MIT’s shot heard around the world

But today, at least, we prefer to celebrate. The world has got a little smaller, a little smarter and a little fairer, thanks to the Internet and MIT.

The Globe and Mail
April 6, 2001

MIT’s shot heard around the world

In his mindset-altering book Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond argues that geography predetermined how each of the world's civilizations would develop long before written history even began. The many advantages of an east-west over a north-south axis, along with the nutritional superiority of wheat over maize, made it inevitable that Europe would conquer the Americas rather than the Americas Europe.

But in the new millennium, information technology levels all terrains.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has decided to post on the Internet virtually all its program materials, including lecture notes, for more than 2,000 courses. The intellectual resources of one of the world's leading scientific and technical universities will be available to any student, any academic, any government ministry, seeking to know what and how MIT teaches its students in engineering, science, the arts and other programs. It is a magnificent gift from a great university to the world.

Prof. Diamond believes that societies grow fastest when geographic barriers are neither too great nor too small, when different linguistic and cultural communities develop separately but are easily able to communicate with each other.

The reason, simply, is that people are conservative. Most cultures resist any good new idea, be it writing or charging compound interest. (Such conservatism is itself a good idea, since most new ideas are bad.) But if even one community embraces an innovation and prospers, nearby communities will copy the idea. The greater the number of communities and the greater the ease of communication, the greater the likelihood of progress.

In this sense, the Internet's ultimate contribution may be one of its original purposes: to permit scientists and other scholars to communicate easily regardless of where they live.

Many academics, corporations and rock groups fear the promiscuity of knowledge that the World Wide Web promotes. We have spent centuries developing and protecting the principles of patent and copyright: the right of individuals to control and profit from the product of their own intellectual and creative exertions. Be it a pop song, a series of lecture notes or the recipe for a drug cocktail, the product belongs to the creator, and the Net's propensity to spread everything everywhere undermines this valuable principle.

But knowledge will out. It takes only one renegade to carpet the world in precious information. For example, the South African government is struggling to construct a First World education system for its non-white citizenry. MIT course materials may serve as a template there for new university programs and degrees.

Of course, MIT is much more than the sum of its course materials. Personal exposure to, and certification from, individual scholars will always remain the sine qua non of a university degree.

Opposing trends are also with us. The tremendous potential of the genome project has been hampered by private control over many of its secrets. Some also worry that the very speed and access of the Internet will dissolve the bonds of those individual communities that incubate new thought. Little new or good can come from a global society in which everything is the same.

But today, at least, we prefer to celebrate. The world has got a little smaller, a little smarter and a little fairer, thanks to the Internet and MIT. We fervently hope other great universities, including those in Canada, follow suit.

So that we can all learn together.

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