Maggie Shafer Writes

Knowledge sharing: The solution to hunger, disease and bad art

Maggie ShaferComment

When David Runkles chose his Master’s thesis topic, he didn’t know that his research would force him to track down a researcher in the war-torn Sudan, navigate complex academic institutions and their arcane policies, and eventually turn to crime. Which is great, because had he known, the world would have missed out on this.

As a student at the London School of Economics, David had access to more research than he could possibly read in a lifetime. But the research he needed — the work of famed famine researcher Alex de Waal — had been lost while de Waal was working in Sudan, in the thick of the nation’s bloody civil war. Only a partial copy of the data was left, locked inside Oxford’s Bodleian, a formidable labyrinth of library prestige. In an email exchange from across the ocean, de Waal requested that if David was somehow able to get his hands on the data, would he please send over a copy. De Waal himself did not have access to his own work.

A two hour bus ride, an arduous process for approval to enter and several hours of searching later, David was able to find a portion of the research he needed. But the library had a strict copying policy (no more than 5 percent of any single work could be photocopied) and strict rules about removing any research from its fortified walls. Which left David, a previously upstanding citizen, no choice but to smuggle in a pen scanner, an illicit device that he used to scan the entire work while hunkered down in a dark corner, stealing the work for the author one page at a time.

There had to be a better system.

In response to this absurdity, David later started bulb — a publishing network for knowledge (and where I now work). And this is the problem we are trying to solve: how do you give everyone in the world a place to publish and find knowledge?

Why is the best information the hardest (and sometimes most expensive) to get?

Every year, millions of hours of research and an untold amount of data is compiled into papers and filed away into a university library, where access is limited and chances that it will ever get looked at again become slim and grow slimmer with time. It’s privileged information reserved for the privileged.

That’s actually the positive spin on things. Even more work gets lost forever, stored or thrown away by those whose thesis/research/writing, while potentially valuable, won’t make it into a journal or other publication for one reason or another, and let’s be real here, who is going to take the time to design a website for self-publishing and then pay $10/month to keep it up? Maybe a very small number. Another small number might start a blog but soon realize that their academic work doesn’t fit into a diary-style, chronological structure unless you publish it backwards. Neither of these options have any actual audience included except the one the author builds, and someone dedicated to their work isn’t going to take the time to learn content marketing to do so. And good for you, scientists, please do stay focused on curing cancer, not on SEO, for the love of pete.

This lost work doesn’t just hurt other students who may be able to reference, build upon or solve a problem with it (think Minecraft), but we all lose out collectively because we don’t utilize everyone’s knowledge or give everyone with some unique insight a voice. The people whose voices get heard the least tend to be the least powerful, but that doesn’t necessarily make their knowledge any less valuable, so our knowledge network itself is poorer for it.

So not everyone can participate in our collective knowledge network because we don’t have a good system for storing and sharing the information we do have. This is not just limiting but devastating.

“As an example, there’s the tragic story of Ernest Duchesne, the earliest documented discoverer of penicillin. As legend has it, Duchesne was a student at a French military medical school in the 1890s when he noticed that the hospital’s stable boys who tended the horses did something peculiar: They stored their saddles in a damp, dark room so that mold would grow on their undersurfaces. They did this, they explained, because the mold helped heal the horses’ saddle sores.

Duchesne was fascinated and conducted an experiment in which he treated sick guinea pigs with a solution made from mold — a rough form of what we’d now call penicillin. The guinea pigs healed completely. Duchesne wrote up his findings in a thesis, but because he was unknown and young — only 23 at the time — the French Institut Pasteur wouldn’t acknowledge it. His research vanished, and Duchesne died 15 years later of tuberculosis (a disease that would someday be treatable with antibiotics).

It would take 31 years for the Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming to rediscover penicillin, independently and with no idea that Duchesne had already done it. In those three decades, untold millions of people died of diseases that could have been cured. Failed networks kill ideas.” -Clive Thompson in Why Even the Worst Bloggers Are Making Us Smarter

The more people given access to the best knowledge out there, the further and faster our (humanity, not just the Medium community) collective knowledge advances.

The internet has done the best job yet of trying to fix this.

The internet itself was born out of open knowledge exchange; it was open to everyone, it was inclusive. And it’s certainly helped. But it hasn’t yet fixed the broken network problem. Like I said earlier, most people could build a Squarespace website or start a blog or a podcast but these things take time and energy away from the work itself, and contribute to what we have now: a trillion giga something/shit ton of disconnected pages, and no real efficient way of finding the Duchesnes and other pages less traveled or distinguishing between those built for serious content and those built for Vines of politicians quoting Taylor Swift. Both important, but for different purposes.

Part of what we are trying to do here was to propose a solution by creating a user-generated content network (like YouTube, Instagram, etc.) built for long-form, serious content that was open at the bottom; a place online where anyone could publish their work in just a few seconds and where anyone could have access to that published work, regardless of power or station in life. Duh, right? Except that it hasn’t been done yet.

Despite an internet structured for inclusivity, the apps we most frequently use and the business models that support them typically aren’t. It’s much easier to create an app for an exclusive market because you can sell it immediately — making the creation of exclusive apps more profitable, faster and therefore sustainable. But selling a knowledge sharing platform to an exclusive market doesn’t tackle the goal: to keep knowledge from being stored and siloed and to do it in a way that encourages more people to contribute. A true knowledge-sharing network cannot sell exclusivity because exclusivity would ruin it.

“Cause you don’t talk to the water boy

and there’s so much you could learn but you don’t want to know,

You will not back up an inch ever,

that’s why you will not survive” — Spoon

So getting more people to publish what they know is not only better for those of us who, like me, are trying to make a profitable business in UGCN land — it’s better for the world at large. The more people you invite to participate in the network the better the network is and the better the world is for it. Just like pool parties!

This vision for a fixed and functioning knowledge network has to be a global one because we are living in a global world (welcome to 1999). And while I admit a global knowledge network that values everyone’s voice may not be the panacea for every world problem, it has truly amazing potential to connect valuable information with those that need it most. This is not a one-way info street from developed country to developing (and if you think that’s the case you missed the point). Being able to share and distribute quality information across cultural, racial, socio economic and other silos is crucial to allow that knowledge to reach its full , applicable potential and until a network that allows for this is realized, we’ll continue to see knowledge die in the hands of those that no longer see use for it — hands often carrying $15,000 library cards.

“But you won’t hear from the messenger,

don’t wanna know bout something that you don’t understand,

You got no fear of the underdog,

that’s why you will not survive!”

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