Excerpt from a debate on our p2p-research list, about the future of universities in a p2p world.
In this excerpt, Ryan Lanham responded to Nottingham Trent University network theory sociologist Andreas Wittel.
“I think your answer was right on the money with regard to what I was getting at…universities are unlikely to succeed by being more “business-like” because that is not their mission.
Efficiency is a reasonable objective, but is it achieved by being more business-like? I doubt it…unless your mission is to do the things businesses do–make profits, take market share, satisfy “customers.” A student isn’t a customer–just ask any teacher, and if education is a product, so then is a degree. Things earned are not sold to the earner. This is far more than a game of semantics; it speaks to organizational aptness for a given mission.
Universities drive themselves to extinction by becoming businesses. They are increasingly irrelevant that way with products and strategies that corrode and disintegrate. By being more p2p, they could slip away from institutional rot, and become far more conceptual…and more powerful.
I do disagree whether p2p is going to wither away capitalism; I think it might. Here’s why. Capitalism requires a debt-based economy–that was Keynes’ insight really–the difference between how he saw the creation of money versus the classical economists. To achieve a debt economy, you need investments in capital that can support future cash flows. Now in the case of p2p, I think such investments are far fewer and declining. It is fairly easy to fragment industrial production into the world Kevin describes in some of his writings…
Most p2p firms–an intermediate animal in my view–exist by leveraging investment in knowledge creation–what you say is a plausible mission of universities. Google, for instance, or Craig’s List or Ebay…all p2p to one extent or another. Facilitating p2p is not a likely long-term facility for garnering cash flows because efficiencies of knowledge arise. That is why Microsoft is starting to die…they didn’t anticipate cloud computing and more p2p models like the evolution of Linux.
Institutions were efficient by enabling norms (like how to write a dissertation) or by exercising bureaucracies. Neither of those is very efficient in a p2p world. So the same sort of institutional melt so many of us (Michel and Kevin notably, but also panarchists, knowledge management gurus and e-learning folks who dominate the blogosphere of knowledge work)
Universities have a choice. They can become more p2p–and some are–or they can die like the institutional dinosaurs they have become.
What would a p2p university look like? It would have open degree validation (like Wales) or some of the Open/Free Universities, it would implement peer-reviewed degrees for research, it would commit to use and produce open ideas that are not bound in paid journals or behind high-tuition walls. It would dissolve its barriers to entry and to scholarship–working instead to facilitate fellows and associates more than tenured faculty. It would cast a cold eye on formalism in scholarship in general, and in identity-building scholarship in particular. Public access, service learning, learner-centered models and use of social media would far outstrip classrooms, halls, buildings and walls–both physical and mental. It would have research in distant lands and partnerships with facilities around the world interlinked by electronic nets. It would grant status and prestige to a Clay Shirky, Harold Jarche or many similar net-based scholars as quickly as it would to a nose-to-the-grindstone assistant professor who publishes some trash in the Journal of Mumble Mumble and gets an editorship on the equally esoteric (and closed) Journal of TweedleDee. Harsh, but the reality is, most of us have stopped listening…and being heard is the p2p currency…as it is the currency of all thinking.
I believe even in science the tinkerers and DiY guys are coming on strong–in bioinformatics, genetics, robotics, transhumanism. Soon perhaps they will be there in medicine and physics. Long ago the best social science moved out of the academy.”