With the last days of summer upon us, I am packing up the sunscreen and the dog for our annual family vacation at the beach. Traveling with us, of course, will be my familiar companions, the many public intellectuals who have, presumably as a matter of civic duty, graced us with their presence in the form of books. For members of SSP, whose activity is centered on scholarship written for scholars, the public intellectual may appear to be something of an interloper. Why these popular books? What would possess a scholar to want to put a book on the New York Times bestseller list?
This year’s entourage is as rich as ever, richer perhaps, as we live in a platinum age for the intellectually curious. I am well into Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August, wondering how it is that I never read this before. Loaded on my Kindle and ready to fire is Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, one of several books about the mind that have caught my attention. I just completed the mind-blowing The Future of the Mind by Dr. Michio Kaku, which lives on the border of science fiction, but which nonetheless has colored my experience for the last two months. Next up: Fredrik Logevall’s Embers of War, which won the Pulitzer Prize. Logevall is a professor of history at Cornell, but his students are everywhere. While walking the dog I will be listening to the audio version of Brian Greene’s The Hidden Reality. Green teaches physics and mathematics at Columbia.
What’s curious about these books and the tiny subgenre they belong to (nonfiction books written by people who actually know something) is that they lie outside the reputation and career structure of the modern academic. No one gets promoted for publishing a book with HarperCollins or Penguin Random House. (A moment of silence, please, to contemplate how wonderful quality trade publishing is.) Lisa Randall took time off from her work at Harvard to write Knocking on Heaven’s Door–to my benefit–and Eric Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, both professors at MIT reshaped my thinking about the economy and social policy with their urgent The Second Machine Age. I imagine that their colleagues rib them about this. Why are you wasting your time? Does your ego require you to beg for the praise of idiots?
Speaking for the idiots, it seems to me that the public intellectual has something in common with the altmetrics movement in that both are democratizing forces. But there the similarity ends. Here is a comment by Euan Adie on Reddit, a service for the Internet’s unwashed. Yes, scholarly communications has influence beyond the narrow world of citations and impact factor, but Adie is still talking about the same publications; the difference is in how you assess the value of that content. The public intellectual has a more radical ambition, not only to seek influence beyond the walls of the academy but to create material specifically for that other world. Here is an old-fashioned SAT analogy: altmetrics is to scholarly communications what the PDF is to digital publishing. It’s a half-way house, a compromise. To work with all the affordances of digital publishing means to walk away from the PDF; to reach a wider audience requires more than measuring different things; it requires making different things.
It is my view that the law of unintended consequences, which really deserves a place among Moses’s big ten, has insinuated itself among all those who hold “popularizers” in contempt. In a conversation with a distinguished scientist not long ago, I learned of his despair about the public’s knowledge of climate science and the nature of GMO foods. But he also went on to talk about his professional society’s journal and the important business of publishing research for other scientists. I asked him about having his society begin to publish for the general public. He said, “It won’t get you tenure.”
He’s right, and it’s a shame. There are audiences beyond one’s fellow researchers and the lucky undergraduates who sit in their classrooms. The open access movement understands this, though it is handicapped by the built-in limitations of the very content it wants to share. A worthwhile ambition would be to bring the university into the world of public discourse, but to do that the incentives of the researchers themselves must be realigned.
And when that happens you will be able to enjoy a slice of GMO toast without being told that you are perverting the essential spirit of Gaia.