Knowledge Unbound

by on Oct.25, 2012, under general

What is a textbook? Where does it come from? How does it work?

For a long time these questions would have been easy to answer. A textbook contains information about an academic subject, such as “An Introduction to Economics.” Textbooks are written by professors at the behest of companies which then sell them at usuriously high rates to all students being introduced to economics that semester. Professors assign, and students buy, textbooks in the hope that by progressing through them the student will learn the material.

The online education startup Boundless intends to disrupt this dynamic. The founders of Boundless realized that many introductory textbooks share the same core concepts, and much of the substance of that information – like equations or elements – lies in the public domain. While textbook manufacturers incurred significant overhead by producing and distributing heavy paper books, Boundless could simply make much the same content available through the web at markedly lower marginal costs, undercut the manufacturers, and educate the world.

But what should go in these digital volumes? Boundless decided to mimic the structure and topics of common textbooks. If most versions of “Introduction to Economics” opened with a discussion and explanation of GDP, then Boundless would too, with the same (public domain) equations wrapped within slightly different explanations. It would thus offer students equivalent versions of their expensive textbooks for free.

A group of textbook companies sued Boundless. Their complaint, filed in the Southern District of New York, alleged that Boundless impermissibly copied “the distinctive selection, arrangement, and presentation of Plaintiffs’ textbooks.” “The choices made by Plaintiffs and their authors,” they argued, “are by no means basic, mechanical, routine, obvious, standard, or necessary for textbooks on those subjects…[but are] expression[s] of their unique and highest pedagogical aspirations.”

The ink on the complaint was barely dry before Boundless pivoted its business model in response. Rather than produce equivalent versions of popular textbooks, Boundless announced it would make available “all knowledge” on a particular subject for students to access as needed. Instead of building a digital textbook which students could read on a screen, Boundless would build a digital pool of information into which students could dip as and where they needed, sidestepping entirely the claim of copyrighted editorial activity.

Boundless’ aim to make available “all knowledge” on a particular subject is obviously nonsense, but it is nonsense for interesting reasons. Investigating why and how it is nonsense reveals the role that the properties of media play in the production of knowledge.

Boundless’ mission to make “all knowledge” available compels us to immediately ask: what is “all knowledge” of economics? Where does it live? And how do we know when we’ve gotten it bound up and bottled?

But these questions, important as they are, are not the first questions we would have asked of a company which aimed to make “all knowledge” available in a physical textbook. Instead, we would have asked: How many volumes? Where will you get all of the paper? Where will the books be stored? And how will people get through them?”

The material characteristics of books – above all the marginal cost of additional pages – concealed somewhat the politics of knowledge production, or at least displaced them to a concern of the second order. No one would ask why a textbook manufacturer didn’t include everything about economics in a single volume (or, by extension, what “everything about economics” even meant) because a volume which contained it would be useless for anything besides a very large doorstop.

To be sure, different editors offer different definitions of what constitute the core concepts within textbooks. After all, if there were no competition about what constitutes “Econ 101” the textbook companies couldn’t sell competing versions. But the outer reaches of a field remain, by material necessity, largely unexamined and unexplored. If a textbook is materially constrained to 300 pages there may be bitter battles over pages 298-302. “Page” 768, though, will be utterly irrelevant since it will never be printed, and so its possible contents remain uncontested.

A textbook, viewed in this light, is not a product as much as an an fossil: sediment deposited at the bottom of a river of editorial judgments, which eventually takes its form apart from that which formed it. But Boundless has no page limits: Boundless could, from a technological perspective, be knowledge in motion, knowledge in process, knowledge unbound by the constraints of books. It is only after we have cleared these technological hurdles that we become lost in the fuzzy, shifting spaces created by questioning where and when knowledge ends.

These questions are unsettling and unanswerable, not only for the engineers at Boundless, but for the textbook manufacturers, who attempt to substantiate the value of their editors’ contributions by appealing to the authority of institutional affiliation. It is for this reason that, whether or not they succeed as a business model, we owe Boundless an intellectual and epistemic debt. By forcing us to imagine academic information floating free of material limitation, they have revealed just how confused, contradictory, and contingent the production and organization of information and education really is.

This entry adapts an essay for FAS 297 at Harvard and originally posted on the blog of the Center for Civic Media.

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