On January 6, 2011, Aaron Swartz – a research fellow at Harvard University, as well as a computer programmer, political organizer and Internet hacktivist – was arrested for breaking-and-entering charges, regarding the systematic downloading of academic journal articles from JSTOR. He was charged with 2 counts of wire fraud and 11 violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986. These charges could have led to a cumulative maximum penalty of $1 million in fines as well as 35 years in prison, asset forfeiture, restitution and supervised release. In 2013, Swartz committed suicide, and the case was consequently dismissed. In 2017, Alexandra Elbakyan, founder of academic research pirate site Sci-Hub – which allows you to download research papers, even when they hide behind publishers’ paywalls, challenging a pay-to-play mentality that has come to plague scholarship – has come under fire for alleged mass copyright infringement and counterfeiting: in June, Elsevier won a $15m judgement against Sci-Hub and the site is also facing legal action from the American Chemical Society. Sci-Hub has been shut down in Russia.
These instances demonstrate the extent to which academic publishers will go to protect their profit-driven databases in the face of a struggle for equal access to scientific information. Initiatives such as the 2007 Overprice Tags, organized by Benjamin Mako Hill – wherein MIT students placed overprice tags on the 100 most expensive journals in their library –, emphasize the sobering reality of the subscription model in scientific publishing. Hill believes that “for something as important as basic research and scientific knowledge, [lack of access] becomes profoundly unfair”. In addition, many sustainable platforms for scholarly communications have sprung from the Open Access movement in the form of open libraries and commons, such as the Science Commons and the Open Library of Humanities, which facilitate more efficient web-enabled scientific research.
Nelson Pavlosky, co-founder of Students for Free Culture, states: “I’m a big fan of DIY culture […] I like giving people the tools and information they need to figure things out for themselves and get things done, so that they don’t have to rely entirely on some class of experts to think and act for them.” A contemporary iteration of such DIY praxis is the Hashtag Syllabus, Twitter-fueled crowd-sourced reading lists that assemble critical intellectual resources and promote collective study on various subjects, such as racism, immigration, islamophobia, rape culture and prison abolition. Pertaining to access as it touches systemic deficiency of certain contents – namely, social, historical and academic erasure and negligence towards some areas of knowledge – , the syllabi are intended to, as Lisa A. Monroe articulates, “arm educators and parents with resources to discuss current social conflicts, to provide historical contexts […] and to empower people in and outside of the classroom to take informed action however they may choose.” In turn, Chad Williams emphasizes the importance of canon formation in the development of any intellectual or literary tradition, commending the #CharlestonSyllabus for containing texts, novels, poems, films, songs and primary source documents that are foundational to the study of the black experience and the meaning of race in modern history:
The #CharlestonSyllabus reflects not only the creation of African American intellectual history but engagement in its practice as well. The act of soliciting and organizing a crowd-sourced collection of resources carries on the work of black bibliophiles like Arturo Schomburg, Edward C. Williams, and John E. Bruce. If alive today, these forbearers would no doubt marshal all the creative tools at their disposal—including social media—to further institutionalize the canon of black studies and find ways to disseminate information to as broad an audience as possible. The hashtag, if mobilized conscientiously, can function as a bibliographic marker and tool for historical literacy. This approach is also inherently democratic, reaffirming an ethos of shared communal knowledge production that is at the core of the black intellectual tradition. Anyone, regardless of training or credentials, can offer a suggested addition to the #CharlestonSyllabus, and anyone, irrespective of educational level or proficiency in African American studies, can have access to the list of resources.
Hashtag Syllabi form a community of people committed to critical thinking, truth-telling and social transformation, modeled after communal thought and self-education. They place current events in a broader historical, political, economic, and social context, promoting critical discussion and debate. The syllabi operate independently – relying on social media to expand and flourish (they are, however, moderated, so also subject to biases) – and are widely accessible, providing tools for web-based research as well as prompting active learning and activism.
Participatory practices and learning as they relate to technology can also be observed in contemporary art, for example. Artist Ai Weiwei recognizes in Twitter an important tool in our perception of reality and establishing our history, with great creative potential:
Twitter is a very interesting medium. It is not one that records the past, but one that forms in the present condition, with real connections to the future. It is so intimate but, at the same time, so broadly connects us to others. Humans have never had this in our history. By changing the way we communicate, it changes our understanding of ourselves and others. That gives a new definition to our society, to democracy, civil rights, and humanity as well.
Ai was banned from Chinese Twitter (Sina Weibo) and his blog was shut down by Chinese authorities. His 2015 artwork An Archive was a collaboration with traditional Chinese printmakers consisting of 6,830 painstakingly printed pages of rice paper, chronicling his social media commentary over 8 years (2005-2013), in Mandarin. The accumulation of sheets are stacked in a traditional huali wood box.
Ai Weiwei’s An Archive (Azzarello, 2015).
In 1996, Lynn Sowder (apud Lacy, 1996: 31), independent curator, asserted that “We need to find ways not to educate audiences for art but to build structures that share the power inherent in making culture with as many people as possible”, and asked “How can we change the disposition of exclusiveness that lies at the heart of cultural life in the United States?” Technology, the internet, and social media might hold material possibilities to instill change in the art world and society at large, through collaboration, empowerment and autonomy.
The idea of an audience is crumbling as previously elite roles and tools are made available to the public. It is becoming increasingly possible to construct one’s own classroom, syllabus, curriculum, one’s own exhibit, study group, cinema, workshop, laboratory, etc, towards a horizontal, reparative, representative, and practical education. Brushing history against the grain, as Benjamin (1940) puts it: refusing to identify ourselves with winners and conquerors and glimpsing the barbarism contained in culture and the transmission of culture. This implies the de-identification with a historical subject that is masculine, in addition to “re-functionalizing” (Benjamin, 1987: 127) the cultural goods that all founding structures of contemporary society helped to erect and keep segregated. It is a complex task for it intends to dispute the tradition against the conformism that aims to dominate it, but we are nothing if not persevering.
Geltner, G. (2017). The Future Of Academic Publishing Beyond Sci-Hub.
Cragg, Oliver (2017). Sci-Hub facing $4.8m piracy payout as site shut down in Russia over ‘liberal opposition’.
Page, Benedicte (2017). Elbakyan pulls Sci-Hub from Russia.
Benjamin Mako Hill (2007). Overprice Tags.
SPARC (2017). Agents of Change – Student Activists for open access.
Science Commons (2017). Science Commons: Making the Web Work for Science.
Monroe, Lisa A. (24 October 2016) “Making the American Syllabus: Hashtag Syllabi in Historical Perspective” in Black Perspectives Journal.
Williams, Chad (2015). #CharlestonSyllabus and the Work of African American History.
Saccardo, Nadia (2015). [Exclusive] Ai Weiwei says Twitter is Art.
Azzarello, Nina (2015). ai weiwei archive includes 6,830 rice paper sheets of printed tweets.
Lacy, Suzanne (1996). Cultural Pilgrimages and Metaphoric Journeys In Lacy, Suzanne (org.). Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art. Seattle: Bay Press.
Benjamin, Walter (1940). On the Concept of History.
Benjamin, Walter (1987). Magia e técnica, arte e política: ensaios sobre literatura e história da cultura. São Paulo: Brasiliense.
*Featured image: “More Schools, Less Prisons”. In 2015, Brazilian High School students occupied the 9 de Julho Ave. in protest against public school reorganization in the state of São Paulo, one event of a series of protests and occupations. Their mobilization was largely organized and publicized through the Internet, fostering similar movements in many different regions of the country.