Robbing the JSTOR: Theft or Activism?
by Adam Robbert
Aaron Swartz, a Cambridge web entrepreneur and political activist who has lobbied for the free flow of information on the Internet, was charged in federal court with hacking into a subscription-based archive system at MIT and stealing more than 4 million articles, including scientific and academic journals.
This is definitely a debate worth having: how do we wager the necessity of free access to information against the need to keep the publishing industry alive? Clearly, print media is in a whole lot of trouble, with the only solution presenting itself seeming to be a migration of print to a totally electronic world of online, open access media. I say total migration, but I suspect myself and other will always buy books- reading a large volume online is still tedious and difficult in many ways- we need better systems of electronic interface! Despite my love for printed books, this migration seems inevitable, even favorable, since the media ecology of online research is leaps and bounds more democratic and accessible than the traditional journal formats of old.
Of course this is a double edged sword, especially for academics (myself included). I am not at all sure what the economics involved in the situation are, but I assume that running a large scale, reputable academic journal requires quite a lot of money, time, and resources- hence the upwards of $50,000 annual subscription fees universities pay for access to journals. I routinely find myself searching for topics online, only to be met with a $30-a- piece fee for downloading the relavent articles my searches return (this seems like an unreasonable price to pay for 20 pages of material). Fortunately, I live in the bay area and have access to not just my own schools academic resources, but basically all the multitude of Bay Area campuses nearby, and, subsequently, all of their journal access. UC Berkeley, for example, is only a 30 minute BART ride from my house in SF, and once one is on campus the computers give you access to view and download the entire UC Berkeley pantheon of journals and academic search engine (thanks UC!)
So, for me, there are other ways around the issue of cost and access. But what about non-academics? What about freelance professionals, researchers, cultural creatives, and activists? We are heading for an open information society- whether the powers at be want it or not. I think Wikileaks and the like are just the beginning. Indeed, I get the sense that many in the recent rash of hacking incidents are being carried out by 19 year olds and 20 somethings who seem to be able to run circles around the security systems put in place by major institutions. The individual in the above mentioned article attempted to steal 4 million academic journal articles- with the intention of releasing them on peer-to-peer file sharing networks, thus making them accessible to anyone with online access. Needless to say, this is not the first or last attempt at this type of activity we are going to see.
So, print media is being swallowed by online media, blogging is becoming a major avenue for the articulation of theory and debate, journal articles are being swiped by the millions and will be distributed to the masses- how is this going to shape our work in the future? Of course, non of this will replace the need for the academy. Even with that many journal articles available the average person will still need the training, context, and interaction with professors and other students to be able to put the information to use (though I am sure there are a few exceptions to this- genius is not limited to the academy). But what then must these institutions begin to look like? What are the necessary media ecologies that must be constructed in order to facilitate these changes in a way that is sustainable?
Somehow we need to let the development of these online media ecologies flow back into the infrastructure and ecology of our cities, towns, and institutions. Surely the academy, the research industry, and the independent creative, activist, or theorist must change based on these circumstances. I suspect these changes are going to be as vast as previous changes in media ecologies- the invention of the phonetic alphabet, the guttenburg press, or the introduction and production of mirrors in to social spaces. Indeed, this blog is a manifestation of these changes. I welcome discussion and debate on these topics- thoughts anyone?