Monday, 14 January 2013

Hackademia's first martyr?

While you lot have been truffling in new media's celebrity trough, distributing Stephen Fry's latest aperçus and OMGing over Justin Bieber's latest calculated transgression, there's been a torrid debate about what social media will do to academia.

Like most fields, there's a sense that the ease with which material is distributed will overturn the dominant forces and vested interests which restrict the free flow of information. And of course there's a determined fightback from those vested interests. I'm not talking about the generators of knowledge, by the way. We're like pre-capitalist cottage weavers: not alienated from our work like industrial factory labourers, but exploited just the same. We take tax-payers' money in the form of research grants and cash from students' loans (thanks, kids - appreciate it) and turn some of it into academic literature: books, journal articles, conference papers and the like. I say we, I mean 'they'. I turn in a research paper roughly on the schedule Jesus turns up in Missouri, which unless you're a Mormon, isn't very often.

What happens to these papers? We give them to publishers for free. In some cases, especially prestigious journals, we actually pay them to get our work in print. Then they charge £50-100 for a book, and several thousand £s per year for journal access. It's largely profit: we hand in our work in ready-to-print condition, and the editors are usually academics working for free career progression too. It's not like the music industry, where the musician eventually gets paid something if you pay for a record rather than downloading it. All the publishers do is print and post things – and in the internet age, I'm not sure that's quite enough to justify their business model.

So in short: you pay for it, we write it, publishers profit handsomely from it – and nobody reads it. Especially you people who pay for the research. It stinks.

Enter Aaron Swartz, a nice young man who decided that information the public paid to generate should be free to read. In a quixotic personal gesture, he hid a laptop in a server cupboard and downloaded every article on JSTOR (an academic publication repository) he could cram onto his hard drive, planning to dump them on the internet where you could all see what you'd paid for. And perhaps use it to write a new generation of enlightening texts unhampered by not being able to afford to pay for them again.

With the connivance of MIT, his employer, Aaron was arrested and charged with multiple counts of theft – we all know that the United States hates copyright breaches more than juvenile gun massacres – and legislates accordingly. He faced decades in prison. True to form, he even posted his court documents for free, evading the US Government's pay-per-view system (?!) until they shut him down.

A few days he killed himself. I wish he hadn't: this argument needs to be had on intellectual and political grounds rather than individualised tragedy, but I'm horrified and saddened by the burden he took on, and the effect it had on him. Swartz is a hero, but he's also emblematic of a generation which lacks political skills in the widest sense. The new media age has made us all radically individualist. All the virtues of mass political action have been discarded as slow and cumbersome but having dumped collective action, the individual is left horribly exposed when a solo mission goes wrong.

That's why I disapprove of Aaron Swartz's action. He was right to download and circulate all these articles - but doing so on his own, without building a movement, didn't advance the cause and didn't help him. We don't need martyrs, we need a critical mass to overwhelm the vested interests. This poor man acted in the best of interests, but lacked the ideological resources to turn a private conviction into something more than a personal crusade. Yes, there's a network of supporters that turned out for Swartz and there's a lot of buzz on the internet about copyright and academic freedom, but these loose, temporary alliances don't build the structures we need to achieve our goals. Aaron loaded millions of papers onto a little laptop: cool in a Goonies sort of way, but a gesture rather than a grown-up strategy of subversion.

t's a general problem: we've grabbed all the advantages of net activism and dumped the skills of the analogue generation. We're decentralised, but we're also alone. Without solidarity, we're exposed, and often reduced to headline-grabbing stunts which bring the wrath of states and corporation down on the heads of indidividuals like poor Mr Swartz. I know this sounds both old-fashioned and cold, but one of the joys of Old Politics is that you're never alone. In my work as a union officer, I know that I'll never be left to face management alone. An attack on one is an attack on all, and there are real-world consequences for anyone who crosses us. For Aaron, the real-world consequences fell entirely on him, because he'd failed to patiently build the networks, alliances and structures required for real-world action.

For all that, Aaron Swartz is a hero. But he didn't need to die.


Anonymous said...

I'd be interested to hear your views on the 'Open Access' legislation which will be coming into effect here in the UK soon.

The academic publisher that I work for are certainly having to re-assess their business model a little. We are, by the way, a non-profit organisation, so any profits generated by books, journals and other publications are fed back into the organisation to fund conferences, events, and publishing some of the less financially viable works.

The Plashing Vole said...

I wish I had a solution! Being non-profit certainly makes a difference. I'd like to see more universities co-operate to found presses and build editorial work, peer-reviewing etc into academics' working hours. The major publishers put so little into the published work (some don't even edit or index books any more, which used to be skilled jobs) that they're basically profiting solely from their brand, and from work funded by others. I hope your company survives, on the other hand - it sounds like you do good work.