Intellectual life can provide a respite from the real world or a resource for engaging with it; either is legitimate. One's intellectual life might evolve its own language to express the things one has seen or conceived, and much translation can be required to make these observations useful again in the world.

We are a finite species, however, and we constantly need fresh intellectual fuel. In this sense and others the intellectual life is a place only halfways apart -- not a distant planet but a separate room, walled to be sure but trafficking in a controlled way with the larger world.

Intellectual institutions have also been understood as places apart, the university for example, and the structure of an intellectual institution becomes internalized as a cognitive structure [3]. Intellectuals are to some extent a separate society, and when they live by one another's judgements their separateness grows. This separateness is inevitable and harmless up to a point. After all, abstraction has its uses, not least the making of distant connections that would not otherwise be made in the thick of real life. But the intellectual life can be a space apart in other ways. Intellectual life is not just for people with leisure, and new forms can surely be invented that fit into busier ways of life. Or perhaps life itself needs to be adjusted. If the road to social advancement lies through education, then the real haves and have-nots are the ones who have or do not have quiet to study, already a scarcer commodity than computing power.

5 Questions

One of the great recurring traumas of school is being compelled to read (what students call) "dry" texts. Reading works best with a question in mind, and teachers have generally forgotten what it's like to lack questions for the texts they teach. The notion of reading with a question is central to the hermeneutic method, itself derived from Biblical study, for which repeated readings lead to successively deeper interpretations. Everyone has questions, and in the ideal world everyone would be matched with whatever book speaks most squarely to the questions that they have at a given moment. Some questions are simply factual, and reference services are well-equipped to deal with these; others are framed as topics that can be translated to a subject catalog. But most questions are deeper, and little is known about them. The questions that children bring to fairy tales, for example, are very basic and mostly unconscious. Many questions are existential, or diffuse, or else they consist precisely in the search for a name for something that is only halfway grasped. They may arise from personal circumstances sufficiently complex and private that they can't be communicated. They may be intuitive or abstract.

The problem is much harder for fiction than for nonfiction. But in each case, society does a poor job of matching people to books. Librarians, book store owners, critics, interview hosts, and others all play their parts, and technologies such as recommender systems (Resnick and Varian 1997) are part of the answer as well. Yet much more can be done to provide people's intellectual lives with the steady streams of individualized stimulus that they need. And so it is worth inquiring more deeply into the questions that people bring to reading. One approach locates questions in standpoints: the structural epistemic situations that the practical world creates for the people who are assigned to various positions within it. That approach is too narrow, but one aspect of it is more broadly valid: questions, like other aspects of self-understanding, are grounded in identity, that is, in the continuing narration of self that makes both the self and the world intelligible. The identity at stake can be conceptual, professional or political, or it can employ some other person as a hero or role model. Many authors and texts are meaningful in relation to national identities.

Just as identities are public phenomena, questions likewise tend to have a public character: even when they are unconscious, secret, or half-formed, they arise through a project of self-fashioning that engages with and draws upon the symbolic resources of a culture. Yet the questions can be hard to capture: most people will have no practice in the public performance of their questions, and will be unaccustomed to articulating them. The questions can best be found in established genres of public testimonial, such as testimonies of religious conversion, literary memoirs, political consciousness-raising stories, and the self-narratives of psychoanalysis and support groups. These stories will include much else besides the questions that brought a person to a text, or that took form in engagement with that text. But that is much of the point: questions arise in the fullness of life. To the extent that people can recognize themselves in the testimonies of others, perhaps we can understand how to recommend books.

It would also help to have tools for exploring the space of books much faster. One can often tell at a glance whether a book promises to be hopelessly dry, and it is easy to imagine trawling thousands of superficially relevant books each year looking for the few that hit home, provided that the trawling can be done in stray moments on the subway. The ultimate goal is to fuel intellectual life by creating a culture in which everyone has the ongoing expectation of easily being able to find just the book that speaks to their current question -- a hermeneutics not just of a single text but of intellectual history as a whole. This kind of semi-directive exploration is not just for professional scholars and the leisured rich. Made efficient with technical support, its practices can multiply to meet diverse needs.

6 Dynamics

Intellectual life is a process. It is not wholly goal-driven nor wholly methodic, yet it must be actively pursued if it is to keep moving. A theory of the intellectual life implies a theory of cognition -- a theory of the interaction between innate mental capacities, cultural forms of intellectual activity, and the practical and intellectual environment.

Intellectual life tends to unfold as a set of independent strands, each of which is liable to be called to mind by a text, a thought, or a life-situation that it happens to speak to. Intellectual life is thus, in the short term, inherently fragmentary. Fragments of thought emerge, and they are often lost unless they are captured in writing or shared in conversation. Notebooks and dictation machines are artefacts for capturing those fragments, and much better artefacts are easy to imagine [4]. The practice of capturing these fragments gives the fragments, over time, a discrete, packaged quality, yet practice and effort can be required to notice one's own fragmentary thoughts, as opposed to losing oneself in the object of the thoughts. The objects of thought can obviously be diverse, and yet any object, if engaged with in a sustained way, can serve as a sort of oracle, leading thought in directions that are just as telling about the thinker.

To be useful in the long run, thought must be externalized, as for example in a notebook or in letters. Externalizing an idea compels one to give it form and structure using language or diagrams or some other representational practice. Having been externalized, the thought now becomes available for inspection. In its new form, slightly defamiliarized, it will suggest further thoughts. Articulating a thought using the grammatical structures of language, for example, will cause it to be analyzed it into parts that can be varied separately, thus providing the basis for unanticipated connections. The very fact of externalizing a thought somehow clears it out of the mind -- if not from memory then at least from the fear of forgetting it -- and makes room for more. This kind of iterative externalizing of ideas is also central to design work (Schon 1983). The gathering of fragments in a permanent medium such as paper also makes it easier to notice patterns among them (Goody 1977).

Many new thoughts involve analogies between distant ideas, or else they apply an existing idea to an unexpected object. The mind will not spontaneously draw abstract structural analogies between ideas that are expressed in different terms, but it is extremely efficient at making connections between ideas that are expressed in similar or overlapping terms. "Transfer", to put the point in psychological language, will not automatically map complex formal structures to one another (Lave 1988), and so the production of new ideas depends heavily on the terms in which an individual expresses the old ideas. A simple conceptual framework can thus have immense heuristic value when it is used to analyze a variety of problems in different fields; even if the concepts themselves do not dictate any answers, they can mediate analogies that suggest answers by framing the issues in an unexpected light. This method is widely used in business, for example, whose concepts can often be expressed in simple two-by-two matrices.

The connections that emerge in intellectual work often draw one back to previous reading. A text read for one purpose, or even casually, often becomes significant through a new connection -- a new question that it can address. Read with a new question in mind, the text will offer up new answers. That is why it is said that an educated person lives with books, as well as simply owning them. Over time a personal library acquires its own structures and meanings, whether through highlighting or through the mental traces of the questions and answers that have threaded through it. But much of one's reading, for example a daily newspaper, does not become part of a personal library unless one has the foresight and discipline to copy or clip it. A digital personal library would be an important aid to intellectual life. This is different from Bush's (1945) original vision of the Memex, a personal device that stores all of the world's documents. The personal library, by contrast, contains only those documents that one has actually read, with perhaps an annex for those documents that one wishes to read. Intellectual life would be amplified if anyone could easily return to anything they have ever read, using whatever sketchy summary of it -- even a distorted memory of a single striking point -- happens to come back to mind. A personal citation file can help with this recall, but one cannot produce citations for every newspaper article. The space of personal reading will always be small enough that massive content-based indexing and loosely constrained search will be computationally feasible. Design of the necessary algorithms would be facilitated by empirical study of naturally occurring desires to recover an article (or passage in a longer text) that one has once read. These recollections of previous reading are often sketchy, and they are no doubt often transformed in memory in the ways described by Bartlett (1932). A search engine could obviously employ potentially false queries if it computes similarity measures, but perhaps it could also employ a model of memory.

7 Alignment

Like any part of life, an intellectual life requires effort. But it also has rewards. It brings a wider range of ideas to bear on practical questions, and it makes alternatives visible that may have lacked names before. It alleviates boredom; indeed, boredom may almost be defined as the lack of an intellectual life. Many people engage in activities that even they regard as worthless in an attempt to medicate their boredom, and it seems reasonable to hope that a developed intellectual life would lead to a better use of time.

I have described how intellectual life evolves through an interaction between a very personal process and regular inputs from intellectual history. But where does it evolve to? Given that it emerges in fragments and finds its own direction, one might imagine that an intellectual life becomes ever more fragmentary until it dissolves into white noise. And this might be a problem for people who suffer from schizophrenia. For most people, though, the fragments resolve into a picture. Intellectual life is a matter of discovery. It is a way of discovering what one finds interesting -- many people don't know -- and what one cares about. Something is there to be discovered simply because of the coherence of any person's own personality. It is an intellectual calling -- a research topic, a life purpose, a cultural project, an institutional role, a business to found -- the exact form of which will depend on the individual and the environment.

And as intellectual life leads to places outside the bounds of one's existing life, the time may come to get a new life. Some people are satisfied to have an intellectual hobby that provides a diversion from the other parts of life. But just as often, a fully pursued intellectual life leads to a new conception of oneself: the realization, for example, that one is actually a political activist, or a caregiver, or a religious convert. A fully pursued intellectual life may also require social support, such as a network of intellectual friends.

Little is understood about the life changes by which people bring their various "lives" (intellectual, social, professional) into alignment. The process can be intimidating and dispiriting, and it can be done in a way that hurts other people. But embedding in a new intellectual network is central. For intellectuals this reembedding is supported naturally by the institutions and rituals of research: one cites the relevant authors' work and then meets them at conferences. Intellectuals have powerful incentives to build networks, given the system of peer review, and they can draw on existing networks that have been rigorously reproduced for centuries.

Similar mechanisms ought to be available to anybody. Non-intellectuals may not have the same incentives to build intellectual networks, but they have incentives nonetheless. A network of like-minded individuals, knitted together by relations of mutual respect, is a source of intelligent conversation. In particular, it is a source of the most important kind of intellectual conversation, the talking-through of halfways-formed ideas. Just as ideas can develop by being iteratively externalized into a notebook or iteratively posed as questions to the existing literature, soliciting the responses of others is an efficient way to defamiliarize one's ideas and propel their development. Intellectuals have plane tickets and research libraries to use in searching for interlocutors, and Internet technologies now provide similar tools for everyone else. Although the cultural language of intellectual community among non-intellectuals is not yet well-developed, Internet discussion forums have obviously provided a generation of experiments in that direction. Ideally this should lead to a new kind of social mobility: the continual building and rebuilding of intellectual community that aligns with individuals' unfolding intellectual lives.

These generalized intellectual institutions will obviously require some new cultural beliefs. The necessary beliefs are part and parcel of the existential situation that generations of democratic organizers have called empowerment. They start with the belief that one can have a whole life, including a developed intellectual calling and an intellectual network to support it. They require individuals to find their own thoughts valuable -- indeed to know what their thoughts even are -- and to trust that their thoughts will lead somewhere. They require developing and trusting a gut sense of what one finds important.

8 The embedded public sphere

The analysis of individuals' intellectual lives, then, leads to collective phenomena. What is the intellectual life of a society? It is not a "group mind". That kind of metaphor begs many questions and makes social phenomena sound more coherent and harmonious than they are. Rather than rely on such loose talk, one must analyze the array of institutions through which collective cognition is organized, including the conditions of access to those institutions.

The modern history of ideas about the intellectual life of a society begins with Vico and Herder, who originated the romantic idea of discrete and organic civilizations, each with its own immanent phases of intellectual development (Berlin 1976). This sort of theory made sense in the context of political unification projects in Italy and Germany, and in this tradition there arose a sophisticated vocabulary for talking about a society's collective intellectual legacy, the unconscious contents of its culture, the state of its language as expressed in works of literature, and so on. In such a context, a digital library could be understood as a representation of a collective inheritance.

But geographic mobility and cultural diversity challenge the picture of discrete civilizations, and the emergence of a global movement for human rights based on liberal premises challenges the radical communitarianism of the romantic theory. Real commonalities do knit modern societies -- mass media, political events, economic conditions, a shared legal system, ecological problems, market-driven dealings across community lines, and so on. But these produce overlaps and interactions among subdivisions, not an organic whole. The romantic theory of a society's intellectual life was powerful but misleading.

Every society has many intellectual subtraditions, both among intellectuals and among other sectors, and many intellectual social histories have yet to be written [5]. But intellectual life is always embedded in an institutional order, and in a democratic society it would seem particularly important to investigate the intellectual workings of the sphere of public debate. There is much to investigate. Despite simple views of the public sphere as a floor that any individual citizen might take, in fact the opinion columns of newspapers are dominated by accredited producers of opinion in universities, government, industry, and think tanks. Ordinary citizens are nearly invisible, except as props, in letters to the editor, and in sound bites chosen by journalists, in most of the institutions of public debate. This division of labor makes some sense. Because individual human beings are inherently limited in their cognitive capacities, political movements must distribute arguments to their followers. Otherwise no individual, full-time intellectual or not, would be able to formulate winning arguments on a full range of complex modern issues.

It is not a scandal, then, that the average citizen is primarily a consumer choosing among arguments on offer; political cognition is a collective phenomenon. Of more concern is the institutional order by which arguments are produced. In the world of professional issue advocacy, issues are identified with individuals and groups. Careers are made by pioneering an issue, building a network of other professionals whose own issues abut it in some way, developing a base of financial support, and cultivating the media. Conference organizers and journalists will accordingly develop a mental look-up table that associates every issue with the advocates who have identified themselves with it. These professional networks are knitted tightly enough to frustrate access to the media and other necessary gatekeepers for any ordinary citizen who is not part of the system. The Internet can help to circumvent the system to a degree, but even the largest Internet audiences do not approach the scale of the mass media. Once an advocate becomes associated with an issue, therefore, that position is self-reinforcing. Publicity makes that advocate the natural choice for further publicity, so long as the issue remains live.

More subtly, the constant flow of demands to argue a position provides the professional advocate with an encyclopedia of rebuttals. Neither intelligence nor will-power can substitute for these opportunities to rehearse a progressively more bullet-proof repertoire of arguments [6]. The advocate has an intellectual life, of course, and the day's news-events provide points of departure -- "hooks" in news jargon -- to publicize one or another of the strands of thought that constitute the advocate's evolving position. Ordinary citizens often feel fear at the prospect of exercising a public voice (Mansbridge 1980, Schudson 1997: 301-302), and justifiably so, given their lack of access to the professional's opportunities to refine their arguments. No matter how clear their thinking might be, ordinary citizens under the present system cannot be confident that their arguments will hold up in the public arena.

Full democracy therefore requires institutions by which ordinary citizens, as an extension of their intellectual lives, can rehearse and refine arguments about the matters that concern them. A voice that has internalized potential replies is more rational, other things being equal, and it is more effective. Independent scholarship and political analysis is often brittle for lack of this kind of testing, and new intellectual institutions can hope to change this.

9 New models

How, then, can a new generation of digital library technologies support the intellectual life of a democratic society? Any answer will depend on the institutions in which intellectual life is embedded. The technology and the institutions will evolve together. Both of them will, in turn, require new cultural forms and practices. To see the connection, imagine a hypothetical system for matching individuals with potential intellectual friends. If everyone maintains a digital notebook and other electronic aids to intellectual life, then advanced content-based comparison mechanisms should be able to match individuals who are thinking along similar lines. Introductions might be made automatically, leaving the individuals to take it from there. Such schemes have been used for many years, in fact, within some highly regimented environments such as the French electric utility [7]. They are not completely implausible. The question is whether the individuals follow up. This will only happen on a large scale if following up has become a culturally accepted commonplace. Otherwise the prospect of conversing with an utter stranger will be too abstract and unfamiliar. Lacking conventional rituals it will require trial and error. And the participants will have little sense of the probability that the match will succeed.

What is required, therefore, is an institutional and cultural framework to provide the necessary sense of adhesion. This framework need not be complex, and the culture of self-published 'zines (Duncombe 1997) may provide a model of the kind of lightweight institution that is required. Along with new technology, then, we need new cultural forms. The two are indissociable. New lightweight publishing models could make intellectual communities easier to build and sustain. Open Internet forums might provide a bad model because they cannot guarantee any level of discourse. The necessary cultural form may be more like a club. Technologies and institutions are also required to help authors, musicians, and others to build audiences. The existing functionality of publishers may be unbundled, with distribution occurring electronically and publicity services purchased as needed. Ubiquitous digital library services should make it easier to organize reading groups around a single text, as a million people can gain access to the same text with almost no overhead. Some communities are organized around paraliteratures, such as fan publications. Improved self-publishing tools will make such communities easier to organize.

Schools and universities can provide distributed frameworks, both technological and institutional, for the ongoing intellectual lives of their alumni -- a permanent seminar. Schools can also facilitate the most basic cultural change that a democratic intellectual life will require. Education is often rightly concerned with the content of various subject matters, but students should also learn process skills. "Learning how to learn" includes study skills, of course, but it also includes the broader set of skills for building an intellectual life. This includes the skills of building an intellectual community for oneself. Those who are unacquainted with these networks of intellectual relationships may find them constraining. With personal experience of a democratic intellectual culture, however, it will become clear that they are actually a means to freedom -- the freedom of a way of life that is aligned with one's own intellectual calling.

10 The professionalization of everything

Those who labor under the traditional stereotypes about intellectual life will find these scenarios implausible. Yet society is clearly moving in the direction that I described at the outset: the spread of formerly elite intellectual institutional forms to broader populations. In the area of work and occupations, this trend might be called the professionalization of everything, and it is a major potential area for digital library work. A dynamic and knowledge-intensive economy obviously requires workers to keep their skills up to date, and that is a significant role for digital libraries all by itself. But professionalization is much deeper.

Workers who expect to change jobs several times in a career must maintain professional networks, starting for example with former coworkers. As work itself becomes more knowledge-intensive, and especially as all jobs become learning jobs that require the production of new knowledge, every occupation becomes professionalized to some degree. Professions are not simply monopolies on knowledge but institutions for recognizing and transferring innovations. Organizations are increasingly formalizing similar institutional forms within themselves, such as the consulting firms that collect digital reports on each client project, or the World Bank initiative to reconstitute itself as a global technology-enabled knowledge bank in the area of economic development (Wenger and Snyder 2000).

Ubiquitous digital library services can provide the technical substrate to generalize these institutional forms more widely. There is no reason, for example, why school children cannot participate in global communities of peer-reviewed publication. At the high school and college level, an adapted online scholarly journal model should certainly replace the dysfunctional institution of the term paper that only the teacher will ever read (Downing and Brown 1997). Peer review requires effort from one's peers, of course, but the current model places impossible burdens for evaluation and feedback on teachers -- burdens that teachers routinely drop. Putting such models into practice in the early years of school could have an immediate and tremendous impact on culture. Citizens would grow up accustomed to having a public voice, to receiving intellectual responses from others, and to participating in a global intellectual culture. The cultural conditions of democratic intellectual life will have been achieved.


[1] On the role of intellectuals in society see Barber (1998); Barzun (1959); Bauman (1987); Bender (1993); Bozoki (1998); Eyerman (1994); Eyerman, Svensson, and Soderqvist (1987); Fink, Leonard, and Reid (1996); Goldfarb (1998); Gouldner (1979); Gramsci (1992); Lears (1993); Le Goff (1993); Michael (2000); Morison (1956); Perry (1984); Rabinbach (1997); Sadri (1992); Shils (1972); Staloff (1998); and Watts (1994).

[2] See, for example, Liebes and Katz (1990, especially Chapter 8), Lindlof (1987), Walkerdine (1990), Willis (1990).

[3] I allude here to Vygotsky's (1978 [1934]) idea that cognitive processes arise through the internalization of organized processes of social interaction. See also Wertsch (1985).

[4] Journalists refer to the practice of capturing fragments of thought relevant to a prospective article as "gathering string".

[5] Those that have been written include Feierman (1990), Ginzburg (1980), Munck (2000), Steele (1997), and Vandergrift (1996).

[6] Collins (1998) makes a similiar point about the history of philosophy.

[7] Saadi Lahlou, Electricite de France (EDF), personal communication, November 1995.

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