Something has been bothering me the last few days. I have been working on two difficult papers, but aside from that, it’s something more serious. I have been reading a lot about Aaron Swartz. If you haven’t heard about him or the case against him, read up on it here and here.
I have to admit, the tragic news of last week was the first time I had heard of him. I guess the closest I came to his activities was when early last year, I heard about the petition against the SOPA act. But this week, I realised, again, why it is important, not only for me but for all of us. I guess what struck me the most was how prominent this news was on the Internet, but how little the broadcast media were talking about it. Indeed, a confessing Lance Armstrong seems to be more interesting.
These are the reasons why I think we should care a lot about this case:
1. Knowledge is about sharing
We all know that our society is built on knowledge. And we need more knowledge. We hear it everywhere: “we live in a knowledge society”, “we need to innovate”, “companies fail because they don’t change to their new environments”, etc. But what many of us still do not seem to understand is that knowledge and knowledge creation is about sharing. We invest so much private and public money on innovation and creation of knowledge, but we really do not seem to understand the basics of it. No knowledge is ever created in a small room by a lonely person. When a person is reading, she’s communicating: with the person who has written the text.
So, it’s quite simple: if we stop sharing, we stop knowledge creation. Unless all of us understand this, live this, and make the people who govern us understand, I don’t think we will grow in a way that matters.
2. The Internet is a wonderful instrument, and we should keep it that way
As a society, we have invented the Internet and made it grow. The reason the Internet has been so successful, in my opinion, is because of one thing: the sole value it has been built around is connecting – making communication possible. It’s the ultimate instrument for sharing! Just bring it back to the basics: the Internet allows me to connect, communicate and share things with anyone over the whole world. How cool is that! It’s an instrument that has grown out of its own needs, it has created its own norms (not rules, but norms) and always around that central value of connecting.
And we have all seen what connecting and sharing can do. It allows good things to happen, and, unfortunately, bad things too. We are human, and we remain human, even when we communicate over the Internet. But does that mean, we should stop communicating – stop sharing? I think no.
I’m not saying here that people who use the Internet to do bad things should not be stopped by the law makers we have instated. I’m saying that this law should not make good sharing impossible.
3. We all have a stake in this
As a researcher, I sometimes feel that this is somehow more important for me, and that’s why I care so much about this. After all, I spend a lot of effort and time mulling over ideas and articulating them to express them in the best way possible. Those articles don’t write themselves. And when I share these ideas, I naturally want some recognition for them too.
But I realised very quickly that this goes far beyond just research or academics. Knowledge creation is at the heart of many professions and many people spend time and effort on it, and should get recognition for their work. And even outside work, we create all the time, by expressing opinions, by taking photos, making videos, etc. The question is, if curbing or stopping sharing is a solution to guarantee recognition. Again, I think no.
What I have learnt very well during my research experience so far, is that sharing an idea makes the idea grow and it makes you grow. But I have also learnt that sharing is not all-or-nothing. It’s much more nuanced than that. It depends on what you share, how you share, who you share with, etc. I think this is where we all need to become more thoughtful about sharing. Irrespective of your personal opinion about if and how sharing should be be managed (how open sharing should be), we should all be conscious in our sharing.
Think about what you share, why you share it with others, how you share it with others and what recognition you as the author want for what you share. Demand that others are clear in these issues too.
We have to become “conscious sharers“. I, for one, admit that I often fall short – but I want to change…
Because there are many who believe this is just too hard. It involves changing human behaviour, and therefore, it is always going to be easier to prevent it from happening in the first place – just make laws that shop sharing in the first place.
That is the easy way out, but it comes at a big cost – losing our Internet, and our freedom to share. Try explaining that to the kids.