Next to my bed is a permanent yet dynamic pile of ‘content’ – books, magazines, etc – an iPad too sometimes, my phone a stretch across to the dressing table. I seem to have a pathological dislike for empty surfaces. Why leave them empty when you could have stuff to hand?
I’ll normally have something to write with to. My preference varies a little. Sometimes its a Moleskine (or cheap imitation). At the moment I seem to have settled on a reporter’s notepad. Spiral-bound. Something about the uncertainty and unsettled nature of the lockdown makes it seem fitting to use a reporters’s notepad. Not so much that I am reporting on events, but rather than it seems less permanent than a leather-bound journal.
One of the things I have been scribbling about, just an assortment of jumbled thoughts, is that very idea of ‘content’. Call it information, knowledge or entertainment. We all consume content to varying degrees. Many pay for access to it. We buy it in print or pay to get behind a paywall. Others are happy with access to the plethora of free content out there, available in ever-increasing amounts and with ever-increasing ease thanks to technology.
Today of course, media institutions find themselves in a scramble to reassess their value chain. Where does their income come from? Where can they extract value from? How are they justifying that value? In the fascinating world of intellectual property, we are given yet more examples of value creators and value extractors.
For me having content, just possessing it, even if I don’t have enough time to read and digest it, is a comfort, even if irrational. During the current lockdown, one of the many pleasures I have found is the increased time I have to read, to digest and to think. The educator in me likens this to how we conceptualise the purpose of education or more specifically the purpose of a curriculum: it is about the journey you are taken on. A journey from point A, before you read the content, and point B after you have read. That of course takes us to the purpose of content – to influence, to change people in some way.
Content is made to influence, to educate, to entertain. The media, after all, exists to influence and shape society. In a technological age where anybody can produce and distribute knowledge, this democratisation is a huge positive, but should stir some thoughts of caution. The media, the institutions who commission, edit, publish and distribute content, who act as gatekeepers, also offer a brand which might (or might not) be trusted.
Events like the Hay Festival, or TED Talks, SXSW or ResearchEd conferences in education are ‘content hubs’. They offer a way of sharing content; an opportunity for people seeking to influence. People of course also want to act content providers (hat tip to Stewart Lee and his wonderful book title) for the kudos and, in some cases, the income this brings. In some cases, content is produced for the benefit of the producer rather than necessarily that of the audience. There is nothing wrong with that. The pleasure of writing, making or creating is real regardless of an audience.
Content can also of course be seen as intellectual history. Thinking of libraries and archives, especially national such institutions. They are not just guardians but gatekeepers of that intellectual history. They grapple with questions of what to keep and based on what system of valuation. The content they maintain offers a snapshot, not just on what has been thought and said, but the social structures which fostered and permitted that intellectual activity. It also offers insight into the values and structures which determined what was worth keeping and what wasn’t.
For some reason, over the years, one of my many fascinations has also been the losses to our intellectual history. The British burning of the Library of Congress and the subsequent fire in the 1850s when much of the replenished library was also lost. The burning of the Library of Alexandria. Also the routine dynastic sackings of knowledge littered throughout history. China has a wonderful history of building encyclopaedia. Yet with almost every power shift came the destruction of those repositories of knowledge. An acknowledgement that, as with all forms of text, those repositories reflected the views and values of the previous regime but also yet another reminder that knowledge is powerful and power over knowledge has always been important.
I have sometimes pondered when was it theoretically possible for somebody to have read all the books available (in their language at least)? The possession of broad knowledge and the existence of polymaths has shifted with changes to our society and economy.
Economic changes, in particular the principle of the division of labour, have contributed to a shift from generalists to specialists. While generalists still of course exist (and according to some are often very successful), specialism is an idea which has pervaded all aspects of society, not least our education system. Despite recent suggestions that the British and American publics have had enough of experts, we still socially (and economically) value expertise to some extent.
So where are generalists left? One of my lockdown contributions has been hosting regular ‘non-pub quizzes’ via Zoom (do get in touch if you’re interested). The humble act of quizzing may be one of the last bastions of the generalist, in Britain at least where our love of trivia is something of an outlier.
Knowledge, or content, changes people though. Even if by the simple act of helping them answer a question in my virtual pub quiz. Knowledge takes people on the journey from A to B, before encountering the knowledge to after. While I’m not physically in school, one of the things I’m still reading, thinking and enthusing about is the return of knowledge and curriculum thinking to the foreground of educational debates. By giving young people knowledge we take them on a journey. What power. What a responsibility. No wonder the great Ted Wragg said there was no higher calling.
That’s enough of my lockdown ramblings for now. These started as (very) rough notes. I’ve tried to format into some kind of coherence, but not tried too hard. I hope you have enjoyed reading this ‘content’ and that it has maybe sparked a few thoughts.