photo cred ahmed zayan
Technology / Media

Democratize information, and then what?

When Anonymous hacked the US State Department website on February 17th 2013, they declared, “Aaron Swartz this is for you.” Just a month before, Swartz, faced with relentless hounding from federal prosecutors and up to 35 years in prison, took his own life. 

Swartz was a wunderkind of his generation. RSS, Markdown and the widely-used Reddit are just three ideas that Swartz coded into reality before having his first legal drink. All three would shape the evolution of the web. Swartz was part programming prodigy, part avid activist for “open access”—that is, removing barriers to the free flow of information. At just 15, he helped create Creative Commons, a non-profit dedicated to increasing accessibility of information by writing alternatives to standard copyright licenses. 

Aaron’s influence amassed him widespread admiration among other proponents of open access. The wider public only learned of Swartz after he illegally accessed MIT’s computer network and downloaded 4.8 million documents from JSTOR, a closed-access digital library containing academic journals, books and primary sources. JSTOR has a paywall that prevents the public from gaining access to the massive database; academic institutions like Bowdoin pay huge sums of money to JSTOR to provide students and faculty access to the myriad of evidence-based, source-critical information. Although Swartz never disseminated the downloaded documents, this did not hinder federal prosecutors from laying down a 35-year jail sentence. Swartz’s massive conviction shifted the conversation from open-access issues to issues of justice and freedom. Anonymous refused to let Swartz’s death and rather “disproportionate sentencing” go unnoticed; the international collective launched Operation Last Resort, which consisted of a series of high-profile hacks targeting the US government. Now, many consider Swartz to be a martyr for the democratisation of information.

When I first read about Swartz’s story, he seemed overzealous for open-access issues. What good could come of it, anyway? Swartz gives his line of logic in the “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto” that he wrote in 2008: “Providing scientific articles to those at elite universities in the First World, but not to children in the Global South? It’s outrageous and unacceptable… We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world… We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access.” 

In his manifesto, Swartz certainly sheds light on one inequality issue that doesn’t get discussed much: access to information. This issue goes beyond access to the internet; once you have internet access, you’re still not going to have access to the foundations of philosophy, sociology, anthropology, geography, history, classics, and every other social science. You’ll need JSTOR access for that. But to access  JSTOR, you’ll need a lot of money. A lot. Learning on the internet is sometimes like playing a frustrating multiplayer video game: it’s free-to-play, but pay-to-win.

Imposing barriers on reliable information is particularly harmful in our time of deliberate media distortion and disinformation. It is exceedingly difficult to discern the fraction of well-researched news among the messy abundance of information made available by the internet and mass media outlets. For media outlets, information is not valued based on its rigour, but rather on how much of the public attention it captures. It is attention, not information, that is sold to advertisers and politicians. Attention has become the real commodity, incentivising a “race to the bottom” in which mass media outlets compete with one another by actively lowering their journalistic standards. News outlets are deliberately presenting increasingly sensational stories, regardless of truth or relevance.

In light of the media’s Race to the Bottom, reliable information found on academic databases like JSTOR is more important than ever. But who are the haves and have-nots of this reliable information? Ironically, it is college students and academics that are—in theory—least at risk of being subject to misinformation. Why can’t everybody access JSTOR in the first place? The answer is just one word: money. Whether it is through donations or an endowment, reliable information must have funding behind it. In an interview with the Guardian, renowned thinker and futurist Yuval Noah Harari stated that the idea of free information is “extremely dangerous when it comes to the news industry.” We are willing to pay for high quality food and cars and clothes. Why are we not willing to pay for high quality information? This is a reasonable question for a consumerist society with free news as the status quo. Still, it is virtually impossible to ask this of those who struggle to get by. Nobody will pay for news when there is such an abundance of cost-free news out there. 

Few would argue that access to information is not a basic human right; a person without information is severely disadvantaged. But this view alone does not hold water in the hectic Information Age, where information and misinformation alike flow like never before. The changing times call for a shift. We must center our focus not only on whether one has access or not, but also on whether the information available to them is reliable or not. 

For those who mourn Aaron Swartz’s death, it may offer relief that JSTOR expanded opportunities for free access to journal collections beginning in 2011. Additionally, more than 1,500 educational institutions in developing nations around the world receive access to JSTOR free of charge or for steeply reduced fees through its Access Initiative Program.

Although open-access is certainly a step towards equality, how likely is it that those most susceptible to misinformation will actually be attracted to the peer-reviewed journals for finding the facts? Reading and analysing peer-reviewed articles effectively is a challenge even for students who have received a top-class education. For many people in developing countries such as my home in The Bahamas, people face additional barriers. Do the users have the necessary language skills or basic contextual knowledge to understand the material? And even if users are given the technology such as computer equipment and network connections to access the content, do the users also have the know-how for accessing the content?

To make the future seem even more grim, infotech firms such as Facebook and Google are investing heavily into biotechnology. Infotech firms are seizing the opportunity presented by the rapid advances in both neuroscience and artificial intelligence by leading the research efforts toward an external system that will understand our feelings better than we ourselves are capable of. According to Harari, we can expect such a system to arise in the near future. 

We’ve seen a glimpse of just how powerful infotech firms are in the recent epidemic of disinformation. And stoking the flames of baseless speculation will only get more effective as we continue to exchange our privacy for personal benefits. We exchange our privacy for social connections and ease of communication on Facebook. We exchange our privacy for free entertainment on YouTube. As the imminent merging of biotech and infotech looms, it is not difficult to foresee the release of a Facebook-branded biometric device: a little machine that can read your biological data and transmit it using electrical signals. If we already give up privacy for entertainment and convenience, will we not do the same for absolute peace of mind about our health? 

Many believe that biotechnology will be reserved for the upper echelons who can afford to buy it, but I don’t agree. With the amount of predictive power that facial recognition—a strategy already being researched by infotech firms—has generated, firms will be eager to collect as much biological data as possible. For that to happen, they will need a mass-market biometric device. Perhaps a company would be willing to provide this life-saving sensor for free. With an offer like that, healthcare will beat privacy outright. And after that happens, individuals will be as vulnerable as ever to manipulation by the media.

All this talk of biometric sensors and media manipulation may all sound grimly deterministic, but it illustrates the prospect of worsening inequality regarding access and exposure to reliable information. Members of society without  ample means will be most easily exploited by the overwhelmingly abundant media, not only because of the cost barrier to reliable information, but also to the increasing ability of our technology to predict our behaviour. The media issue is an issue of attention, and technology will improve at informing news outlets on how to win our all-important attention. News is disseminated less and less with the intent to inform, and more and more with the intent to elicit a response.

Swartz made a bold act for advancing the open-access movement, but as a standalone measure it was largely ineffective. Even if we disseminated reliable information to the masses, who is to say they will choose it over the standard stream of entertaining information they already have. We live in an economy of distraction that is fueled by instant gratification. Indeed, nearly half of all Americans prefer to watch the news, while only a third prefer to read it. What’s more, the number of Americans getting their news from social media is increasing rapidly year-on-year. In his article Media without Borders, Jared Foxhall argues that engaging in social media activates our confirmation biases and shapes our worldview, patterning real-world action. How can our society stay well-informed when many of the most important and ground-breaking ideas of our time do not even get considered for airtime? For reliable information to win the scramble for attention, we must radically alter its form. 

Perhaps those of us who have been given the opportunity and skills to access and analyse reliable information have a duty to achieve what 4.8 million documents cannot do on their own. Our world needs truth. Our world needs active bystanders in the struggle against disinformation.