Books, Not MOOCs

So you’ve been browsing around online, and here you are. You’re on the couch, or you’re eating lunch, or you’re in transit, or you’re in the back of the classroom, or you’re at your desk, attending a ...

So you’ve been browsing around online, and here you are. You’re on the couch, or you’re eating lunch, or you’re in transit, or you’re in the back of the classroom, or you’re at your desk, attending a virtual class that sounded like a good idea when you started but that hasn’t really captured your attention. You could be just about anywhere, but wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, I’ll bet you’re a little distracted—too many open threads. The level of absorption these devices require: it really is an alternative power source, the psychic equivalent of electricity. But for all your browsing and reading screens, I’ll also bet you still like books—the old-fashioned kind, I mean—and that you read Public Books in order to know what new specimens to collect. And if that’s true, then I have something for you, and you’re going to love it. Because it’s a book, but it’s also not a book: it’s a site.

It’s amazing, when you think about it, how familiar the idea of a digital book has become and how quickly we’ve reconciled it with our attachment to the traditional form. But this example has larger ambitions than most, and so before I go any further, I should give you the link, because it truly is a public book: Follow it, and you’ll find an English translation of Thomas More’s Utopia, first published in Latin in 1516, which has been edited by a professor of media studies at NYU named Stephen Duncombe. It comes with everything you might need: a preface, an introduction, supplementary notes and glosses, even a list of sources. You’ll also find translations of supplementary material from the early editions of Utopia, which framed the book as a special kind of “serious joke”: letters from More’s friends, a sample of the Utopian alphabet, a poem in the Utopian language, and a handsome wood-cut map. And as you’ll discover, the site gives you several options for reading all this material. You can read Open Utopia entirely online, navigating by parts, books, and chapters. You can download a digital copy, compatible with whatever e-reader you happen to own. You can listen to selections as they are read aloud. And you can download a PDF that has been formatted like a traditional printed book.

As it happens, I found myself laser-printing a hard copy in facing-page layout, and it’s more or less just like the books you remember: title and copyright page (more on that later), an ISBN number, a table of contents, and full pagination. No cover, of course, so it’s somewhat flatter and more flexible than a regular book, but in its loose-leaf form it’s remarkably similar to the way More’s 1516 Utopia would have been sold in bookshops across Europe. I had printed out Open Utopia, ironically, because I wanted to interact with it in the old-fashioned way: I wanted to write on it. Duncombe has foreseen this, of course; in fact he’s more than foreseen it, since around the idea of an “open” interaction with the book he’s assembled an entire website, and through the website an argument about what it means to read in the first place, and to think and to imagine while reading, and then to create, and finally to act. Like many of us, Duncombe is interested in what it means to do these things today, and above all with an aim toward political transformation—he’s making a big argument, one that eventually leads to interesting questions about the nature of fiction, what literature is good for, and what it would mean for reading to become a political act. As such, it’s an argument with significant historical precedents, not least among them Utopia itself, which, as Duncombe argues, engages with many of the same ideas.  Which is why he has chosen to present this book to us in an “open” form rather than many others.

Duncombe presents his arguments in straightforward, accessible language. (Another enduring virtue of Open Utopia, in addition to its format, may well turn out to be its voice, since it will appeal to a large set of readers whom we often think of as making up the “public,” and writing successfully in a public voice is no small accomplishment.) The promise of More’s Utopia, Duncombe argues, is that it offers us an alternative to critique, that mode of political engagement that tends to assert itself negatively, reacting to arguments in order to expose their weak links and unveil the lies that perpetuate belief in a false Truth. Whatever the value of critique—and Duncombe does find value in it; indeed, he thinks it has a fundamental role to play in any democracy—today the negative critique of Truth has become a fruitless enterprise, he argues, and for two main reasons. First, Truth has become pluralized by the new information economy: millions of truths are claimed everyday by millions of users via Twitter and Tumblr and Google and Wikipedia, the last an especially important model for Duncombe’s project. The “lived experience of the multitude” now corresponds to the theoretical predictions of the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard: there can be no more master narratives in a comment culture when truths and counter-truths have become so much digital chatter. Nor does anyone believe in “the system” anymore: apparently only 53% of Americans actually think that capitalism is better than socialism, according to a 2009 Rasmussen poll. And yet, Duncombe argues in a second move, this lack of belief is simply a sign that the grip of ideology is stronger than ever. Power has anticipated critique and built it in as a legitimating factor (he quotes George W. Bush’s response to massive protests during the lead-up to the Iraq War as an infamous example: “Democracy’s a beautiful thing”). So why does political transformation lag poll response? Because we suffer from a poverty of imagination.

The important point for Duncombe is that More himself recognized the limitations of critique and also provideD a blueprint for a new form of political engagement.

These are Duncombe’s terms, and not everyone will be happy with them. His position is underwritten by a cheerful optimism about new media and their capacity to generate a more variegated, more thoughtful, and more democratic public sphere. But I doubt many of us see Twitter as a model for public discourse, and it seems obvious that all Truths aren’t equivalent. (I’ll get to more of my own objections in a moment—in the meantime, feel free to post your critique on the Open Utopia site and stake your own claim to Truth.) The important point for Duncombe is that More himself recognized the limitations of critique and also provided a blueprint for a new form of political engagement. More displays these limits in Book One of Utopia, when Raphael Hythloday, the book’s principal speaker, launches a direct attack on private property and contemporary English justice, but nobody really listens. Book Two, however, is a different story. Duncombe picks up on the moment that prepares for this new line of argument at the end of Book One, when the character “More” recommends a flexible philosophy that eschews direct critique. Instead of fawning like a courtier or baldly speaking uncomfortable truths to a King who doesn’t want to hear them, “More” offers a third way by means of an analogy with drama, in which one acts one’s part appropriately, no matter what the scene: the point is not to abandon one’s beliefs but simply to present them in the best possible way under the circumstances.

This, then, is the mode of Book Two: the ideas are the same, but Hythloday elaborates them in greater detail and in an entirely different manner. He models his arguments rather than simply asserting them, and in doing so he’s able to demonstrate them far more effectively. We see implications for the earlier arguments that we hadn’t considered before; we also see some of the underlying premises that are necessary for the arguments to function. Most importantly, we’re invited to imagine an alternative world that corresponds to premises that are entirely different from those that organize our own, and this creative effort allows us to become suspended in a hypothetical state in which the question of “Truth” gets set aside. We’ve entered the world of fiction, in short, which operates according to different rules; once we’ve done so, we never look at our own world quite the same way again.

Duncombe nicely summarizes prior debates over how seriously we’re meant to take Hythloday’s vision, concluding, somewhat predictably, that “the brilliance of More’s Utopia is that it is simultaneously satirical and sincere, absurd and earnest”:

… it is through the combination of these seemingly opposite ways of presenting ideals that a more fruitful way of thinking about political imagination can take shape. It is the presentation of Utopia as no place, and its narrator as nonsense, that creates a space for the reader’s imagination to wonder what an alternative someplace might be, and what a radically different sensibility might be like. In enabling this dialectical operation, Utopia opens up Utopia, encouraging the reader to imagine for themselves.

So it’s another defense of literature as a form of estrangement and of reading as an act that leads inevitably to the liberating powers of the imagination, which make possible a new world. It’s also another defense of dialectical thinking as a strategy of textual interpretation that “opens” a work rather than shutting it down, allowing the reader to pour his or her imagination into the cracks and folds furrowed by the theoretical plow. With More’s help, we help the fiction bloom by shifting back and forth, never “short-circuiting this imaginative moment into a fixed imaginary,” as Duncombe puts it neatly at one point. As a work of art, but also as a physical book with two Books and a panoply of framing materials, Utopia is a model for the “open” text that Duncombe now finds refreshed, expanded, and made real by today’s digital network. It’s a book that we “write” every time we read it, a book that always remains open to our interpretation and indeed requires it in order to function.

Technology has finally caught up to theory; we find a late sixties premise running on a twenty-first-century platform, and this seems strangely appropriate, because More’s Utopia itself was a kind of sixties premise expressed in a sixteenth-century idiom.

If this sounds a little familiar, it’s because Duncombe has basically updated a truism of poststructuralist criticism—as exemplified by Roland Barthes, for instance, or Umberto Eco, one of Duncombe’s own reference points—and rephrased it in terms of algorithms, computer code, and hacking as a form of creative expression. “Utopia … functions as source code,” he writes, “providing the core of what can, and must, be modified by the reader in order to create a functioning Utopian program (for on its own, it continually crashes.)” Technology has finally caught up to theory; we find a late sixties premise running on a twenty-first-century platform, and this seems strangely appropriate, because Utopia itself was a kind of sixties premise expressed in a sixteenth-century idiom.

Nevertheless, there’s good reason to query some of the rhetoric about “openness” that gives Open Utopia its raison d’être. In his Preface, for instance, Duncombe declares that he decided to produce a new edition of Utopia:

… because what the world does not have, and what I believe it needs, is a complete English-language translation of Utopia that honors the primary precept of Utopia itself—that is, that all property is common property.

Well, common property is one of Utopia’s primary precepts—there are others, and they don’t all lead to the kind of “open,” transformational politics that Duncombe hopes his edition will foster. More himself declared that he’d burn the book before he’d allow it to be translated from Latin to English.1futacyon of Tyndales answere made by Syr Thomas More knight lorde chau[n]cellour of Englonde (London, 1532), Book II, cxxix: “yf any man wolde now translate Moria [Erasmus’s Praise of Folly] in to Englyshe, or some workes eyther that I haue my selfe wryten ere this, all be yt there be none harme therin / folke yet beynge (as they be) geuen to take harme of that that is good / I wolde not only my derlynges bokes but myne owne also, helpe to burne them both wyth myne owne handes, rather then fol|ke sholde (though thorow theyr own faute) take any harme of them …” ] And if it isn’t strictly true to say that the world lacks free, open, “common” editions of Utopia (Duncombe has, after all, compiled his own edition directly from these open editions, which are all on Google Books), it’s nevertheless true that these aren’t “complete” editions, because they omit much if not all of the supplementary material. So the text of Duncombe’s edition isn’t all that novel, despite all its ingenious formats, nor is the notion of “open,” dialectical interpretation he advances.

For me, the interest of Open Utopia lies less in its novelty than in its interactive quality and in the mode of distribution that makes it possible: Creative Commons licensing and open-source software. I mentioned that the book version of Open Utopia that I printed out has a copyright page, and what you’ll find there is a brief statement that the book has been “released” by Minor Compositions, “a series of interventions and provocations drawing from autonomous politics, avant-garde aesthetics, and the revolutions of everyday life.”2 The books released by Minor Compositions are available for free, but they’re also available for purchase; I think it’s a compelling experiment in distribution, one that Yochai Benkler also undertook for his The Wealth of Networks (Yale, 2006). A printed copy of Open Utopia itself can also be purchased for $24.00 / £16 at the Minor Compositions website, as well as from the website of AK Press, a small anarchist press.

Now, in my view, the importance of Creative Commons is that it aims to institutionalize a mode of exchange that runs entirely counter to most forms of commercial distribution in today’s society. It’s not an ad hoc, spontaneous, informal exchange of material—a kind of digital lending, or a slightly more reputable file-sharing network. Nor is it a “publisher as assemblage” model, like Minor Compositions. It’s an enduring, planned, organized attempt to establish a set of conventions by which information can be exchanged freely, with the reasons for doing so and their consequences clearly articulated. Creative Commons is a non-profit organization with a CEO, a Board of Directors, and an Audit Committee; in short, it’s an alternative form of a corporation, fully chartered in Massachusetts. And in that sense it really is in the spirit of Utopia, which depends not only on a principle of common property but on the many different institutional forms, at all scales, that follow from it and are necessary to sustain it.

I emphasize this point about institutionalization, both in Utopia and as exemplified by the Creative Commons license, because in some ways it runs counter to Duncombe’s own notions about how collectivities work and how they might lead to political transformation. He has made Open Utopia into a “site” rather than a “book” on the model of Wikipedia and other social networks because he wants readers to interact freely with the text and to form spontaneous connections in the process:

Can Utopia be collectively imagined and be built as a collaborative political project? … The printed book provided the means for More to create the imaginal machine of Utopia, but it is the latest revolution in communications that suggests ways to turn individualized creativity into collective results. Open source software, upon which our digital age was founded and without which you would not be reading these words now, is one particularly successful model. The rudiments of open source are this: computer programs are coded by an individual, then opened up (made visible and accessible) to other programmers to modify, adapt, and utilize, and then distribute and share again. Without individual imagination there would be no source code, nor modifications, yet the result is a collaborative effort that results in a functional product.


Open Utopia has been built according to these principles: through a partnership with the Institute for the Future of the Book, you can read a copy online via their Social Book platform, and interact with it by adding comments and notes and engage with other readers through them; you can view art, video, and audio recordings that Duncombe has curated; you can click over to and add to More’s vision or compose your own alternative utopian society—there were six the last time I checked. Several are uncanny and beautiful:


A door meant to be pushed will never be pulled. No more than three, indiscriminate buttons or switches will ever be placed in the same space. Internet pathways will always have clear direction that leads to the desired outcome. The number of affordances in a given artifact will be comparable with the number of constraints, so that clear direction will be clearly outlined in a cognitive map. User Manuals will become obsolete because the use of any object or system will be intuitive.

… computer systems are be [sic] both moral entities and moral agents. Computers are moral agents because designers and programmers do not create systems with an eye only toward efficiency and usability. Rather than systems that consider only the best way to accomplish a given task, Utopian computer systems objectively weigh the potential outcomes. While this type of control coming from a computer seems problematic, the morality engine would be the result of a collaborative project, allowing experts and lay people from varied fields [to] have a say in the values embedded in a system—values that would directly go toward how the system operates.

“The beauty of digital projects,” Duncombe argues, “especially those that depend upon networks of contributors, is that they are never complete: there is always another iteration or another version to be created and released.” Nevertheless, there are limits. You can create your own alternative version of a utopian society and you can put it up on the wiki alongside the original. But you can’t modify More’s text: you can’t add a section or make the Utopians do things that aren’t specified in the original, even though doing so might help clarify what the rules of the system are and how robust it really is.

So Open Utopia is a little less “open” than it first appears. I’ll also point out that Duncombe’s enthusiasm for the transformative power of open-source networking and self-organized, viral collectives leads him into some contradictions (and I don’t mean that in a dialectical sense), including the observation that “The book form constrained More’s Utopia—even the most imaginative exchange was limited by the singularity of the text and the isolation of the reader.” Hasn’t Duncombe just finished arguing, and convincingly, that Utopia provides a model for precisely the type of open “text” that Open Utopia realizes at a different scale? Isn’t every edition of any book potentially open? Don’t we always talk back to our books, writing in them, folding them, reorganizing them, elaborating them, extending them, lending them to others and borrowing in return? Hasn’t reading always been a potentially creative and political act? This is the lesson of the best work in the history of reading, from Roger Chartier and Robert Darnton to William Sherman, Ann Blair, and Leah Price, and it’s a lesson that More’s Utopia is especially well-suited to show us, given its long publishing history and history of adaptation into so many different historical situations.

I should be clear: I’m delighted that Open Utopia exists and enjoyed interacting with it. I like the fact that it reminds us of things that we know about books but sometimes forget, including the fact that no book is ever really “complete.” It may even remind us how many free and “public” books are still out there, in Laundromats and airports and garage sales and public libraries—my own personal Utopia, and still one of our best models for distributing knowledge over which no single person can take sole possession—and even in the garbage. But it will also, I hope, prompt some serious reflection about what is happening to our oldest ongoing experiment in public reading and public books: the institution of the university.

Here’s a surprising thing: do you know the original meaning of the word “university”? It meant “corporation,” although in a somewhat different sense than we currently understand the term.3 And in this age of electronic publishing, e-books, massive open online courses (MOOCs), and entire online universities, the “corporate” nature of higher learning has become a more pressing problem than ever, since it concerns the very premise of the “university,” which is not to engross knowledge but to make it as widely and as publicly available as possible—to distribute it universally. Yet our own universities are running headlong in the wrong direction, signing contracts for online learning with for-profit companies and getting caught up in an open-course arms race in which the last one to join a MOOC consortium is doomed to extinction.  But in fact it is the MOOC that will make the university extinct, for, despite the rhetoric, there can be no question that education is becoming more closed to the public, not more open, and this is no less true of so-called public universities than it is of private ones.  Indeed, it’s even more true: the California State Senate is currently considering legislation that would require all public institutions of higher education in the state to accept certain “approved” online courses for credit toward university degrees, despite the fact that these so-called courses are the products of private companies whose goal—have no illusions—is to replace the university as a provider of education and make millions of dollars in the process.4

As Christopher Newfield has persuasively argued, the MOOC is one more step in a culture war over the university that is itself simply a proxy for a much wider class war fought under the alibi of budget constraints.5 Regardless of the fact that MOOCs don’t actually seem to improve education or shorten time-to-degree, so-called providers of free online courses such as Coursera and Udacity, as well as openly for-profit companies such as Pearson and Straighterline, are engaged in something like a land grab, except it’s really more like a “books, hearts, and minds grab.” Under the rousing proclamation that “higher education is a basic human right,” Udacity wants to conduct mandatory large-scale market trials, as Newfield has pointed out, in order to develop a product to fill a need that wouldn’t exist if public education received proper funding in the first place. Udacity? It ought to be called Audacity. Whatever the claims or the structure of these ventures—Edx, to take another example, is a collaboration between Harvard and MIT that has partnered with some of the other most prestigious universities in the country, including UC Berkeley, and one that’s currently “not-for-profit,” although it’s hard to imagine it will stay that way, given all the resources that both universities are pouring into the project—MOOCs will inevitably result in a two- or three-tiered system in which a lesser education is consumed by those members of the population who can’t afford to attend a conventional college or university, whether for reasons of money, time, or both. And, in the meantime, a small segment of universities, mostly private, will redouble their institutional advantages, admitting a handful of students to an elite education while also, at the same time, accrediting a second-tier of educational “products” that they peddle to the masses. They’ll happily split the eventual profits with other “peer institutions” and the entrepreneurs who have assisted them in a marvelous thing: creating a new revenue stream while strengthening the university brand at the same time!

The problems facing higher education are serious, and we see them everyday: plummeting state support, rising tuitions, an explosion of student debt, conflicts of authority among faculty, administrators, trustees, and legislators, among other issues. But I, for one, remain unconvinced that the answer lies inside an Internet connection, and I have a hard time believing that Duncombe doesn’t share my reservations. The ancient division of the university into the faculties of arts, law, medicine, and theology really has been preserved after all, with the difference that business schools now occupy the place that theology once held, its so-called Doctors articulating a new corporate logic and wielding it against everyone else. I’ve come to feel that we no longer need a defense of the humanities, as my colleagues often argue: we need a defense of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences as a whole, against the professional schools and other revenue-generating programs that have attached themselves parasitically to the universitas and threaten to transform it beyond recognition. Maybe Hythloday really does put it best when he says of the Utopians (in the Yale translation) that “These and similar opinions they have conceived partly from their upbringing, being reared in a commonwealth (Republica) whose institutions are far removed from follies of the kind mentioned, and partly from instruction and reading good books.” Will we be able to say the same about our own republic? icon

  1. See The Co[n
  2. Visit the Minor Compositions website for a statement of their philosophy about the book: “One can think of buying physical copies not as the purchase of commodities, but as a form of support or solidarity for an approach to knowledge production and engaged research.”
  3. Pierre Michaud-Quantin, Universitas: Expressions du movement communautaire dans el Moyen-Age latin (J. Vrin, 1970).
  4. Tamar Lewin, “California Bill Seeks Campus Credit for Online Study,” New York Times, March 12, 2013. In the title of the article, “Seeks” changed from the original “Would Force,” as preserved in the link’s URL.
  5. See “MOOCs Have Become a Straight Business Play,” Remaking the University (blog), accessed March 23, 2013; “The Academic Senate and Others Respond to SB520,” Remaking the University (blog), accessed March 23, 2013; Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class (Harvard University Press, 2011). See also Michael Meranze, “Will the Academic Senate Defend Faculty Authority or Not?,” Remaking the University(blog), accessed March 23, 2013.
Featured image: Mapping of Utopia (1595). Photograph by Anil Bawa-Cavia / Flickr