Authorship and Authority

The DSSF program uses many readings to generate discussion. My first year participating in this program, we were given exactly one physical book to consult- Digital_Humanities. For this week’s posts, the fellows were asked to consider the third chapter and respond to a question raised by the authors. One that particularly interested me asked, “What happens when anyone can speak and publish? What happens when knowledge credentialing is no longer controlled solely by institutions of higher learning?”

The book points out great examples of knowledge that were produced online despite not being associated with an institution, with Wikipedia being the prime example. Wikipedia is free and open, it is a collaboration of minds across the world. And it is incredibly accessible. If I need to remember something I learned in middle school, it is easier to do a quick search for the relevant Wikipedia page than to comb through my copious notes I saved from those days. Despite its collaborative and informative model, I was taught to never trust Wikipedia as a source. While it is fallible, that is no reason to disregard all that it has to offer. It can always be improved. One of the workshops last year had the fellows create Wikipedia accounts and edit pages they were knowledgeable about. I chose to expand and add sources to the Gettysburg College page, and it has been improved further in the year since. Wikipedia may not be controlled by a vetted institution, but it does have a community working to make it better.

The openness of Digital Humanities can be worrying to some. Association with institutions and the traditional paths of publications are trusted sources. But the decentralization of knowledge creation does not mean that there is no  accountability. Communities exist to check the knowledge that is created, and they are not too different from the traditional ones. A point brought up that I had not truly considered before writing this response was that “the notion of the university as an ivory tower no longer makes sense, if it ever did.” institutions of higher learning have always been communities of people. Knowledge credentialing now has larger communities of viewpoints and expertise to draw from.

All that I just stated is a best case scenario. Humans are, after all, fallible. The knowledge we put forth into the world may be flawed or outright incorrect. This has serious implications when knowledge can so quickly be shared. False information is made true in a sense when enough people believe it. The social aspect of this change is what interests me most and seems most relevant in our media landscape. As the book points out, social media and the communities it creates can be used to bring people together, educate audiences, and even start revolutions. Increased avenues of authorship have increased the authority of those who use them. These platforms can be used to create scholarship, and are not just for social interaction. Documentary series exist on YouTube, and Twitter is full of communities of scholars who interact with the public.

There is a danger that people lacking authority will gain authorship. These platforms make this easier to achieve, and has implications beyond the academic. Responsibility must be taken to hold people accountable. The communities surrounding institutions of learning took on this role in the past. Now, the wider communities must take this responsibility and think critically about the information being put out into the world. When anyone can publish and speak, anyone can contribute critiques or edits.

One Reply to “Authorship and Authority”

  1. You can’t control who publishes, especially when publishing is made so easy anymore. It used to be that publication was an act of privilege and power – you had access to literacy, to printing presses. Now the responsibility lies in the hands of readers and teachers – to teach critical thinking, to address authority. There are fewer knowledge gatekeepers than before – which is a good thing – but that requires constant vigilance from the rest of us.

    Thanks for your thoughts!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *