Knowledge Scrublands

A little over two thousand years ago an event occurred that precipitated the marking of time in a uniform manner over much of the planet. This synchronization, which occurred in hindsight some 525 years after the event, was not widely adopted until the end of the ninth century when it received the imprimatur of the Venerable Bede. For more than a thousand years thenceforth, years were dated in the form of Anno Domini (the year of our Lord) or simply A.D.. Years prior to His birth were designated as Before Christ or B.C.. In our politically correct era this has been amended to Common Era and Before Common Era, and since this dating system is virtually universal it can be said that humanity exists, temporally, in a Time Commons. We all share in this fundamental database which clicks over, to much celebration, at each completion of the earth's orbit around the sun.

'The Time' is not proprietary knowledge. It is freely available and awareness of it does not confer special privileges. Neither is there a societal requirement to credit the source of this calendric information. This is the nature of commons. It was not always so. In primitive cultures awareness of the astronomical time was a source of power. The 'Antap, the intellectual elite who presided over the fragmented tribelets between Malibu and Paso Robles, controlled these wilfully independent peoples by virtue of accessing astronomical information and mandating the ritual calendar by which the awesome powers of the cosmos might be propitiated (Real Suspense).

Today, our sources of knowledge, once carefully guarded by both intellectual elites and those with a more demotic understanding of natural magic, are being democratized on the internet. We are moving towards a Knowledge Commons. Google tried to digitize all the books in the world, but were defeated by copyright laws and lawsuits. Nevertheless, the shell of the Google attempt remains as a ghost ship sailing the world wide web. I have often jumped aboard these creaking hulks, shot through with lacunae, and ransacked them for plunder in patching together my tattered blog pieces.

Now comes the Digital Public Library of America which promises to aggregate digital collections from public and private libraries across the land. One of its founders, Robert Darnton writes in the New York Review of Books, "the DPLA harkens back to the eighteenth century - what could be more utopian than a project to make the cultural heritage of humanity available to all humans?" All humans, that is, with a working command of English and access to the Web. Meanwhile, Europeana coordinates and links collections in twenty seven European countries to which DPLA will, in turn, link. Within a decade, perhaps, there will be web access to most of the world's storehouses of knowledge from a single portal - a digital Alexandria.

Already the ease of access to information on the web has created an explosion of fact based writing on and off-line. Creative non-fiction is arguably the fastest growing literary genre in America and is enabled, to a great extent, by the ease of access to facts on-line. Facticicity has become the glue of much writing (not least here) where arcane information gleaned from the web can laminate elaborate musings that would otherwise congeal into a puddle of solipsism.

Whilst your Urban Wildland scribe endeavors to give credit where credit's due and affects a veneer of academic rectitude, others are less punctilious. Jane Goodall has recently been exposed as a common-place plagiarist: her new book relies on un-credited gleanings from such prosaic sources as Wikipedia and the website of Choice Organic Teas. She quotes interviews with scientists with whom she has never met. The book, Seeds of Hope: Wisdom and Wonder from the World of Plants, 2013, has been pulled from the shelves and will be replaced with a revised second printing.

Somewhere along the line, this erstwhile primatologist became a brand. Now her name on a book guarantees hard-cover sales in the mid seven figures. In this she resembles Jared Diamond, who has parlayed an academic career studying birds in Papua New Guinea into a series of popular cross-disciplinary books that have a devoted middle-brow following (WEIRD). Now, it is my dearest wish to become a brand, either in my own name or that of my blog, but as Jane's recent fall from grace illustrates, there are dangers.

Seeds of Hope credits a co-author - Gail Hudson - and it is reasonable to assume that it was she who was largely responsible for both the plagiarized and un-plagiarized portions of the text. Jane has relied upon Gail for her previous two books and, as a brand, the sometime primatologist has less and less time for writing: Brand's outline - they ensure conformity to the brand - but write? hell no! Be assured, at this prepupal stage in the development my brand identity, every stolen word, lifted passage and un-credited apercu on this blog is uniquely the work of yours truly.

I first became conscious of the word common as a descriptor of those open lands that were neither populated nor farmed in the parts of 'Darkest Surrey' where I grew up. Our local common was called Heaven's Gate - named perhaps, for its elevational prominence, for it rose slightly above the riverine flatlands that bordered the River Wey, a southern tributary of the Thames, that shaped the string of villages and towns that were studded between these empty, vaguely louche lands that we called commons. Here were smoked our first cigarettes, and if sufficiently precocious, undertook our first romantic trysts.

I now realize that the Common's characteristic scrubland vegetation of bracken, gorse and heather indicated their unsuitability for agriculture. These sandy wastelands were spared from the grasping local gentry who would otherwise have acquired them, had they been worth fencing, through the Enclosure Acts of the early nineteenth century. Happily these lands remained wild and free through the year's of my 'growing-up'; today, Heaven's Gate is riven by the A-3, a major vehicular artery between London and Portsmouth.

In her first book about the vegetal, as opposed to the animal world, Jane Goodall relies on the words of un-credited experts, largely culled from the web by her indefatigable Gail-Friday; but a simple walk through the wilds (or commons) can establish connections with Nature's freely accessible data bases. Sentient beings, as the Transcendentalists understood, can acquire truths in tramping the land that require no crediting - but demand a very un-academic willingness to embrace the non-empirical, to open oneself to the swirling power of the etheric landscape. This should be common knowledge.

Meanwhile, we await the arrival of the DPLA, an unfenced knowledge commons which promises to nourish us toilers in the vineyard of creative non-fiction. However, we should all be mighty afeared of the Gentry - the media barons and their political lackeys in Washington - who, if they see value in these digital collections will endeavor to pay-wall them in (as is currently the case with many academic papers). Perhaps, like gypsies tramps and thieves, we can then retreat to obscure corners of the web where will survive pockets of freely available arcana in the virtual knowledge-scrublands. Or, take a walk in the real woods. Here in the urban wildland I plan to continue doing both.