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The Open Information Revolution

Roberta Scarlett
By Roberta Scarlett
Ethical Technology

Posted: Oct 17, 2013

Information and knowledge have been both feared and sought in the past.  New information brings change, and change is often met with fear and resistance.  In the past books were burned by the church and new technology destroyed by Luddites.  The change that new information and knowledge brought was often regarded as threat to established interests. But inevitably with time, it brings benefits for all.  New information changes our perception of ourselves, others and our environment.  It breeds ideas and solutions for the obstacles we face and creates a positive feedback loop which is the driving force behind progress.

In prehistory people were educated by the demonstration of acquired skills directly to one another and from generation to generation.  Ideas were communicated through storytelling, song and rituals, but it wasn't until approximately 3500 years ago symbolism and finally written language emerged. This drastically changed the way people learned, communicated and organized information because now it could be stored outside of the brain and retrieved later for use. Written language also helped reduce loss and corruption of information because recall was no longer limited to physical memory.

Information was first stored on stone monuments and tablets but became more mobile and easier to copy once papyrus, animal skins, tree bark, and parchment were used.  People could travel long distances exchanging knowledge and ideas with those outside of their locality, but this process was still tedious and slow, as copying texts had to be done by hand and by someone with the appropriate background and education.  This restricted the disbursement of information to most of the population. 

The advent of print, more specifically block printing and moveable type, enabled accurate copying and faster production. The printing press, and more recently offset printing finally allowed for mass consumption of an ever increasing stock of written material.  This, and development of more sophisticated communication and transportation systems allowed more wide spread distribution of information and learning material. These new technologies played a huge part in stimulating economic, social, scientific and technological progress.

Though print had a significant role in the ability to widely distribute knowledge and information to the masses, the need for physical documentation is diminishing because of our ability to electronically copy, store and distribute it widely through the internet.  All one needs is a connection.  Currently only 35% of the total population has online access, but the numbers rapidly growing.  Some predict that 100% of the population will have internet access by 2020. 

Lack of education is no longer a barrier to understanding or turning information in to knowledge and it's no longer exclusive to wealthy, privileged individuals, or even to wealthy regions with public education systems.  Today anyone with access can educate themselves and others with material widely available the internet.  There are countless web sites that offer tutorials and video lectures on every conceivable subject. One of the most popular of these is Khan Academy. This site has online video instruction for a variety of subjects ranging in level.  MIT OpenCourseWare and Coursera (a host for several Universities and Colleges) are other online educators that offer university level courses for free.

The internet is profoundly changing the way we learn.  One of the most exciting developments is new types of learning tools and how these can help us realize the true capacity for human learning.  Animation, simulation and gaming can be powerful learning tools that previously couldn’t be utilized to their full potential.  Use of these were restricted to highly specialized training programs for professionals like pilots and astronauts and others who required hands on training for developing skills  and where it’s not practical or feasible to use actual equipment.   In fact teachers are no longer as essential to the learning process as they once were and likely when this medium of learning is fully adapted, teacher’s roles will continue to diminish or change.  

​Professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle UniversitySugatra Mitra believes that learning is a self-organizing system.  His theory arises from several learning experiments he has conducted in both less developed countries and more developed countries using various types of computer based learning tools and the internet.  The OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) program left a thousand Motorola Zoom tablet PCs outside of an Ethiopian village.  Children were able to learn without a teacher and with no prior education.  Read about how Ethiopian children taught themselves to hack.

In the past limitations with our ability to store, copy and distribute information have restricted the amount of human capital we could draw on for new knowledge and innovation. Traditionally countries with access to public education, learning material and teachers have lower rates of poverty.  They have more economic growth, higher life expectancy and score better in all other indicators of general well-being.  Education stimulates self-actualization, innovation and development of technologies that improve the human condition. The internet will give us the ability to fully utilize human talent that could otherwise be stifled by a grueling lifestyle that requires intensive labor and nearly all available time and energy just to achieve basic survival.  

What happens when 100% of the world has access to 100% of our information stock?  Faster paced expansion, refinement, customization, and assimilation of information and systems.  This will drastically increase our stock in knowledge and talent, our ability to solve problems, transcend our limitations and improve the human condition.  In the very near future information will be as abundant as oxygen and almost as easy to absorb.

Roberta Scarlett describes herself as a techno-anarchist and a promoter of radical open source education, technology and science. She is a supporter of DIY, hacking, bio hacking, the maker movement, transhumanism, and off grid energy systems.
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Encouraging, and it complements ‘The Chilling Implications Of Democratizing Big Data’ rather than contradicts.
All the same, we ought to be candid in telling the public what to expect: let them know they can anticipate a benign dystopia—they can take it. To begin with, war may end altogether yet economic warfare remains.. and naturally data will be utilised to exploit others.
Forewarned, fore-armed.



I’m very much on your side of this cause.  However, the notion the internet opens up global access to knowledge obscures the fact that the best, expert, most accurate and up-to-date scientific and academic expert information is largely hoarded by an oligopoly of commercial publishers of their research; the searchable databases that aggregate this published work,  their customer— elite or large university libraries, and students, faculty or staff (and spouses) with library privileges.
The average person, not to mention independent scientists (e.g. astronomers) and scholars, journalists and (to this writer’s knowledge), students and faculty of colleges and university without the same financial resources is largely shut out.  (A fairly recent visit to UMass Dartmouth sadly confirmed this for me.)

The Open Access movement has improved this situation somewhat.  But far more needs to be done to release the world’s information from the strange-hold of profiteers—who, incidentally, do not pay scientific and other academic authors, and recently have been charging them for obliging their requests that their work be publicly available.  Frontiers In, a partner with Nature Publishing company employs a business model that is actually based on charging authors—like vanity presses!  Recent research indicated that the quality of work published in an Open Access journal may sometimes be inferior.  As if these problems were not horrendous enough, the process of peer review (part of the rationale for charging authors) has been under fire.  Research that is carried out with federal funds must be made available to the general public, but under current regulations, not till a year later than the publication date.  How can this possible serve the independent scholar or scientist, journalists, or say, a student or faculty of a small college or university?

Many researchers (who do not get paid for publication) have pressed for Open Access.  The faculty of Harvard voted to make all members’ work available, with allowance for junior faculty publishing in less generous-minded journals.  And within the domain of academic psychology, most published work is made available on authors’ university of personal web pages.  But e.g., philosophers, in contrast, do not.

I would be happy to share your optimism.  Unfortunately, far too much needs to be done to be celebrating information equity.  For an demonstration-essay on just how this problem can play out, see my essay, “The Secret of Zenon Pylyshyn,” which is freely available online on my blog.  It also shows a similarly deplorable state in book publishing.  The best, expert information on a given subject published by scientific or scholarly book publishers is largely unavailable in your local library and too expensive to be affordable for most individuals.  And as I show, it is surprisingly easy to quickly access them for those with elite, Ivy League library privileges.

Steve Deedon

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