Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

Aaron Swartz, open access, and why bother

Monday, December 15th, 2014

By way of recap: for the past four years I’ve been Boston University’s institutional repository librarian. I’m writing this as a private citizen, but since this post is about why I do what I do, it’s relevant.

I spent the evening knitting. It’s hard to convey how rarely I get an opportunity to just sit and knit. Between the full time, bursting at the seams job and the child and the household, I don’t just sit down and knit. I don’t just sit down and do anything. But there’s a holiday gifting idea in my bonnet, so here we are.

Along with knitting, I finally watched The Internet’s Own Boy. It’s 1h45m long. Since you’re reading this blog post on the internet, if you haven’t already seen this documentary about Aaron Swartz, you should. I’m allergic to telling people they “should” do anything—but you should. It directly affects the rest of your life, and all the ones that follow.

It’s not even worth trying to recap Aaron Swartz, but here are some highlights. He was intimately involved in the creation of Reddit, Demand Progress, the RDF standard, and Creative Commons, among too many other initiatives to list. He had a history of making information publicly available—including court documents that were public in the first place, but for which PACER charged obscene amounts of money, effectively making the most comprehensive documentation of the U.S. justice system inaccessible to entire socio-economic classes of people.

Swartz also contributed a big-data analysis of the Westlaw database to a study at Stanford that revealed widespread corruption in law publishing. (That article doesn’t credit him, but I’ll give Kahle and Lessig the benefit of the doubt.)

In 2011 Swartz was a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, about which then-director Lawrence Lessig wrote: “The work of the Center? Studying the corruption of academic research (among other institutions) caused by money.” Whether he decided to download massive numbers of academic research articles from JSTOR for research purposes, or political-activist ones, or both, will remain unknown. But download them he did, by the tens of gigabytes, using MIT’s network.

This should be review for you, so I will only highlight what happened next. Swartz got caught; MIT, JSTOR, the state of Massachusetts, and the FBI’s cyber crimes division got involved. The state and JSTOR brought charges against him, which were later dropped. The federal government brought a lawsuit containing four charges against Swartz; the number of charges was later expanded to thirteen. They offered a number of plea deals, all of which would have involved pleading guilty to a felony, and all of which Swartz refused to take. In January of 2013, Aaron killed himself.

The documentary dives far further into the messy complexity of this. The interviewees include Lessig, Tim Berners-Lee, Quinn Norton, the Swartz family, Brewster Kahle, and numerous other collaborators. The film has a decidedly political stance from the beginning, but makes a convincing argument about the powers involved in the struggles around freedom of information on the internet. This argument is unsympathetic towards the U.S. government, specifically the Obama administration, and with good reason. At the same time as this administration has failed to prosecute what the film calls the biggest crime of our time, the Wall Street machinations that led to the economic collapse, they chose to prosecute the hell out of a young activist researcher in order to make an example of him. Plenty of other damning activity, legislative and otherwise, let’s see: SOPA/PIPA, TPP, NSA spying, net neutrality vs tiered internet access — you haven’t been living under a rock, you know this is a problem.

Now imagine the mainstream media’s coverage of the recent police murders of Black men (and women, and children) being the only thing to which the entire country, the entire world had access. Could the current iteration of the civil rights movement (and it is that) have flared up if the internet were openly censored by the U.S. government, instead of merely by commercial interests?

Enabling open access to academic literature is the way that I’ve chosen to contribute to addressing this dangerous interlocking tangle. In conversations with faculty I usually emphasize other true things: there are individual professional advantages for them, of making their work openly accessible. Increased citation, increased serendipitous opportunities for collaboration and presenting, an establishment of their public voice much earlier in their careers than was possible only 20 years ago, increased opportunities for peer review—all of these are true and valid, and come with the nice side effect of encouraging faculty to learn more about copyright, and how to retain and exercise it in a way that most benefits their purpose, which (stop the presses) publishers often de-prioritize in favor of profit. Helping to fix the thoroughly broken academic publishing system, and maximizing benefits of knowledge dissemination for individual researchers, is a great service to us all.

But that exists alongside, and does not nullify, knowledge workers’ civic obligation to disseminate the fruits of our research in a way that benefits the largest number of people. It benefits the workers, yes—but it also benefits humanity in ways we can never predict. The documentary describes one case of a high school kid coming up with an early detection test for pancreatic cancer, but there are others, and their possibility is precluded by toll access to the results of previous research. In cases where marketplace profits have been all but exhausted (most of everything ever created), retaining millions of articles behind $35-per-item paywalls when they’ve already been digitized, and the expenses of that are recouped, is nonsensical. Seriously, what would be possible if all our recorded knowledge were digitally accessible to everyone? What problems would we be able to address?

Open access (OA) issues and a more proactive approach to copyright are still met with overall researcher indifference, and this is frustrating given how closely aligned OA is with things (like careers and social justice issues) they more consciously care about. Likewise with administrators, so many of whom are surprised to find OA topics directly relevant to their work. I think it’s worth the trouble for all knowledge workers to become knowledgeable in open access and copyright issues, both for personal benefit, and for the benefit of everyone else. And for all of us, it is worth periodically reminding ourselves the consequences of not working toward open access.

Here’s that documentary again. For all its white-affluent-male-ness, it’s worth watching. Thanks for reading.

the rule of beauty

Thursday, October 21st, 2010

Recently, Martha Nell Smith was awarded the Distinguished Scholar-Teacher Award by the University of Maryland, where she teaches. At the second of the above links you’ll find a video of her lecture, given on the occasion of this award, “The Humanities Are Not a Luxury.” In the wake of SUNY Albany’s astonishing decision to cut some key programs—French, classics, Russian, Italian and theatre—Smith talks with humor and a stable sort of passion about the humanities as an essential, indispensable part of what we do and are. Here are some of the things that she says:

There is no frigate, no bus, no plane, no space ship, no car, no train—none of these is like a book, like a song, like an operatic voice, like a painting, like a sculpture, like a drama. To help us imagine other lands and cultures, to help us cultivate that kind of compassion and empathy required for democracy, for practicing equality as a fundamental value, instead of the more primitive ‘better than’.

And also:

We should remind our administrators that the kind of education that enabled broad access to highest quality instruction and research, and made these United States a world leader—that kind of education can never be a gated community. And it must be worldly, reaching beyond any nation-state. Healthy, too, are reminders that business management is really not the best metaphor for knowledge workers. As was noted in a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, a better metaphor for knowledge workers is that of gardener. We work in fields. We cultivate.

What I’ve been pointing out is that unless you’re at home in the metaphor, unless you have had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere. Because you are not at ease with figurative values. You don’t know the metaphor and its strength, and its weakness. You don’t know how far you may expect to ride it, and when it may break down with you. You are not safe in science, and you are not safe in history, unless you are at home with the metaphor.

Smith rejects the rhetoric of a crisis in the humanities, a phrase often uttered. For more on the state of the humanities, see Stanley Fish’s recent NYTimes opinion pieces: “The Crisis of the Humanities Officially Arrives” and its sequel, “Crisis of the Humanities II.” I find it more than a little odd that not once does Fish mention digital endeavors of any kind, but can’t say I’m surprised. He didn’t mention them two years ago when asking whether the humanities would save us, either. I don’t subscribe to Fish’s opinions, but the articles and comments on them are thought provoking. Martha Nell Smith’s lecture, on the other hand, I heartily endorse. It’s well worth the hour and ten minutes it’ll take to watch the video.

rhetoric matters

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010

I’ve been following a discussion over on a friend’s blog about the recent Guardian article titled “Casual sexism is nothing but misogyny.” Bidisha, the article’s author, discusses casual sexism — the kind you’ll overhear in public transit and in coffee shops, the kind that a coworker will bring into your world while completely unaware they’re doing it. Or worse, being aware and not caring. It’s a real, serious, and insidious problem that should be voiced often.

But not the way Bidisha is doing it, for goodness’ sake. Her discourse is shooting its own cause in the head.

Two moments in her article bring me to disproportionate anger, because they exemplify rhetoric that is not only damaging but actually, it seems, in largely uncritical favor with the crowd where I get most of my politics on. (This statement has much more generalized data behind it than the single post I’ve referred to.) One: “Any man who thinks it’s OK to live in a household where the woman does the overwhelming majority of all the housework, childcare and family admin is a woman-hater. If he weren’t, it would agonise him to live in such an unequal and exploitative setup.” And two: “So, what to do about casual sexism? Don’t perpetrate it yourself, call it when you see it and fight any man defending his misogyny or any woman defending her false consciousness.”

Taking most of the nuance out of my reaction to these statements, we’re left with: in what universe is this helpful to anybody?

Let’s break this down. Just the one LiveJournal post I’ve witnessed discussing the article has 109 comments on it so far. Clearly, it says things that people find it interesting to talk about, to think over. Isn’t that already helpful in spurring dialogue? No, I don’t think it is. Because this is the choir right here, the one Bidisha is preaching to. We are the friendliest of allies. Most of us evidently aren’t repelled by the way she phrases things. No warning flags go off in our heads upon reading those words in the larger context of the article.

But just as decisions about who does what around the house don’t exist in a vacuum, neither does her article — and there’s a hell of a lot more responsibility on Bidisha, what with the power of the press, to be balanced enough to get through to people. To not alienate people. To make her point, be loud and clear, and at the same time avoid giving the impression that the author is a nutter, frothing at the mouth. Because shenanigans like the above are going to get her ignored and the efforts of the people in her political camp undermined.

Here’s what I think of the substance (as opposed to the very poor form) of the two quotes above. With the false consciousness, she can take that horse and ride it right back out. She doesn’t get to conscript me into her black-and-white camp on the basis of my gender, and she doesn’t get to guilt trip me if I don’t go bleating assent. The issues around sexism and gender roles in the Anglo West are multifaceted, prismatic. Looking at them closely, you get a different picture every second because there are just so many factors that go into our gendered behaviors. And no Guardian writer gets to write off anyone else’s opinions as unexamined based on grossly incomplete information.

The bit about men who think it’s OK to live in households with unequal household labor division being woman-haters isn’t just absurd and factually wrong, it’s slander of some of feminism’s most important allies. Plenty of those men are ignorant, many are sexist, a good proportion are woman-haters. And a significant number have given the matter a lot of thought, often in concert with their female partners, and have made their decisions according to what makes everyone involved happiest.

Are those decisions informed by a sexist society? Certainly. Do these people help perpetuate it? Only if you limit your gaze at those situations to a cursory one. What they are doing is living by example. They might do well to talk about these hot-button topics from their perspectives, male and female alike; we need those voices. But they should not be changing the way they live on simply because they appear to be upholding the patriarchy. That’s an absurd, defeatist demand based on appearances and not substance.

None of this is to say that the fact of uneven household labor distribution, and the ways in which it plays out most of the time, isn’t sexist. It is. It is bad when it’s unexamined. When it’s considered, it’s significantly less bad. When it’s a conscious choice by generally thinking and aware people, you and I and Bidisha don’t get to judge it bad at all unless we know more intimate details about these people’s lives. Who are you to say they aren’t compensating in some other arena? Who am I to dictate how people should approach situations where nobody actually involved feels deprived, and nobody is harmed? This is a slippery-slope argument, given how many victims consent to being victimized because they don’t see any way out. But that doesn’t give us license to erase the line between unconsidered and thoroughly considered decisions, no matter how similar they look from the outside.

As for the discourse… sometimes I wonder why I bother. “Rhetoric” and “discourse” are dirty words to so many people. The concepts are ridiculed, dismissed as having nothing to do with the real world. But rhetoric matters. Discourse matters. It’s all we have here in the real world. What we say and how we say it are equally important, and both become much more so when volatile topics like gender roles are involved. Cutting Bidisha so much slack that this crap she says is mostly ignored in the name of a larger context is irresponsible. It’s the crap that will be most damaging to the relevant causes, and turning a blind eye to it just because the author writes about sexism in the Guardian is a bad thing to do.

healthcare, now

Tuesday, July 21st, 2009

I have NO time to write this, so it’s short. Here’s part of an email from Obama’s PR people I got today:

Last week, Republican Senator Jim DeMint made it pretty clear why the opponents of health care reform are fighting so hard. As he told a special interest attack group, “If we’re able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo. It will break him.” Here’s how the President responded:

“Think about that. This isn’t about me. This isn’t about politics. This is about a health care system that is breaking America’s families, breaking America’s businesses and breaking America’s economy. And we can’t afford the politics of delay and defeat when it comes to health care. Not this time, not now. There are too many lives and livelihoods at stake.”

With Congress only days away from finalizing their plans for reform, it’s time to stand up with the President and fight back against this disastrous brand of old-style politics. So we need as many people as possible to publicly support the President’s principles for health care reform and call on Congress to act.

Please watch a 1m22s video of Obama’s response here, and if you wish, declare your support by filling out the form that only asks for your name, email address and ZIP code (presumably so that they can pass this on to your congresspeople).

Do it. It’s a tiny thing, but Obama’s campaign was one of many significant recent events that prove the power of social media and grassroots activism. Do it, please. We need different healthcare, and even if what he’s proposing won’t work, it’ll be something new to try. What we have isn’t just “not working,” it’s appalling. Please spend the four minutes on this.

EDIT: OK, so it takes you to a donation form. I should’ve checked before writing this. You don’t have to donate; your support will still be registered.

National health care and how we elect people

Thursday, June 11th, 2009

This has been sitting in my blog as a draft for a couple of weeks. It’ll be old news by now, but healthcare is a long-range political issue, and Lawrence Lessig and Joe Trippi‘s latest project Change Congress is still pursuing it, and I think it’s worth a read.

In short: Nebraska’s Senator Ben Nelson opposes to Obama’s health care reform work. Obama is all, hey, we got a broken system. Maybe we should rethink children’s health insurance and also how completely unaffordable COBRA is and what we can do about it, and, you know. Health. It’s one of those most precious resources.

And Nelson is all, Obama is trying to hurt private health insurers by making health insurance public! Socialized medicine! What next, THE FROG PLAGUE?

…Huh. What do you know, Nelson has received quite a bit of fundraising money from private health insurance companies. The article I link to here has Nelson attacking back, but he doesn’t seem to refute the donations.

Healthcare is a tricky and complex issue, and I’ve got no rosy sunglasses on about socialized healthcare. But this isn’t about public health insurance, it’s about elections. Frankly, anyone dismissing an organization run by Lessig and Trippi as a “special interest group” running “a fundraising gimmick” is automatically suspect in my book. And the vehemence of Nelson’s language combined with his considerable extremely-special-interest funding makes me want to go march somewhere and put flowers in these people’s fountain pens. It wouldn’t help, though.

So, how about changing election rules? How about entirely publicly funded election campaigns? Can you imagine how things might go when advertising time is roughly equal and people have to really think before they hurl insults at each other? What if no special interests got to financially contribute to a campaign? Wouldn’t that be nice? I think that’d be nice.

(Edited Friday 12 June to add this update from Lessig on the Nelson thing.)

my gods.

Tuesday, January 20th, 2009

I am so, so glad that I live in an age when I can watch my soon-to-be president’s face as he walks through hallways of walls and people on his way to assume office.

I’ll be telling my children about this day. My goodness, the smiles on people’s faces.

I don’t care if he doesn’t live up to the hype. There’s no way for him to. He’s a person, a politician, a president I want to follow. It’s breathtaking.

drugs for the competent

Friday, December 12th, 2008

A bunch of scientists have written a commentary in Nature arguing that mentally competent adults should be able to use what have been referred to “brain doping” drugs (Adderall, Ritalin, etc) at will, for cognitive enhancement. The idea is responsible use, of course, and of course I’m for it in theory. (For me this falls into the same category as my firm pro-choice stand: anyone who can soundly judge what they’re doing should be able to do what they consider needful or desired with their own body. And face all consequences arising from their decisions.)

Three things worry me. First, where’s the line of mental competency? This isn’t a new question, and I don’t pretend to have an answer, but it’s relevant here. Second, even assuming competency, what about sound judgment? (Ah, but here’s where their responsibility begins, and nobody should stand in their way.) And connectedly, what about physical addiction to stimulants of various sorts? This ties into both competency and sound judgment. But also, successful navigation of the addiction bit heavily depends on education, and that’s what I see as lacking.

So, we need, must have education on this topic that goes along with the freedom to experiment with one’s own brain and body chemistry. And allowing people to do so at will involves implicit acceptance of some incidence of drug addiction. But just as alcoholism is no reason to reinstate Prohibition, addiction to drugs — prescription and otherwise — is no reason to restrict those drugs.

Of course, there are drugs whose addictiveness is so overwhelming that I wouldn’t particularly want those available without a prescription. But, having seen people around me take Adderall and the like for some years, some of them getting addicted, some — not, I think cognitive-enhancing drugs aren’t physically addictive enough to worry. We just need to make sure to get information to people, enough of it that they can make their own informed decisions.

(Edited to add: But I do wish people would stop calling them brain doping drugs. That puts a derisive spin on what isn’t an inherently bad practice.)

explain to me something.

Sunday, December 7th, 2008

Am listening to Obama’s weekly address, the one in which he “lays out key parts of Economic Recovery Plan.” Don’t get me wrong, I’ve totally drunk the Obama Kool-Aid. But I don’t understand this: “We need to upgrade our federal buildings by replacing old heating systems and installing efficient light bulbs. That won’t just save you, the American taxpayer, billions of dollars each year. It will put people back to work.”

Fair enough on saving tax dollars, but how will this create or restore jobs? Does every bit of savings in taxes put people to work?

Obama goodnesses.

Monday, December 1st, 2008

Two things about the incoming administration:

One, the security team. “Nominees announced today include Senator Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, Eric Holder as Attorney General, Governor Janet Napolitano as Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Susan Rice as Ambassador to the United Nations, and General Jim Jones, USMC (Ret) as National Security Adviser. President-elect Obama also announced that he has asked Robert Gates to stay on as Secretary of Defense.”

Out of six people, on the security team, three are women. This should be interesting. I’ve heard it said many times that if women were in power, we’d have fewer military conflicts and more diplomatic resolution. I’d like to see this theory tested.

Two: change.gov is published under a Creative Commons Attribution license. Whoa, sanity and openness in practice! Now, if only they’d publish a revision history of the site…

Wow. What’s wrong with this picture?

Thursday, November 20th, 2008

Picture here. It’s Obama’s team-to-be, the people being considered anyway. What’s wrong with it?


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