Listening to Lessig

Like many other attendees, I was pleased when I saw that the closing keynote address for this year’s Association of College and Research Libraries Conference was to be given by Professor Larry Lessig of Harvard.  But, to be honest, my excitement was mingled with a certain cynicism.  I have heard Lessig speak before, and I am afraid I worried that I would be listening to essentially the same lecture again.

My suspicion was not wholly unwarranted.  In part I think it is the fault of Lessig’s instantly recognizable lecture style.  It is energetic and entertaining, but because its rhythms and conventions are so idiosyncratic, I think it may flatten the message a little bit.

In any case, I sat down in the ballroom of the Oregon Convention Center on Saturday with somewhat mixed expectations.  But what I did not expect was for Lessig to begin his talk by acknowledging that all his public lectures were really the same.  Had he read my mind?  No, his point was a little different.  Over the years, he told us, he has had three major themes – political corruption, net neutrality, and copyright/open access.  But, he told his audience of attentive librarians, those three themes are fundamentally just one theme.  Each is about equality.  Not three themes, but only one — equality.  Equality of access to the political process is the heart of his current campaign against the corruption of our political system by the endless pursuit of money.  Equality of access to the means of communication and culture is key to the fight for net neutrality.  And equality of access to knowledge is what animates the open access movement.

So it turns out that my worry, prior to the talk, was both unfair and, in a sense, correct.  All Lessig’s lectures are very much the same, because the underlying value he is asking us to focus on is the same.

Thinking about this unity-behind-diversity in the messages about political corruption, net neutrality and open access set me thinking about the way my colleagues and I frame our advocacy for the last of those items, open access to scholarship.  Our messages, I think, tend to focus on incremental change, on the benefits to individual scholars, and on not rocking the academic boat too much.  Lessig reminded me that there are good reasons to rock a little bit harder.  Publishing in toll access journals and neglecting open access options or additional means of dissemination is not just short-sighted.  It is dumb, and it is harmful.  We need to say that occasionally.

Publishing exclusively through closed access channels is dumb because it ignores huge opportunities available that can, quite simply, make the world a better place.  And such publishing fails to take full advantage of the greatest communications revolution since the printing press.  Indeed, online toll-access deliberately breaks network technology in order to protect its outmoded and exclusionary business model.  Doing this is simply propping up the buggy whip manufactures because we are afraid of how fast the automobile might travel.  The academy is not usually this dumb, but in this case we are wasting vast amounts of money to support an obsolete technology.  I know that the promotion and tenure process is often cited as the reason for clinging to the old model, but this is simply using one outdated and inefficient system as an excuse for adhering to another such system.  Traditional modes of evaluation are breaking down as fast as traditional publishing and for the same reasons.  Hiding our heads in the sand is no solution.

More to the point, however – more to Lessig’s point – is the fact that this traditional system we are so reluctant to wean ourselves from actually hurts people.  It fosters ignorance and inequality.  It makes education more difficult for many, retards economic progress, and slows development worldwide.  As academics and librarians who by inclination and by professional responsibility should be committed to the most universal education possible, it is shameful that we cling to a system where only the rich can read our scholarship, only the privileged gain access to the raw materials of self-enlightenment.  How can a researcher studying the causes and treatments of malaria, for example, be satisfied to publish in a way that ensures that many who treat that disease around the globe will never be able to see her research?  How can an anthropologist accept a mode of publishing that limits access for the very populations he studies, so they will never be able to know about or benefit from his observations?  Why would a literary scholar writing about post-colonialist literature publish in a way that fosters the same inequalities as earlier forms of colonialism did?

In this wonderful column from Insider Higher Ed., the ever-insightful Barbara Fister writes about what we really mean when we talk about serving a community, and what we might mean by it.  She comments on the “members-only” approach to knowledge sharing that has become an accepted practice, and challenges us to rethink it.  Like Lessig, Fister is calling us to consider our core values of equality and the democratization of knowledge.  She also reminds us of how dumb – her word is wasteful – the current system is.

Perhaps the most vivid example of how subscription-based publishing fosters, and even demands, inequality is found in the ongoing lawsuit brought against a course pack publisher in India by three academic publishers.  Two of the “usual suspects” are here – Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press (joined, in the Delhi University suit, by Taylor and Francis) – and this lawsuit is even more shameful than the one brought against Georgia State.  The problem, of course, is that the books published by these modern-day colonialists are too expensive for use in India.  I once was told by a professor of IP law in India that a single textbook on trademark law cost over a month’s salary for his students.  Photocopying, whether it is authorized by Indian law or not (and that is the point at issue) is a matter of educational survival, but these publishers want to stop it.  Their rule – no one should ever learn anything without paying us – is a recipe for continued ignorance and inequality.  It is disgraceful.

I use the word colonialists in the paragraph above quite deliberately.  What we are seeing here is the exploitation of a monopoly that is imposed on a culture with the demand that people pay the developed world monopoly holders in order to make progress as a society.  We have seen this too many times before.

The thing I like best in the article linked above – the whole thing is well worth a careful read — is the brief story of how a student group in India began handing out leaflets about the lawsuit at a book fair where CUP representatives were hawking their wares.  They wanted to let people know that buying books from Oxford and Cambridge is supporting a worldwide campaign of intimidation that is aimed at reducing access to knowledge and culture.  Publishing with these presses is a form of colonial occupation that extorts from whole populations a high price to obtain the means of cultural and intellectual growth.  The reaction, of course, was predictable; the publisher summoned the police to protect themselves and others from these unpleasant truths.  But the technique has merit; perhaps we can also find ways to shame these publishers when they attend our academic or professional conference, when they send salespeople to our campuses, and when they recruit our colleagues to write and review for them.  A commitment to equality demands no less.

3 thoughts on “Listening to Lessig”

  1. So, just to play devil’s advocate, without necessarily saying that I agree with my own statement here, what about competition? Isn’t part of what the publishers actions indicate is that they need to remain competitive to survive? And aren’t faculty really saying the same thing by choosing to go with commercial publishers? If there is truly leveling of the playing field, won’t academics like yourself (and me) be out of a job, because there will be plenty of others willing and able to take our places for a whole lot less? Academia likes to hold itself apart, above it all; we’re not a business, but instead have a “mission.” But someone has to pay for that mission and I suspect the world will want to pay a whole lot less than it’s paying now, as the door opens wider.

  2. Thank you, Kevin for your thoughtful response. I felt that Lessig was the perfect choice to end the conference with an emotional call to put our values into practice. He built his argument beautifully (as always) and we all remember the .02% and the powerful statement: “Everything is in on the Internet — if you are one of the knowledge elites.”

Comments are closed.