Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Repairing Intellectual Infrastructure

By Gary Berg-Cross
Jogging around my neighborhood a few weeks ago I saw some colorful drawings marking up the road. There were deep blue marking over water lines and chartreuse for waste. There were red lines and white along with 3 digit numbers followed by a letter. On ragged asphalt road edges there were Z-like marks. Some road sides had yellow circles and circles on top of inverted half figure 5s, along with what looked like the # 28 squeezed together into an alien symbol. All glyphs of modern road repair I assumed understood by the road “literature” as infrastructure work proceeds. Although we face economic challenges it’s good to see some balanced progress after a decade neglecting our nation's roads and linking bridges. It helps us get where we need to go,
It got me thinking about the implied technical expertise that went into developing those signs so road repair crews know pretty much what energies to devote to what parts of the repair. It’s modern expertise in action operating within a system. One part of the system is the engineers who know how to deal with physical and observable problems, in this case damaged infrastructure. They can see how old patches failed and where erosion is working. This technical knowledge is connected to professional skills aimed at overcoming visible problems. Such expert knowledge and skill is amassed over time and it can be reliably applied with predictable results so that our physical infrastructure is systematically managed.
Part of making this system effective is feedback to identify problems. For example residents can see when potholes develop and can get the word out. There are now web sites to allow people to post such things. And, of course, there an empirical science to routinely keep track of a repair schedule. It’s a bit like a lawn mowing schedule, you know when it should be done. If it rains the model says to advances the schedule. If past work has been poorly done that can be identified and corrected. Going along with this is a large part of society is involved and over time has become educated enough to know the difference between a good effort and a bad one. Taken as a whole the system works so we know we need to do something to repair physical infrastructure. We may not have the resources to do all that we observe or need, but we routinely get on with some of it and have an idea of the deficit we face.
The thought occurs to me that we live in a time when our intellectual infrastructure is in disrepair and getting worse. This is less physical decay than a deficit of intellectual and educational resources which is part of an infrastructure system. Infrastructure is to structure like Metaphysics is to Physics. It is the environment in which tangible things happen. An intellectual environment might be organizational like a University, but it can also be social concepts such as are often discussed on this blog. They are infrastructures that enable, but it can seem like the intangibles and abstractions of metaphysics. This is doubly the case when the infrastructure we are talking about is about intellectual structures such as were advanced by the Enlightenment or as part of the Democratic experiment. We have real expertise in these areas, but now we seem to lack the intellectual infrastructure to apply our skills.
I worry that we may not be as aware of it or wise and expert at repairing the damage to our intellectual infrastructure. It’s a problem discussed in a new book Knowledge and Its Enemies: Towards a New Case for Higher Learning by Peter Quiddington. The book is focused on University education but discusses the broader topic of how abstract ideas shape (and interact with) our social-material world and how liberal education rather than narrow training is vital to society. It’s about attitudes towards knowledge and learning, some of the traditions at the core of an intellectual society. The title captures some of that call to action of Karl Popper's earlier Open Society and its Enemies.

Open values and knowledge are very much an “infrastructure” type of view. We live in a very technical age which relies on complex models more abstract than road engineering. For example we need real expertise to understand complex things like evolution, genetics and climate change. But like roads Science, scientists and their expertise require an infrastructure such as Science education to master the complexities involved. Moreover, Science exists in a social system of values, which include the recognition and access to resources. Evolutionary research, climate change and genetics are example of areas that can generate vital knowledge needed to advance and preserve society. But in each case there have been objections to parts of their Science project. For over sixty years, US courts have struggled with the classroom conflict between science and religion. This struggle has one side for which the ultimate origins of humankind are known and have been such with scientific certainty for a long time. In that view the road to an answer needs no repair. The question is not one of evidence but of faith. Against those who believe in faith are those who seek to engineer an answer to the question with scientific fact based on verifiable experiment organized around testable theories. As a result of this conflict of views evolutionary theory, which should be front and center in high school Biology, has been kicked around and is in educational disrepair. It’s just part of the larger crumbling intellectual infrastructure we need now to advance the public good in a civil society.
Unfortunately I see few intellectual road crews society has agreed to mark up the ground for prompt infrastructure repair. It’s a debate that I hope we can conclude soon and get on with the work. There is real expertise out there to do the job.

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