Perhaps the most important ideas of all are . . . ideas about how to support the production and transmission of other ideasWhat a beautiful thought. It perfectly articulates the central challenge to modern communications technologies. But that's not its original context. The thought is from Paul Romer's entry on Economic Growth in the 2007 edition of The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. Romer goes on to talk about the modern research university as a generator of important ideas, predicting that
the country that takes the lead in the twenty-first century will be the one that implements an innovation that more effectively supports the production of new ideas in the public sector.Correction: Romer doesn't say public. He says private. I made the change. I want suggest that what our country needs now - Romer's most important idea - is an idea-generating and processing mass media. Dear reader, be not baffled, annoyed or angry. Is it not time to look past the mindset that for that past two generations has equated the value of the research university with its value to business and the economy, as Romer appears to do here? In the future, in an age of information and given the financial storm we are weathering, must not the value of the research university be equally a function of its value to the public and the public interest?
Why, you ask, would the twenty-first century belong to nations that embrace this civic valuation? Because the alternative - the neglect of the public interest in favor of research programs that advance the business economy (not to mention the interests of our cash-rich universities themselves) - has failed to develop America's most powerful creative and co-operative energies: those of its people, considered as a people. America today is a nation polarized into extremes of (educated) rich and (undereducated) poor unknown in America since the Gilded Age of the 1870's to 1900. This division contributed to the financial crisis. And this crisis, even if resolved, will soon repeat itself if America fails to close this division.
Think of it this way. No nation can forever hope to use the disruptive, profoundly democratizing Internet in order to maintain the top-down, hierarchical social order that preceded it. The Internet by its nature forces nations to choose between democracy and autocracy as their preferred form of government. America's heavily commercial use of the Internet, to the near exclusion of civic uses, has greatly weakened it. This dollar-driven use has also contributed to the global economic crisis. To strengthen the nation and to resolve the global crisis democratically, the Internet and other media must give Americans (and people worldwide) an informed voice in the political and economic decisions that affect their lives.
That's enough thought for one day.