Tuesday, January 15, 2013

When Knowledge Is Expensive

Aaron Swartz
A few days ago a "hacktivist" by the name of Aaron Swartz hanged himself at the age of 26. As near as I can tell he might have taken that course as a way out of facing federal charges -- that could result in up to 35 years in prison -- that he illegally "stole" information from JSTOR, a digital information source of academic journals and primary source material. Some material was free at JSTOR, but other stuff required a paid subscription.

Aaron Swartz was known to have suffered from depression, so the causes of his suicide are more complicated than that he was a victim of "the man," in this case Barack Obama's Dept. of Justice.

RSS feed icon
Swartz was considered brilliant in the tech world, having, at the age of 14, co-invented RSS news feeds, which allowed automated dissemination of digital content to people's in-boxes, and later, while still a teen, founding Infogami, which later merged with Reddit, of which he is considered a co-founder and co-owner until it was sold to Condé Nast in 2005. Also key in his short but brilliant bio was his successful efforts to stop SOFA, a congressional effort to rein in freedom of content on the Internet.

I've probably made errors in this highly condensed version of Aaron Swartz's life, but, oh well. To get a sense of Aaron Swartz's impact on the geek and tech community, read this moving reaction to his death from Danah Boyd, a social media researcher I've been following and learning from for almost ten years.

MIT was implicated in throwing the book at Swartz, as the actions he took to "steal" the information from JSTOR apparently took place on its campus. Many people in the geek community are really mad at MIT right now for not helping the world to back off of Aaron Swartz, likening his actions to being more like "taking too many books out of the library" than a really serious crime.

College life: It's not all about learning.
My takeaway from this tragic story is that, although it's more complicated than "information should be free," we live in a world where knowledge is increasingly more expensive in spite of its increasing availability on the Internet, especially in terms of the access to knowledge that leads to productive, successful lives, i.e. a college education.

I don't have to give examples of how expensive and out of reach most top universities are to our shrinking middle class. Even heretofore inexpensive public universities are becoming too expensive for ordinary souls.

I also get that people need to be compensated for packaging and delivery services. If I decide I love roasting coffee and want to build a business, I can rightfully expect to be compensated for roasting, packaging, and distributing my beloved product. JSTOR perhaps should be, as well.

There is a difference between coffee and knowledge, and somehow the commoditization of information is more problematic than, say, Huggies. But there is a difference. If nothing else, "information wants to be free" makes sense. It's not confusing.

Real online university in our future?
There is hope. Just like gay rights came seemingly out of nowhere to make unexpected breakthroughs, and gun safety, though it'll be resisted tooth and nail by the gun nuts, is poised to have its own breakout moment (after a couple more Newtowns, I'm afraid), a college-level education may become as free as books from the library, very, very soon.

As more and more top-flight professors from top-tier universities put their courses online for free using services like Coursera, Udacity, and edX, a rich and broad education may become available to those who want to take the time to access it. Though fees are inevitable with any meaningful emerging technology, hopefully they will be more incidental than anything else.

The cynical side of me wonders if the MOOC (massive open online course) movement is simply a way for top universities to deflect criticism from how elite and unavailable they are, a sort of buffer against the outside world in order to maintain their privileged status while appearing to want information to be free. But who cares? If the result, over time, is that anyone can get the knowledge and training they want, if knowledge gets well packaged and well delivered for an everyman price, I say that is progress indeed.

Afterthought: Aaron Swartz dropped out of Stanford after one year, Bill Gates never finished Harvard, and Steve Jobs didn't last a year at Reed College, so I don't mean to imply that college is a necessary component of a satisfying life. Still, for the everyday mook, college represents the way to improve opportunities for success in life or, if not, then a way to expand one's horizons. It worked wonders in both categories for me, even if my degree remained unused until I was nearly forty, when it was the catalyst for a most fulfilling couple of decades of work and play.

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