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Chapter 9. Our Network

About the myriad unhealthy dependencies on commercial enterprises that our knowledge institutions have developed. And the responsibility we have to engage with free and liberal licenses, and free and open standards, for our content, our software, and our work.

Published onFeb 23, 2021
Chapter 9. Our Network

Should our ecosystem of knowledge depend on commercial platforms if it is meant to benefit and support the public good? Answer: no.1 How, then, can we build a healthier system that is noncommercial in nature: a network of the most powerful and most energetic nonprofits, the ones with the oldest pedigrees, a mashup of models like the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Institute of Health, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, Wikipedia, the Internet Archive, public media, universities, museums, libraries, archives, parks, public spaces, advocacy groups, and more?

Journalism, as a profession, has begun to confront this truth now, in a field where advertising is being siphoned away from newspapers and magazines by the largest commercial Internet behemoths. As Emily Bell of Columbia University’s Journalism School put it at the start of 2019, “The assumption in the US that news will eventually find a market model that does work has been one of the most consistent and damaging misconceptions advanced over the past twenty years.”2

The system we have is not working. Google, Apple, Microsoft, Adobe, Facebook, and Twitter: they all can fritter away our time and our dynamism, our better selves. Instagram, Snapchat, DeepTalk, DuuDuu (the name of my new start-up that measures just how much of our time and energy the corporate entities that harvest and sell our data points suck up for themselves)—all weaken our imagination.3

Our citizens around the world are ready for a network that unites our screens and speakers and various devices (including the cardboard and paper ones) into this New Enlightenment, built for and of and by the people. In the same way that the rules for how we protect the environment and manage our health care and our credit systems need to be rewritten, we now need to attend to rules for the underwriting of knowledge, of education, of culture. Education is our core strength. It’s the bones and the muscles, the neural networks and the organs of our society. Knowledge is everything.

The conversation may be about more than about making knowledge accessible. It may be about more than the elemental activist commitment, beneficent as it is, to making digital knowledge resources free because they are easy and inexpensive to duplicate and distribute. It may be that meaning and purpose is to be found in a deeper and larger conversation, now under way at last, about the need to reappraise and indeed replace the neoliberal action and funding agenda that has dominated much of the discourse around education and philanthropy, and dominated the ways we speak of supporting noncommercial activity through philanthropic giving. Larry Kramer, president of the Hewlett Foundation, has written that “Today’s prevailing intellectual paradigm—which has come to be labeled ‘neoliberalism’—is no longer up to the task. However well this free-market orthodoxy suited the late 20th century, when it achieved broad acceptance, it has proved unable to provide satisfactory answers to problems like wealth inequality, wage stagnation, economic dislocation due to globalization, and loss of jobs and economic security due to technology and automation. Worse, it has become one of the principal sites of hyperpartisan conflict.”4

Kramer expounds further on this neoliberal agenda and its attendant perversities:

Its core premises: that society consists of atomized individuals competing rationally to advance their own interests; that this behavior, in aggregate, produces good social outcomes and the greatest economic growth; that free markets are therefore the best way to allocate societal resources and government should intervene only to remedy market failures. Disagreements about what constitutes such failures and when and how to correct them persisted, but the general premises were widely embraced by policymakers and politicians (reflected, for example, in the so-called Washington Consensus). Today, this consensus is breaking down. Neoliberal policies have contributed to generating profound wealth inequality and have little to offer to address the perceived negative consequences of globalization and emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and robotics.

The “force for openness and opportunity” that many have seen in the Internet remains, but we now have to confront the fact that we are all implicated in creating what can be seen as a—the—“neoliberal, commercial, privatized web,” an online world where “the outsourcing of information practices from the public sector facilitates privatization of what we previously thought of as the public domain.”5 Advertising, as Ethan Zuckerman has said, is “the original sin of the web.” The “fallen state of our Internet,” he maintains, is a “direct, if unintentional, consequence of choosing advertising”—commercial advertising—“as the default model to support online content and services.”6 In the name of making the world—as Facebook’s original stock filing said—“more open and connected,” we have also created . . . a Frankenstein.7 As a consequence, any information—from MIT, from a museum, a newspaper, public broadcaster; or from any wackadoodle wingnut—that “purports to be credible” is “actually a reflection of advertising interests . . . delivered to users through a set of steps (algorithms) implemented by programming code and then naturalized as ‘objective’.”8 And it is delivered to users in a highly unregulated, largely commercial media environment—stripped, also thanks to the success of the neoliberal agenda, of any meaningful government/regulatory oversight. Google and its parent company, Alphabet, let us remember, have spent more on Washington lobbyists than any other corporation in America.9

We now depend almost exclusively on commercial third-party vendors (Google/YouTube; Amazon’s CloudFront; Vimeo) for rich media distribution.10 Is that in our interest? For ten days in 2018, MIT OpenCourseWare videos—in many ways the most important video resource body in education—were rendered largely invisible to the world. YouTube had changed its terms of service without prior notice, and, before some emergency haggling and hondling, MIT OCW videos went completely dark.

MIT OCW video disappears from YouTube—I—June 2018

One public comment on a blog post after YouTube took down MIT OCW for ten days that June was: “You can find entire lectures on . . . With that said I suggest MIT starts P2P streaming, and relieving us of YouTube’s tentacles. This should serve as a stark prompt to MIT to not depend entirely on YouTube serving OCW videos. . . . Shouldn’t MIT be leading the charge in developing P2P streaming? (Asking out loud).”11 In this light, is it worth noting here and for our argument as a whole how “Democracy Now!” and “The Open Mind,” among other noncommercial and educational video collections, work with the Internet Archive—a powerful node of our network. The Internet Archive helps by facilitating systematic batch uploads of video.12

MIT OCW video disappears from YouTube—II—June 2018

Hewlett’s Larry Kramer writes:

The academy is vastly larger [than in the late 1940s] and more specialized and heterogeneous, while public trust in what it produces has declined. The number of journals and outlets for publishing is exponentially greater. Our media are fragmented and politicized, and standards for assessing factual accuracy—much less intellectual quality—have eroded. Ideas and arguments increasingly are distributed through the medium of the Internet, which turns choices about what we see over to uncurated social media guided by algorithms designed to maximize ad revenue. The noise one needs to break through to be heard today is practically deafening.13

What then should be the relationship between the production and distribution of knowledge and the commercial architecture of today’s web, and of both to the larger architecture of the public good? Stanford University historian and open-access advocate John Willinsky, studying the relationships of scholarship to rights, licenses, and publishing over millennia, has written that “historical efforts to increase and improve access—through copying and translation, paper and printing, libraries and academies—were among the more constant and inventive activities of learned institutions.”14 We should always be identifying the relationship of our work to the Commons and, more specifically, always be interrogating the rights and licenses governing access to academic knowledge. One scholar asks us to do just that, freeing up more university knowledge, and then to

imagine [the energy of the network underlying the Internet] . . . turned loose not only on the cultural artifacts of the twentieth century, but on the universe of scholarly literature. Think of the people who would work on Buster Keaton, or the literary classics of the 1930s, or the films of the Second World War, or footage on the daily lives of African Americans during segregation, or the music of the Great Depression, or theremin recordings, or the best of vaudeville. But think also of those who are fascinated by Civil War history, of the analysis of the works of Dickens, or the latest paper on global warming, or Tay-Sachs disease. . . .

“Where are the boundaries,” he then demands, “of the academy now?”15 Open as a constant is good; and increasing openness as a natural law of knowledge institutions may be grounds for optimism. And as time goes on, artificial intelligence and its many concomitant manifestations will give rise to additional moral, ethical, and human rights issues—probably far surpassing the ones around Google and Facebook and Apple that we obsess about today.

The challenge we face is how to build the best future for knowledge, but the real context for this challenge is the crisis we face—an epistemic crisis, a knowledge crisis, a truth crisis—brought to the fore by an untended and largely commercial media ecosystem, itself the result of the neoliberal project to deregulate media and technology while subjecting expertise and the university project in particular to skepticism and doubt. And, as we are all implicated—as information studies scholar Safiya Umoja Noble writes,

commercial control over the Internet, often considered a “commons,” has moved further away from the public through a series of national and international regulations and intellectual and commercial borders that exist in the management of the network. Beyond the Internet and the control of the network, public information—whether delivered over the web or not—continues to be outsourced to the public sphere, eroding the public information commons that has been a basic tenet of U.S. democracy.16

—we should all dig out of it together. Active measures are needed to surface the knowledge that we produce as knowledge institutions with centuries of trust and well-earned brand loyalty behind us. Do knowledge institutions have a responsibility to engage with free and liberal licenses, and free and open standards, for their content, their software, their work product? You bet we do. Increasingly, the funders of our work will mandate open/free access provisions as a condition for accepting their support.17 And what access should we be guaranteeing to the disabled and disadvantaged?18 And more broadly, for the materials that we all curate—even loosely defined—do we consider facilitating present access to past culture as some kind of professional obligation?19

In these new Sargasso Seas of online lies and fakery, the effort of one lone Ahab, or indeed a Pequod, will not be sufficient; rather, educational and cultural institutions captained by visionary educators need to work together to strategize and reinforce each other. Ahab alone ended poorly.20 In the long history of the access-to-knowledge movement, there has always been a moral imperative to share what we know, especially in the age of the Internet (which makes it so easy to do so). But now, in this moment, the imperative is overarching, encompassing everything. Violence and lawlessness are rising, and basic civil norms and codes of social conduct are disintegrating across the country and everywhere. The Monsterverse—while not completely visible—is more active and powerful now than ever.

Philosophers speak of the ways in which we are able to directly affect, for the better, the power structure of the public sphere and deliberative politics worldwide through the production and redistribution of media—of how the public square and public space are continually defined and redefined; where access to knowledge is over and over again denied, debated, and fought over; and where the responsibilities for tying the public record to truth and reason sometimes lie in the hands of moral and Solomonic stewards and sometimes in the hands of fools.21 Collective action is required to publish our truths—all that can be found in books, journals, courseware, sound video, imagery—freely and openly and immediately, everywhere.22 As we indicated in Chapter 1, this need for collective action is becoming more and more evident to all who consider themselves stakeholders, however modestly, in the great Enlightenment project of liberty, equality, fraternity—and peace. As MIT professor and the founder of the web, Tim Berners-Lee, has put it, “The web has become a public square, a library, a doctor’s office, a shop, a school, a design studio, an office, a cinema, a bank, and so much more.”

Of course with every new feature, every new website, the divide between those who are online and those who are not increases, making it all the more imperative to make the web available for everyone. And while the web has created opportunity, given marginalised groups a voice, and made our daily lives easier, it has also created opportunity for scammers, given a voice to those who spread hatred, and made all kinds of crime easier to commit.

The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine have discussed forming “a consortium of professional scientific organizations to fund the creation of a media and internet operation that monitors networks, channels, and web platforms known to spread false and misleading scientific information so as to be able to respond quickly with a countervailing campaign of rebuttal based on accurate information through Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of social media.”23 In 2020, they have begun collaborating with—who else?—Wikipedia on edit-a-thons about climate change. Berners-Lee himself is calling for a new “Contract for the Web,” and has enumerated the commitments required for governments, corporations, and individuals to build the web we want.

Governments will:

Ensure everyone can connect to the internet so that anyone, no matter who they are or where they live, can participate actively online.

Keep all of the internet available, all of the time so that no one is denied their right to full internet access.

Respect people’s fundamental right to privacy so everyone can use the internet freely, safely and without fear.

Companies will:

Make the internet affordable and accessible to everyone so that no one is excluded from using and shaping the web.

Respect consumers’ privacy and personal data so people are in control of their lives online.

Develop technologies that support the best in humanity and challenge the worst so the web really is a public good that puts people first.

Citizens will:

Be creators and collaborators on the web so the web has rich and relevant content for everyone.

Build strong communities that respect civil discourse and human dignity so that everyone feels safe and welcome online.

Fight for the web so the web remains open and a global public resource for people everywhere, now and in the future.24

Such sweeping new visions for action, and collective action at that, should be racing across the horizon of all knowledge institutions like wildfire: across the horizons of museums, libraries, public broadcasters, archives—really any organization with a mission or mandate to educate. The original Enlightenment owed its success to its own variety of network, as the digital humanities scholars have shown.25 Our New Enlightenment will unspool across our new network of knowledge.

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