I was struck by two stories from the past few days. Each was interesting, but the combination seemed to encapsulate our moment in the Web’s history.
Item: Sir Tim Berners-Lee calls for ordinary people to take back the Web. He helped launch a site and, hopefully, a movement, The Web We Want. This celebrates “an open, universal Web.” That’s one which “enables everyone on the planet to participate in a free flow of knowledge, ideas, collaboration and creativity.”
Item: scholarly publishing company Elsevier sent thousands of take-down notices to scholars who had republished copies of papers they’d authored.
In case you’re not sure where I’m going with this, recall what else Berners-Lee et al say about the open Web: “It is essential to education”.
Take these two stories together. Both describe an increasingly successful information order in the world, one which implements an architecture of access control and surveillance over the Web. Both also show people calling for resistance to this order, and for urging the free flow of information over that same Web.
This struggle is vital to education.
Obviously! But to spell things out a bit: actions like Elsevier’s limit human access to information. Students, scholars, practitioners, the merely curious have fewer opportunities to engage with this material. Such actions also restrict scholars’ ability to take actions with their products. This is consonant with the behavior of many other industries, such as those powered by intellectual property.
There are many, many issues knotted together in this architectonic debate (privacy, national security, copyright, national vs international law, etc.), but let’s think of this in terms of campus grand strategy for the moment. As we hurtle towards 2014, where does higher education stand in this struggle? Besides helping the NSA protect its trademark, what steps are being taken by leaders of universities and colleges?
We have more than a decade, now, of multiple movements for openness within academia: open access, open source software, open education resources. These have largely bubbled up from below in the scholastic hierarchy, or been the lonely work of lone activists. Is 2014 the year when we’ll see college presidents and university deans commit themselves?
Sir Tim’s group calls for “civil society organizations from around the world” to act. Do we number American campuses in that group?
Or are we too bound up with the needs of certain businesses and governments to participate? Perhaps academia will more clearly throw in with for-profit publishers to maintain traditional tenure review notions, say, or to ensure the survival of scholarly societies crucial to some faculty, or to protect textbook earnings for some other professors, or to obey the grim advice of legal counsel. Tacitly or explicitly, American higher education could signal its support for this route.
Behind door #3 is the option of doing… nothing. Our leaderships can maintain radio silence on this issue, deferring decisions to professional organizations and individual faculty.
I’m prepping several posts on what 2014 might hold in store, and many more issues are on the docket. But I wanted to get this issue out now, given the confluence of those two stories, those two modelers of the Web: Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Elsevier. Consider them as avatars, or Virgils, or counselors. Which one will we heed?