Everyday, millions of innocent children are unwillingly part of a terrible dictatorship. The government takes them away from their families and brings them to cramped, crowded buildings where they are treated as slaves in terrible conditions. For seven hours a day, they are indoctrinated to love their current conditions and support their government and society. As if this was not enough, they are often held for another two hours to exert themselves almost to the point of physical exhaustion, and sometimes injury. Then, when at home, during the short few hours which they are permitted to see their families they are forced to do additional mind-numbing work which they finish and return the following day.
This isn’t some repressive government in some far-off country. It’s happening right here: we call it school.
Suicide is not only about proximate causes.
The reasons someone commits suicide at a particular moment aren’t all the reasons they commit suicide. Often those aren’t even the most important reasons. No one likes this part of the explanation. It makes an event that’s already as awful as it can be more awful, because it renders it inexplicable. Most of us, even with our occasional desires for the ground to swallow us up, can sympathize but never really empathize.
Although most academic research is funded by the public, universities all but force their scholars to publish their results in journals that take ownership of the work and place it behind expensive pay walls.
Centuries ago, when printing and mailing paper journals was the most efficient way to disseminate new knowledge, a symbiotic relationship developed between scholars, who had ideas they wanted to share, and publishers, who had printing presses and the means to convey printed works to a wide audience. Transferring copyright to publishers, which protected their ability to recover costs and profit from their investment, was a reasonable price for authors to pay to further their disseminating mission.
But with the birth of the internet, scholars no longer needed publishers to distribute their work. As NYU’s Clay Shirky has noted, publishing went from being an industry to being a button.
Had the leaders of major research universities reacted to this technological transformation with any kind vision, Swartz’s dream of universal free access to the scholarly literature would now be a reality. But they did not. Rather than seize this opportunity to greatly facilitate research and education, both within and outside the academy, they chose instead to reify the status quo.
Open-access champion and RSS co-creator Aaron Swartz, who took his own life last week at the age of 26, echoes Neil deGrasse Tyson, Isaac Asimov, and Sir Ken Robinson. A heartbreaking loss in innumerable ways.
Some thoughts on Aaron’s legacy in digital culture from Stanford’s Jennifer Granick.