Beveled Mirrors

By Charles Henry posted

As discussed in an earlier blog, new digital projects have begun to flourish within higher education that, if successful, will create genuine interdependencies: deep collaborations that could redefine our academic environment. The blog noted that this array of national-scale projects offers an enormous opportunity for educational organizations and institutions to build new bases of support, reach new constituencies, cultivate funding agencies, and build lasting, mutually sustaining connections between the public and private sectors. In response to this phenomenon, CLIR is undertaking a strategic turn in its decades-long history, forming the Committee on Coherence at Scale.

In that blog—and in a plethora of books, articles, posts, and presentations—collaboration and cooperation are assumed to be a salient, noble characteristic of human behavior in service to the common good. Yet cooperation is more nuanced in its implications and can entail serious and complex problems that those who are cooperating may not understand or foresee at the time. A quote from Jared Diamond articulates the darker side of collaborative efforts, on a grand scale:

"To science we owe dramatic changes in our smug self image. Astronomy taught us that our earth isn't the center of the universe but merely one of billions of heavenly bodies. From biology we learned we weren't specially created by God but evolved along with millions of other species. Now archaeology is demolishing another sacred belief: that human history over the past million years has been a long tale of progress. In particular, recent discoveries suggest the adoption of agriculture, supposedly our most decisive step toward a better life, was in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered. With agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism, that curse our existence."[i]

Elsewhere, in starker terms, Diamond has referred to the adoption of agriculture as "the worst mistake in the history of the human race." Earlier narratives from the fields of paleontology and archaeology, as Diamond notes, tended to frame the evolution of human social development in progressive terms: the ancient days of the hunter-gatherer were far more primitive and fraught than the settled life that domestication of grains and animals afforded. From this new organization, which was geographically fixed, as opposed to the wandering and meandering of the kin-based social clans, cities arose, and with them new technologies, hierarchies, organized religion, and specialization of labor and skills.

But attendant with the rise of the cities came, in Diamond's jolting terms, starvation, warfare, disease, and tyranny. Increased specialization of skills contributed to a more stratified system of social classes, much different than the egalitarian and loose relationships known in modern hunter-gatherers. Deep class divisions could ensue, and were even purposeful.

This reference to perhaps our most significant social turn in the last five thousand years is meant to frame a series of blogs on projects in history that were inherently cooperative.

Collaboration in the discussions of the 21st century research library and higher education is often sheathed in positive terms, an optimal outcome that rewards participants with new goals, often unachievable singly or by individual institution; we tout the value of projects more extensible and easier to adopt, and the more subtle perquisite of increased trust and deeper knowledge. But we need always to keep in mind that collaboration comes with a cost. While it can open new ways of doing business, it can entail organizational changes, different political alignments, and in the most extreme cases a thorough rethinking of our basic assumptions and habits.

Over the next few months, Re: Thinking will examine some examples from the ancient and modern worlds that involve cooperation and collaborative efforts, as well as ambiguity and at times loss. Archeological findings at Goebekli Tepe, the oldest known religious site in human history; Newgrange in Ireland; and the work of Frederick Weyerhaeuser in consolidating the vast timber delivery systems in the 19th century will be explored. The blogs, subtitled “Beveled Mirrors,” argue that these examples are not simply a distant mirror on our own times, but a more subtle, colored version of many of the themes and issues we grapple with today—reflections with a beveled edge.


[i] Jared Diamond, "The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race," Discover Magazine (May 1, 1987, 64-66). See also Guns, Germs, and Steel. The Fate of Human Societies (Norton, N.Y. 1997); B.D. Smith, The Emergence of Agriculture (Scientific American Library, New York, 1998). Nicholas Wade, Before the Dawn. Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors (Penguin, New York, 2006)