Abdul Alkalimat, University of Toledo
The problem: Building a new architecture of knowledge
Three core values
Digitization of experience
Digitization of scholarship
Digitization of discourse
Organizing for change
This summation is dedicated to Mary Wrighten, librarian at Bowling Green State University, who challenged me to develop the BRAIN project proposal and whose criticism provided additional motivation.
We are living at the beginning of a social revolution based on the revolutionary advances of information technologies. There are various models of historical periodization, but most are in agreement about this being a time of revolutionary change. There are some key theorists emerging whose work deserves close attention for their conceptual clarity and empirical measurement:
1. Jeremy Rifkin
2. Manual Castells
3. Barry Wellman
4. Alvin and Heidi Toffler
5. Jim Davis et al
There are also institutional knowledge portals into this social revolution:
1. Media Union: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is a leading center for technological and scientific research, and the Media Union is a center for information and new media work. However, MIT is home to major theorists who have other views. Nicholas Negroponte leads the Media Union while Michael Dertouzos leads the Department of Computer Science. This is an example of following the technological policy debate through an academic gateway.
2. Digital Divide: Under the last presidential administration a Black official (Larry Irving of the Department of Commerce) led the way in defining an entire stage of the fight for Black liberation struggle - the problem of the "digital divide." Now, under this administration a Black official (FCC Chairman Michael Powell, son of Secretary of State Colin Powell) is leading the fight to reverse this and de-legitimate the term as "that old class warfare ideology of the past."
3. Community Connector: There is a social impact and in turn people who organize to do something about it. The Community Connector is a gateway to a vast network of resources where cyberspace directly connects with community forces on the information-poor side of the digital divide.
4. BRC: Black radicalism continues to germinate. Black academics like Manning Marable (Columbia University) and Jen Hamer (Southern Illinois University), and labor leaders like Bill Fletcher (AFL-CO Education Director) represent the Co-Chairs of the Black Radical Congress. The BRC operates 8 major listserv discussions (36 overall) and a website.
Revolution in society means fundamental change. You can want it and not get it, but you can also be in the middle of it and not know it, or not know what to do, how to influence the direction of history. In a revolution opposite outcomes are possible. It depends on what we do.
Different intellectual traditions sum up this historical experience of social context and social action, each using its own language. One American tradition is Pragmatism that includes John Dewey's emphasis on the social function of critical intelligence. The Marxist tradition refers to the necessary unity of theory and practice. Postmodernists speak of the critical importance of the subjective factor of agency. Black Christians talk about the Gospel (good news) and bearing witness (acts of good will) . All of these approaches basically say that when change is possible it is necessary to jump in there and get the job done.
Rethinking Black history in terms of technology is critical for this assessment about where and when to jump in. The following three stages of development seem to have taken place in terms of tools, instruments of labor:
1. a labor-intensive labor system based on the machine tools of the slave system, but also the sharecropping system
2. a capital-intensive mass industrial factory labor system
3. the capital-intensive lean production system of the computer age.
This third period, the early stage of the information revolution, also brings us the crisis of the digital divide. (See Alkalimat 1996.)
The problem: Building a new architecture of knowledge
Today we are addressing the transformation of scholarship in this social revolution. How can scholarship advance on the basis of advances in information technology? How can Black Studies be reinvented as eBlack Studies? I will put before you a proposed research agenda to debate, build consensus around, and implement.
The critical factor is that we are in the position of designing cyberspace to look and feel like us, and to work for us. At this stage in the information revolution we are the masters of our fate. There has never been an opportunity for self determination greater than this. This is a moment of fundamental practical importance on a philosophical level. The issue is as deep as the architecture of knowledge, our epistemological deep structure. We can embrace our particularity as well as universal knowledge, from our one can come a model for the many.
Knowledge and all forms of documentation (including audio and video) of the Black experience can be translated into digital code. This is something we can do for ourselves, with or without a grant. Our survival in cyberspace is in our own hands. The only solution is a group effort. This is an "all hands on deck!" situation.
Everything being discussed in this article can be accomplished with about $2,000 in hardware and software (CPU, keyboard, monitor, mouse, printer, digital camera, and scanner), less than $1,000 if used. This equipment is even available free at public computing sites such as schools, libraries, and community technology centers.
The new technology makes this period as basic for knowledge production as when the slave narratives were collected, as the Atlanta conferences of W. E. B. DuBois, or as the history conferences of Carter G. Woodson. In each instance the campus united with community and research was combined with audacity. Conferences were held and proceedings published. The near-unlimited capacity of new technology to store and manipulate information means that now is an ultimate moment to pay attention to the details. Nothing has to be left out in this period of eBlack Studies unless we leave it out. Everybody, everywhere, whenever can be included. We can unite. We must.
A universal impulse that drives all people is to understand, to know. This is a goal usually suspended between the polarities of summation and innovation. Of course there is unity between these two polarities. We can identify innovation today because we know what has come before it through a process of summation. On the other hand, that same innovation will itself be part of a new summation tomorrow. This is more of a fractal and dialectical process than a linear and metaphysical one. There is a pattern, but not a straight line. Nor is it cumulative or repetitive.
It seems the historical process forces people in the midst of change, especially revolutionary change, to sum up so as to fully grasp the importance of the innovation changing their lives.
There are many historically repeated forms of written summation: the encyclopedia, the anthology, the directory, the dictionary, the bibliography, the collected works, the textbook, the journal, the survey course, and conference proceedings, and, most encompassing of all, the special collection or library. Each of these forms of summation involves a textual dataset created to define an entire corpus of knowledge.
These are relatively modern forms. Ancient forms tend to be some combination of orality and ritual, narratives of cultural and political significance. When knowledge breaks from faith, when science drives knowledge, the sheer quantity of specialized knowledge and the speed of change require ongoing summation as an aspect of professional scholarship. In Europe this emerges in the so-called "Enlightenment." In the USA this process begins to fully develop for African Americans in the 20th century.
Table 1 contains examples from 20th century Black intellectual history of major attempts at summation. Central to this process has been the role of the Historical Black College and University, the independent Black publishing firms, the rise of literacy and curriculum at all levels of education, and consciousness raising social movements.
Table 1: Selected summations in 20th century Black instellectual history. Links are to web pages or to book covers and tables of contents.
|Encyclopedia||W. E. B. DuBois, Encyclopedia Africana |
Henry Louis Gates, Encarta
|Anthology||Alaine Locke, The New Negro |
Amiri Baraka and Larry Neal, Black Fire
|Annuals||Negro Year Books |
State of Black America
|Bibliography||Monroe Work, A Bibliography of the Negro in Africa and America |
|Collected Works||W. E. B. DuBois |
Booker T. Washington
|Textbooks||Maulana Karenga, Introduction to Black Studies |
Abdul Alkalimat and Associates, Introduction to Afro-American Studies
|Autobiography||Three autobiographies of W. E. B. DuBois |
The Autobiography of Malcolm X
|Who's Who||Who's Who in Colored America (for example 1930, 1931, 1932) |
Who's Who among Black Americans (for example 1985)
|Conference Proceedings||Black People and the 1980 Census |
Malcolm X: Radical Tradition and Legacy of Struggle (1990)
|Special Collections||Arturo Schomberg Collection, New York City Public Library |
Vivian Harsh Collection, Chicago Public Library
One current example will help illuminate this impulse toward summation. In the recent period three major anthology projects have been published, each from a particular theoretical orientation, each designed to be an inclusive compilation.
1. Molefi Kete Asante and Abu S. Abarry, eds., African Intellectual Heritage: A Book of Sources (1996) 828 pages
2. Henry Louis Gates and Nellie McKay, eds., The Norton Anthology of African American Literature (1997) 2,665 pages
3. Manning Marable and Leith Mullings, eds., Let Nobody Turns Us Around: Voices of Resistance, Reform and Renewal (1999) 704 pages
This is a total of 4,197 pages. Each of these summations has the strength of ideological focus, but the weakness of excluding other voices. Hard copy constraints are more important in the long run than critical judgment.
There is no such constraint in cyberspace. The summation possible in the context of eBlack Studies can include all of the ideological threads, all of the voices. Moreover, it can embrace the editorial contributions of all scholars. In cyberspace there need not be any barriers to sharing knowledge, and we can grow our unity based on hyper-linked texts. This preserves our individual identities while at the same time forming a growing, unified architecture of knowledge.
The modern institutional foundation for knowledge is the library: the public library and its special collections, and the academic library and its special collections. Our summations have always been encoded and written up in texts, hard copy. Libraries have served as warehouses for all of the summations, as centers for scholarly research, as well as the wellsprings of democracy in every local grassroots community. The preservation of our summations creates an intellectual foundation for each next generation.
Now we are at a great crossroads in the history of knowledge production, distribution, and consumption. The information revolution has increased the quantity for each process exponentially. If there ever was a time for summation it is now.
The point is that there is a wonderful convergence of (1) a great need to sum up and (2) the revolutionary new tools of information technology. eBlack is necessary and possible. So we also have to focus on the use to which we can put the current tools of computers and the Internet.
The Toledo experience
Our starting point is the fledging effort at the University of Toledo. The Africana Studies program is in its fifth year. Ours is a report of a work in progress, an example of what can be tried.
A common conception of conventional academic work includes five points: professional discourse, curriculum development, research, policy and community service. This holds for Black Studies and eBlack Studies as well (table 2). The five most current aspects of eBlack studies in Toledo are:
1. H-Afro-Am,a listserv of academic professionals and serious students of the Black experience. Part of H-Net.
2. University of Ghana Distance Learning Project, two courses presented over the Internet by a professor based in Ghana.
3. Malcolm X: A Research Site, a comprehensive web site to sum up Malcolm X and make possible his cyberresurrection.
4. Murchison Center, a community technology center, providing a basic link between campus and community.
5. Black Hair, a site mapping experience which is deep inside the cultural and economic life of the community.
Table 2. Five aspects of eBlack Studies as a practical project (1998).
Three core values
Out of our experience we have identified three fundamental values that are both desirable and possible. The critical issue is to have a general orientation that can unite us as we build a new pratical program of scholarship.
1. Cyberdemocracy. Everyone has to be included. On one level this is like fighting for the public library and public education. Inclusion is a matter of access and of literacy. Literacy is a matter of skill, what some call functional literacy, and of application, what I call social literacy. Our civil rights must be protected as cyberrights.
This is one of the great targets of any serious reparations program. To repair what has been done to Black people would have to mean reestablishing them securely and fairly in the 21st century. A minimum demand has to be the core cyberright, cyberdemocracy.
Cyberrights are protected in the public sphere and should not be pushed back into the realm of the private sphere, at home or at work. So cyberdemocracy calls for public computing. The leading places have been public libraries and schools at all levels.
Every public institution needs public computing to guarantee cyberrights.
2. Collective intelligence. Today we have large datasets, and IT provides the tools to analyze them. For example, we need every slave narrative digitized and formatted as a searchable data set, along with an archive of the research done on the entire texts. Our knowledge is about to leap exponentially as such a new scale of research takes off.
A major aspect of collective intelligence is consensus. Consensus is the ultimate summation of consciousness. On the basis of cyberdemocracy we can build connectivity to achieve consensus. This will require shifting our focus from hierarchy to egalitarian interdependence.
Collective intelligence overpowers the segmentation of knowledge. Different disciplines contribute to our databases without prejudice. The community contributes as well as the campus, on the basis of lifelong learning. The map of knowledge structures and clusters, now organized in distinct academic disciplines, is about to be reconceptualized and reorganized.
3. Information freedom. The new information technologies produce and distribute information in such a way that drives its exchange value down towards zero. For example, new software is soon discounted and then distributed with hardware in a bundle at minimal cost. This new thinking has impacted scholarly discourse and exchange of information so global networks are emerging based on information freedom. H-Net is a good example of this. Government officials at the National Institutes of Health have also decfided that it is in the national interest that government sponsored health related research will be available for free as well.
The privatization of global culture is a dangerous trend. Information about our species, every group and all their experience and knowledge has to be preserved for all of us and all our collective descendents. In fact, as it is privatized it is slowly extracted from the main forces driving our evolution so everyone will be the less for it. Taken to its logical conclusion, we can foster inmanageable species differentiation.
It doesn't make sense in the age of the Internet and the World Wide Web that we still have to pay to read the major leaders in our intellectual tradition, be they W. E. B. DuBois, Martin Luther King, or Malcolm X.
BRAIN: Black Research Archive on the Internet
Ths brings us to our major proposal.
We have posed the problem as summation. We have shared some of our research and related activities in launching eBlack Studies. We have summed up our experience as three basic core values to guide us. Now, our proposal is called BRAIN, an acronym for Black Research Archive on the Internet. We propose a web portal filled with knowledge about the Black experience. Our goal is to design and create the digital being of Blackness, eBlack.
The brain metaphor has been used again and again. One early example is H.G. Wells's World Brain (1938). Perhaps the latest example is Howard Bloom, Global Brain: The Evolution of the Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century (2000). Such efforts are attempts to grasp a rational pattern that defines how reality operates. The brain is the scientist's metaphor for the overall. Others choose the heart, the soul or the spirit. At Toledo our community slogan in working with kids is "learning + labor + love = life." This combines everything: brain and muscle, spirit and emotion.
Our brains (and nervous systems) are where biological knowledge processing goes on. The Internet is the silicon based environment for new sites of knowledge processing. This time the brain will be collective and we will be wired together with one continuous flow of information: contradictions, negations, and arguments included!
We are in the first stage of this process: digitizing hard copy (atoms of material things) into electronic files (bits of digital code). If it's true that a thousand mile journey begins with a single step, this is it.
The basic model is one of transformation:
| Black -----digitization-----> eBlack |
(actual experience) (virtual experience)
This is the transformation of atoms into bits, of natural, bioevolutionary modes of experience into intentional, digital-evolutionary modes of experience. This is based on computer technology, the most crucial part of which is that all forms of perceivable experience can be reduced to a universal digital code.
The issue is therefore information and not artifact, though one is contingent on the other at the point of digitization. The artifact will always retain value, but its contribution to the future will mainly be through the code that represents its digital being.
Just as crucial as information is ideology, our concept of this experience, what we conceive/perceive and therefore what we choose to code and retain. The foundation of ideology remains, however: the material, economic, and social interests of classes expressed through alternative political cultures of different communities, or, in other words, the old class/color/culture/consciousness nexus in the actual world we live in.
In this context the academic field of Black studies is in need of transformation (in fact is being transformed) into eBlack Studies. This is a post-ideological or informational stage. This is an inclusive model.
Our proposal is BRAIN. The issue is to design an appropriate architecture of knowledge about the Black experience for cyberspace. The design will be based on the three core values of cyber democracy, collective intelligence, and information freedom. We are not carving in relatively inert stone but launching a new life form. We are giving birth to the united digital being of Africa and the African Diaspora. We are waking up all of the mighty spirits and calling them to sit in council. Really this will be the first time everybody can be at the table.
The proposal is to build a movement for the digitization of the Black experience. We have to get into cyberspace, and begin to evolve into new and more powerful datasets and databases that tell the whole story.
BRAIN will be launched with three primary sources of content:
1. experience: databases of objective and subjective forms of knowledge that describes and represents Black people defined in all possible ways;
2. scholarship: everything considered appropriate knowledge produced by academic professionals;
3. discourse: archives of conference proceedings, listservs, and bulletin boards.
These three categories represent perception, conception, and conversation. So now in reviewing this process of the three digitizations we will share more of our work and then propose a national project for collaborative work. This is a real proposal, but also a model for many such proposals that are welcome.
Digitization of experience
Experience is knowable. To accomplish this we have an approach to the objective/subjective problem that links them together. We begin within the subjectivity of the Black community to find our experiential target - we identify the objective Black experience within the subjective conceptual framework of some current within Black intellectual history, and then we match that with some form of hard copy representation (audio, visual, texts, etc.).
The thesis is that the empirical data identified through the lens of this Black particularity will anchor knowledge of more universal applications. Anyone can look through the eye of the needle of our experience and see the whole world.
We are working on two levels of Black subjectivity: (1) ideology and intellectual currents, and (2) the political culture of everyday life.
Our project on ideology is about Malcolm X. We developed a basic compilation of information over several years of research. The web site is called a research site." We intended to distinguish this kind of knowledge portal as one beginning a consensus building process of a foundational aspect of Black ideology overall. We explained the site in a brief introduction.
We have in this site a model database for all individuals of ideological significance. This breaks down into five basic categories:
Every community has had important voices that need to be accounted for in the overall story of the ideological life of the Black community. When enough people are in this kind of global data base then we can prove that ultimately wisdom is found among the great masses of people and not a select powerful few.
For the political culture of everyday life we are exploring two kinds of space to understand how an actual community becomes a cyber community. For physical space we are digitizing a street: Dorr Street. For social space we are digitizing the Beauty salons - hair culture.
We believe that our project is making headway on the first aspect of digitization, the transformation of the external pubic experience. But this keeps the community as an object of what we doing and not in the drivers seat. This is the second step. Now that we have digitized content of compelling interest, it is assumed that there will be a high motivation for interactivity of like minded people.
The national action project we would like to propose is Cyberchurch (see box).
This project has been initiated by the Africana Studies Program at the University of Toledo under the leadership of Abdul Alkalimat.
The purpose of the Cyberchurch project is to organize Black Studies programs to collaborate with churches in their local areas to develop web pages for the churches.
The following points sum up this proposal for a national action-research project.
1. Black studies programs in institutions of higher education are the most wired aspect of the Black community. This includes access and literacy with hardware and software, as well as the student, faculty, and staff who are skilled in high-tech.
2. The Black church is the major institutional base for the Black community. At all levels of class stratification the Black church far exceeds any other institution in terms of levels of participation, leadership development, resource accumulation, meeting space, national and international networking, and spatial distribution.
3. The University of Toledo Africana Studies Program is part of MetroNet, a service by the University of Toledo to provide free web pages for non-profit organizations. We will use MetroNet until we have 500 churches online, and then we will migrate this to our own server by the end of 2002.
4. Each page will have at least the following:
a. photo of church
5. Our long range goals are to set up these web pages, get at least 20% of each church congregation to have email, set up online discussion groups, post sound files of the minister preaching and the choir singing, and organize national Cyberchurch workshops.
6. Action/research teams are being formed to carry out the Cyberchurch project. Anyone interested in joining this program please contact Professor Abdul Alkalimat at email@example.com.
The basic proposal is to establish a digital institution of Black experience. The Black church has adapted to communicating through radio and cable television, and now it is time for the Internet. Cyberchurch will grow into a self-evolving global network of individuals and institutions.
Digitization of scholarship
It goes without saying that any new architecture of knowledge will draw on professional academic research. We have established a baseline webliography for this community of professional academic research in our eBlackStudies.net site. The main datasets are the following:
3. Undergraduate degree programs
4. Graduate degree programs
The new project we are proposing is Project BAD: Black American Doctorate (see box).
This project has been initiated by the Africana Studies Program at the University of Toledo under the leadership of Abdul Alkalimat.
The purpose of Project BAD is to establish a public database of the Black American doctorate. Our goal is to include every African American awarded the PhD or equivalent degree. This does not include honorary degrees.
The following points sum up this project:
1. There is a great need to build empirical databases that sum up Black intellectual history, especially as contained in the empirical record of intellectual and artistic production.
2. The highest level of academic scholarship is the PhD dissertation. The people who successfully completed the PhD degree constitute a base line for the academic component of Black intellectual history. Every institution keeps detailed records on every person awarded the doctoral degree.
3. Most of the PhD granting institutions in the USA have some kind of Black Studies related professional staff and faculty in an academic unit or the library.
4. On a campus by campus basis lists of Black PhD’s can be compiled and organized as a research report. On a discipline by discipline basis people who have earned the PhD can be compiled.
5. The model for this project is the work by Harry Greene, Holders of Doctorates Among American Negroes (1946). He listed over 300 people and presented detailed information. His data is already in an excel spreadsheet.
6. Each campus list will be considered provisional until the official Registrar of the institution validates each degree holder.
7. We are interested in the following data about each person:
Our proposal is for people at PhD granting institutions to begin digging into local records to compile and document portions of the database. This level of intellectual production is certainly part of the basic architecture of knowledge for information about the Black experience.
Digitization of discourse
There are two opposing views of what constitutes a canon for Black intellectual history, dogma or debate. Some believe that a canon can be named by selecting texts of language and conceptual clarity. We believe this orientation is towards dogma and what will inevitably turn into a conservative orientation. The canon of the Black radical tradition is debate, the interaction of voices in which each challenges and interrogates the other.
The main logic of this history follows three great debates that have shaped Black intellectual history and reveals its logic of development:
(1) the emancipation debates that began with the National Negro Convention movement in 1830
(2) self-determination debate of DuBois, Garvey, and Booker T Washington early part of the 20th century, and
(3) Black liberation debate of Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X in the 1960's.
Our name for the digitization of these past debates is cyber resurrection. Our main project in this regard is the digitization of a conference held in 1990: Malcolm X, Radical Tradition and Legacy of Struggle. We have audio and video tapes, photographs, hard copy archives, and continuouis contact with many of the conference speakers. Three thousand people from twenty countries attended, but now we have it on the World Wide Web. There were 24 sessions during the conference. We are posting one session per week for 6 months to relive the 1990 conference in 2001. After merely 6 weeks the conference web site has twenty thousand hits from nearly 50 countries.
This process of digitizing discourse also applies to contemporary exchanges. The most interesting application of information technology in this regard is that on a listserv email can be automatically archived. H-Net is a major example of this. H-Net sponsors over 100 listserv discussion networks of scholars. Every list has a log or archive of all messages. These logs can be searched as individual lists or for any combination of list up to a search of all lists. This is emerging as the definitive way to access the most current thinking in a given field or research area. Or experience has been with H-Afro-Am. This listserv has about 1,500 subscribers from every region of the world.
There is a need to aggregate all listserv networks in some way related to professional academic scholarship in Black Studies. This is a major initiative for the systematic codification and sharing of this discourse. There is a key leadership role in this process for librarians at research institutions.
Organizing for change
In general we are proposing a model for research and collaboration that relies on limited local resources. Of course we aspire to building a movement, and for this movement (to digitize the Black experience) to get off the ground local efforts will have to put three resources in place:
1. Campus base
The first concern is to have the project initiated by one or more persons (usually one or more graduate students, faculty, or professional staff) who take leadership. This is a professional activity, the building of a research program, especially one that will redefine an academic field of study. Productive leadership in this area deserves full recognition as scholarship.
Every project could be staffed in part by student workers paid for by the work-study federally funded student aid program. Every project needs a data delivery technical code writer. My suggestion is a student from the closest College of Engineering. We have had luck with students from National Society of Black Engineers and students who have just arrived from India. There is a healthy attitude and a willingness to work hard, especially when it is socially and morally engaging by people who identify with what is being done. We have also found students who are politically active to be good recruits, including all kinds of non-Black students.
Academic credit should be awarded for successful participation in a community project. In higher education circles this is being called "service learning." This is what we call the method of "involved observation," being an activist in a situation one is also studying. Sometimes it is appropriate to involve an entire class and sometimes a single person through some form of independent study arrangement.
National projects like Cyberchurch should be offered as part of the curriculum on a regular basis.
Black Studies needs to build a coalition with everyone practicing any form of social informatics, in every case including the library. Every program needs a student lab and a production lab for digitization. Every digitization center needs to begin with a local project and consolidate campus-community ties.
2. Community base
The first task is to identify an institution to serve as a base of operations in the community. The best examples are the local library and the local community technology center. If these don't exist then the first task is to get them set up. Our experience is in linking the Africana Studies Program, at the University of Toledo with an inner city community technology center, The Murchison Center. Our experience can be summed up into five guidelines or rules:
First rule is that our purpose is to serve the people. At the Murchison Center we have a community garden to teach this to the young people, and to practice it ourselves.
The second rule is that the practical application of eBlack Studies in the community is social cyber power, the use of cyber power for the end of poverty once and for all.
The third rule is that our focus is on building a bridge across the digital divide.
The fourth rule is that programs of research will always support an action project to serve the local community.
The fifth rule is that there should always be free classes in the community on various forms of information technologies, hardware and software.
3. National research program
The beginning of the information age is the ultimate moment for self determination - creating a new architecture of knowledge in cyberspace. This new knowledge is a launching pad for the new society we need free of all historical forms of exploitation and oppression.
We are proposing three new national research projects that provide examples of how new forms of national cooperative research programs might look:
2. Project BAD: Black American Doctorate
3. Hyper-unification of eBlack Studies listserv discussions.
Now is the time.
last updated March 14, 2001