Blog Post

Swartz and us: links in the chain

It's been a week of reading obituaries, lashbacks and analyses of the Aaron Swartz situation. As someone who focuses on digital classrooms and is so closely associated with Wikipedia and champions the cause of free learning resources, here are some thoughts on what we should be looking at in the Swartz aftermath. The Swartz case is particularly close to my heart because Swartz represents a faction within academia (that I partake of as well) and practitioners who occupy the insider/outsider position. In fact, a lot of criticism for his acts came from within the very community he inhabited or all of us inhabit at some point. I am just trying to highlight a few key issues that seem to be irresolvable impasses where most debates on free knowledge choke up. Johanna Niesyto in her paper on consensus in Wikipedia cites Chantall Mouffe's notion of irresolvable antagonism. I will come to that and Hannah Arendt's emphasis on political creativity as an alternate response to the knowledge archive problem.

The first problem is a very skewed and problematic spot most academics occupy. While discussing the Swartz case in class, while most of us agreed that we have been denied tons of knowledge whenever we are in positions of not being subscribed to Jstor, our professor who publishes regularly and has been inhabiting the other end of the academic hegemony for long (royalties, attribution and more), was not in a position to comment on this. Especially, given that I belong to India, a developing country, even established universities face problems merely acquiring books, let alone champion for them to be freely distributed. What I am trying to highlight here is a state of extremely fraught personal politics in academia when it comes to free knowledge. I am tempted to believe that much of the resistance or disavowal of crowdsourced knowledge platforms like Wikipedia also stems from the fear of decentralizing powerful knowledge centers. The paradox lies in that those who may occupy one end of the spectrum today (students) will eventually make the academic journey and one of its success measures will be their own visibility on Jstor and thereby a transformed stake in knowledge archives, not as recepients but as esteemed producers and a step further, generous and consenting distributors of knowledge.

A little before we come to intellectual property and ownership. The knowledge archive situation is also similar to, or a vein out of the existing Wikipedia debates in that it places significant onus on the author as proprietor of knowledge and thereby creates a consensus collective on this side of the border. This precisely takes us back to practitioners, teachers, coders or institutions; basically anybody in the business of producing knowledge who forget or choose to ignore the multiple different modes of knowledge production as individual, collaborative, community oriented and more. As Timothy Burke says, "Most centrally, that there are several ethical imperatives that should make everything that JSTOR (or any comparable bundling of scholarly publication) holds freely available to everyone: much of that work was underwritten directly or indirectly by public funds..." The question to be asked of academic practice and scholarship is whether producing knowledge as individuals is even possible. As the risk of repeating some basic arguments to make a case for intellectual property on the body of the author (as I would see, the assimilator of knowledge/gatherer of senses), can authors afford to claim that what they produce is solely a a product of their own living (and then is their own living anything but living with others who in turn help them produce what they do?). Perhaps in less Westernized societies where parallel models of education exist, there are still grey areas that produce interesting conflicts and help highlight the role of communities as knowledge producing environments rather than Enlightenment - individuals. Here, is one such curious case of a photocopier sued for 6 million Indian Rupees by Oxford and other publishers in India.

The author question is not new at all. But that it recurs and that State or aligned enterprises choose to locate absolute agency in authors is worrisome not only for the existing problems of access to knowledge and its unequal distribution, but also because formal higher education (as we participate in it currently) is constantly compelling us to make the same academic journey, in turn making us participate in and align our success measures to the same hegemony as well as necessitating that professions in academia and around gradually mold their personal politics in the same bent. That is probably why there is a more urgent need to look at cultures of education - practices, ethics and shaping of personal politics in the process of teaching besides asking for immediate legal changes.

Since the story of Aaron Swartz remains to hound us at different levels, personal and beyond, I will only conclude with an alternate way in which one could respond. Hannah Arendt suggests that it is not so crucial that political actions are carried out or even accomplished but more important is the ability to begin something new...and step in the 'space of appearance'. Similar is true for prefering disruptive, creative and pedagogical interventions apart from the more obvious  activism attempts such as campaigning to repeal CFAA.


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