Where’s the XXIst century?

News are bleak right now. Hatred, ignorance and stupidity seem rampant everywhere we look. From brilliant, kind journalists being assassinated in my country to journalists and aid workers (probably equally kind and brilliant) being beheaded in the Middle East, or imprisoned for what they stand for, it seems like the Dark Ages aren’t that far.
Sure, we live in the safest era of mankind, and the one that most respects human rights. But looking back, it’s not very difficult to have a better track record than previous generations.

Stupid people are everywhere, and it’s always been the case. The problem is they’re oppressing “our” people. By “our people” I mean people who have passions, who care about freedom, human rights, knowledge, reason, stuff like that. It is difficult to define, but I would say there are two good criteria to judge on which side you are: you 1)Read a lot and 2)Are interested in a lot of things, including “deep subjects” (philosophy, geopolitics, astrophysics, you name it). Otherwise, chances are you’re in the “stupid” camp. “Our people” is still a minority, despite the fact that we imagined the XXIst century as being the century of reason, where people would be freed from tedious labor and could spend their time pursuing the pleasures of the mind.
And as most minorities, it is, or rather, we are, being oppressed.

Two examples of this: how science is treated; and in a broader context, how human rights are attacked basically everywhere on Earth.
Scientific research’s independence and funding are perpetually targeted by the morons who govern us. There is so much short-term thinking that doing research as a paid professional is becoming harder and harder. To have freedom, and soon, funding, you’ll have to become an amateur researcher, a researcher who isn’t tied to an institution where bureaucracy is everywhere and funding absent. In some disciplines, this is already the case.
Scientific progress is being slowed by conservative, short-term thinking, as an article in The Baffler brilliantly observed. This is nothing new, as Bacon observed 400 years ago: “For the rewarding of scientific achievement and the performing of it are not in the same hands. The growth of the sciences comes from high intelligence, while the prizes and rewards of them are in the hands of the common people, or of ‘great’ persons who are nearly all quite ignorant.” But we could expect a better situation four centuries after Bacon’s Novum Organum (from which this quote was taken) was published…
Do we want researchers to be relegated to the margins of society? To be hobos, like in Fahrenheit 451?

If we look at human rights, it ain’t pretty either. I can’t think of any country that really, really respects human rights. So called “free countries” of which the US and France are supposed to be a part of, are suffocating liberty with regulations, mass surveillance, intimidation… A few examples? The drug war, the NSA/GCHQ and DGSE surveillance states, the CIA, etc… And as more and more of our lives “move” online, governments have way too much power over them with their massive, criminal surveillance apparatus. And we in the West are lucky compared to the rest of the world. I can’t imagine what it’s like to live in China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Mexico, (the list could go on with most of the countries of the world) where your basic human rights are regularly denied by state or criminal entities.
Settling this broader context of human rights violations would allow us to finally act as a species rather than as religious or nationalist sects.
A quote from Zoltan Istvan’s book The Transhumanist Wager sums up both the human rights and scientific research issues quite nicely: “Why any nation would spend 500 times the money on its military over its science was not only asinine, it was also tyrannical.”

We should fight to improve this situation. Heck, to radically change it.

The basic prerequisite to be able to live in a “knowledge society” is universal and total respect for human rights. This implies global peace and education. Peace is achievable only when people have access to a secular, neutral education. Thus we need to fight for education to be accessible, but more importantly, unbiased and not manipulated by governments or churches to create nationalist or religious youths. Russia is an example of an affordable education system where endoctrinement is rampant. Education needs to be humanist and secular.
A knowledge society, where, as a species, we’re focusing on pushing the human race forward, obviously requires peace.

It may also benefit from having a kind of World Government (an efficient and minimal one, more Star Trek than the United Nations…), which is only possible if we fight nationalisms and ethnic and religious sectarianism. A World Government would only be useful under certain conditions though:
First, it would need to be a minimal, secular government, focused on science and exploration (as well as the usual things; like environmental protection and human rights). In other words, instead of wasting trillions of dollars on the DoD, most of this money would be poured into NASA, or rather, IASA (for International instead of National), and on other scientific institutions. We have lots of ressources, but we keep spending them on the corrupt militaro industrial complex, surveillance industrial complex, etc… while we could also be absolutely safe and redirect this money toward interesting things, like science and exploration… (Many people don’t consider these “interesting things”, but as I’ve said above, you know, essentially, fuck them).
Second, the World Government should be a kind of libertarian-ish gov, not getting involved in the economy, (many libertarians will argue government shouldn’t get involved in environmental protection or science; I disagree with that) and not restricting individual rights. Free trade and human rights should be the basis of the World Government.

It’s a pretty simple vision but a terribly difficult one to achieve. Mass education is necessary and we’re very, very far from getting there. But that’s the kind of world I think we should fight for if we want peace, justice, and thus have a lot more freedom and ressources to be able to push the human race forward, to explore the universe, etc…
The problem is… people are generally not very interested in that. Either for a lack of interest or education, or just because they disagree with this vision. Just look at what’s happening in the world right now and it’s not difficult to see that people who share this vision are a minority.
So sure, we should keep fighting for peace, justice and education, as well as for more science budget and independence (and against bureaucracy). But the truth is, it’ll take an enormous amount of time before our voices are heard and acted upon.

OR, people who care about freedom, reason, innovation, progress, science, could unite and tell governments and the rest of the world to fuck off.

Scientists, but also human rights campaigners, educated people, – basically, “our people” – have always felt like citizens of the world. Scientists since the Renaissance and the advent of international correspondance have disregarded national boundaries and considered themselves part of the “Scientific Community”, an international community of like minded individuals: philosophers, naturalists, chemists, physicists, mathematicians…
The Internet has made it even easier to feel like a citizen of the world. We can communicate in real-time with like-minded people from around the globe and form virtual communities with them.
However, as we’re all living in heavily regulated environments, if not in dictatorships, “virtual” communities aren’t enough anymore. Scientists used to enjoy, even under authoritarian governments, a certain amount of freedom inside their institutions, but these institutions are now infiltrated by bureaucrats who restrict academic freedom tremendously.
So we’re maybe the biggest community on Earth without a country?

As some Silicon Valley CEOs have suggested, setting aside a part of the world where like minded people could gather and experiment freely would be nice. Google CEO Larry Page compared such a place to Burning Man, where you are free to join and leave when you want. Balaji Srinivasan of Y Combinator (the startup incubator) described it as an “inverse Amish” community, where people are technophiles rather than technophobes, and where they are free from the regulations imposed by the US government.
Add to these idealized communities scientists (not just computer scientists), freedom lovers, etc… and you get the kind of place I’d like to live in.
There is no such community on Earth. The closest places we have to this kind of utopia are Silicon Valley and scientific institutions, where innovation and open-mindedness are encouraged, where the focus is on pushing the human race forward. (Okay, there are also a lot of stupid startups in Silicon Valley as well as a significant number of assholes, but overall it’s pretty great).

How can we create this utopian place? By definition, it’ll be pretty hard – utopias are naturally unachievable -, but it’s worth trying.
Buying an island, as some have suggested (or even tried), isn’t a very good idea, since every piece of land is claimed by one or multiple states. You can set up shop there, but it won’t be pretty when they SWAT you because you’re infringing one of their stupid laws (like, say, drug prohibition).
There’s seasteading, too. Building floating city-states looks kinda cool, but again, not being harassed by other states would be tough (what keeps the US from raiding your floating city?). However it seems like the only possibility (apart from space colonies, but these are a bit more into the future) we have to secede from states and governments we do not recognize.
The founder of the Seasteading Institute, which researches the technological and legal implications of seasteading, Patri Friedman, described the concept in an interview with Reason Magazine as follows: “We just want to create a laboratory for experimenting with social contracts, and a world in which people are free to create societies with groups of like-minded compatriots. The details of those societies are up to you.” It sounds really nice to me. That’s freedom. And if seasteads are possible, maybe some people will be willing to start a community like the one I describe in this essay?
In the same article, the business side of seasteads was also addressed: “seasteading isn’t just based in libertarian theorizing and hopes. Friedman knows that seasteds will need to have some business hook, and he’s busy working those angles. There’s SurgiCruise, a nascent floating medical tourism company that is seeking venture funding. If americans will fly to Mexico, India, or Thailand for cheaper medical care free of US regulatory costs, the idea goes, why wouldn’t they sail 12 miles [into International waters] for it? Among the other first-tier business ideas being bruited about with varying levels of intensity are vacation resorts, sin industries, aquaculture, deep sea marina services, and universal data libraries free of national copyright laws [a personal favorite].” Being recognized as sovereign by the international community will be tough! However, seasteads offer us the opportunity to create physical communities, or even states, defined by an “ideology” (a gathering of like-minded people), rather than by a territory, and that is worth a try.

Our seastead would have an anti-religion, secular state, governed by reason. Everyone would be provided with a Basic Income so that they are free to follow their passions rather than try to survive doing jobs they don’t like.
Our government would be libertarian-ish. Not absent, but kept to a minimum, and involved in science as a backer, but not as a bureaucratic manager.
It would be responsible for our security (heavily controlled and kept to a minimum army and police forces) and justice (protecting individuals from each other, enforcing contracts).
Regarding the economy, our government would be very discreet, since without overregulation, monopolies and other issues shouldn’t be a problem.
Our government would fund science without being a bureaucratic burden.
It would protect the environment. That’s a point where I disagree with most libertarians, who think environmental issues are a private matter the state has no reason to get involved in. I think it misses the point. Constructing and operating a coal plant on your private property is not a private matter, since it’s not only affecting yourself!
If you pollute the air, or a river, it’s not a private matter. People are going to be affected by your actions. That’s why I think environmental protection is definitely something that should fall into the “justice” category of things our government would do.
Just to clarify, animal rights: not a private matter. Animals aren’t objects. They need some kind of statute so you can’t harm sentient creatures (mammals, mostly, but that’s for science to decide). Saying you can torture a cat because it’s yours is just dumb. The cat can’t hire a lawyer, sure, but it has feelings and some intelligence, so you should consider it as some kind of individual. But I digress.

A minimal government, a truly free society which focuses on innovation and science, on pushing the human race forward. Basically, a XXIst century state. A physical incarnation of the Cyberspace for which Barlow drafted a Declaration of Independence?

It’s either that, or we keep tolerating tyrants making Aaron Swartz, Edward Snowden, Ross Ulbricht-style examples out of us, we keep tolerating our tax money being wasted on corrupt companies to buy things we objectively don’t need, we keep tolerating our governments ignoring human rights and oppressing us.

Fuck them, let’s build this thing.

The Story of AllMusic, Which Predates the World Wide Web

The story of AllMusic, an amazing music encyclopedia.

Here’s an excerpt from MotherBoard’s article:
“Every band, every artist, in every genre, gets a biography. Every album, single, EP, and live album that gets a release, no matter how obscure, is catalogued, and AllMusic tries its damndest to review them all, too. AllMusic has quietly become the kind of resource that’s so intrinsic to the internet that it’s hard to imagine the internet without it.”

READ IT HERE

Knowledge Protection

The song of destruction. Fire. Torrents of water. Earthquakes. More fire.

Entire libraries, unique works of art, and countless other artifacts of our knowledge and heritage have been destroyed during natural disasters. Examples of our helplessness facing the gigantic forces of cataclysms are legion throughout history.

The song of destruction. Bullets. Shells. Mortar rounds. Rockets. Bombs. Fire.

Conflicts have perhaps been the most destructive forces against our heritage. We human beings have a long, shameful tradition of trying to erase entire populations from history by destroying their cultures. Of course nazi Germany is probably the first example that comes to mind, but let’s not forget all the wars, ethnic cleansings and genocides before that. The Library of Alexandria being torched, Bagdad under siege by the Mongols are famous examples of our tendency to let stupidity and brutality destroy wisdom and knowledge.
The destruction of knowledge committed by the nazis (and, as collateral damages of bombings, by Allied forces) has been quite well documented, for example in The Rape Of Europa, contrary to the damages inflicted by more recent conflicts, which haven’t been thoroughly investigated, despite the fact that a wide variety of independent medias have been covering these wars extensively.
The talibans infamously destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas; the Khmer Rouge burned down every single library they could find. Right now, the Islamic State, the Syrian Army and other groups (most of them loosely affiliated with Al-Qaeda or other extremist organizations) are destroying and plundering archeological sites in Syria and Iraq – profiting from the sale of the stolen, but unfortunately mostly scientifically destroyed artifacts (an artifact taken out of its archeological context – strata, etc… is mostly useless for scientific research). These crimes aren’t prosecuted (of course it’s rather difficult when the entire region is deep inside a sectarian conflict), and if it weren’t for the courageous and outstanding work of men like Cheikmous Ali and his non profit APSA, which documents heritage destruction in Syria, we wouldn’t even know about them in the first place.

ISIS Destroying world heritage_76161278_isis-statue-composite
Islamic State fighters destroying a 3,000 years old Assyrian statue excavated from the Tell Ajaja site

For those of you who speak/understand french, the german-french TV station Arte made a great documentary on how stolen artifacts sold in the West are financing terrorism in the Middle East, which features APSA’s work in Syria.

If you weren’t convinced yet, I hope you now realize humanity’s collective heritage is and has always been threatened by conflicts, natural disasters or just sheer stupidity. We just cannot tolerate that in a modern, civilized world. It is both terrible for our history and for our knowledge – we won’t have any other chance to learn things from destroyed artifacts. This quote from Matthew Bogdanos’ excellent book Thieves of Baghdad (a man who witnessed knowledge destruction and eventually became a specialist in retrieving stolen artifacts and protecting them while serving in the US military in Iraq) nicely sums up the tragedy of heritage looting and destruction: “The Rockefeller Wing of the Met contains a treasure trove of antiquities from Peru. But how did they get there? It is well-known that looting has ravaged Peru for decades. In other regions, [like Syria and Iraq right now] looting is destroying sites as soon as they are discovered, crushing any hope of learning about previously unknown cultures.”

 

What can be done about this?
Since the end of WWII most armies have internal guidelines to not attack cultural sites, something the United Nations also tries to address with the Blue Shield program. Basically, blue shields, literally, are painted on the buildings which are to be spared from air strikes and heavy shelling. However recent examples show these initiatives aren’t sufficient, in part because most conflicts aren’t fought only by national armies but by rebel groups too, which aren’t complying with international laws, and also because the international community doesn’t care about this issue at all. The UNESCO witnessed the plundering and destruction of World Heritage Sites in Syria without flinching, cynically classifying the Syrian sites as “threatened” after the fact.
The United Nations, despite its great ideals, is totally incapable of maintaining peace, and prefers seminars, conferences and committees to actually getting people on the ground to protect civilians and heritage sites. What is needed is a real international army, like the Blue Helmets but with the power to engage in combat when it is necessary (and not just as self defense) to protect cultural sites. (As a side note, to protect civilians, the Blue Helmets need to be deployable swiftly wherever there are conflicts and be allowed to use deadly force whenever they see fit. Right now deploying Blue Helmets is a long and complex bureaucratic mess. It ought to be simple. If a conflict threatens civilians and if the Blue Helmets can make a difference, they should be deployed.)

In practice, it would mean having personnels guarding museums, libraries, and monuments in war zones. The Bamiyan Buddhas could have been saved if the talibans had met resistance from an international military force. Likewise, if the archeological sites in Syria and Iraq were protected, plundering wouldn’t take place there. As the Blue Shield is already an existing program, I’ll call this international military unit the Blue Shield Force.
The Blue Shield Force would be composed of volunteers (not necessarily from the military) who would be trained by powerful armies (NATO members for example) and then deployed around the world to protect endangered heritage sites. It is important that these people volunteer, that protecting knowledge is their choice, because in case of casualties, the blame won’t be on the governments for irresponsibly sending troops to protect “some rocks”. Avoiding such PR disasters for governments is important to ensure they participate in the Blue Shield Force.
To decide which sites should be protected, a group of international experts (librarians, archeologists, historians…) would propose and vote on potential targets. The Blue Shield Force command team would then decide how many men to send there and how to equip them, in cooperation with the experts to make sure the response is appropriate.
Like the Blue Helmets the Blue Shield Force would be financed by the UN, but also by private donors – if people want to donate to help protect our collective heritage, they ought to be able to do so.
Unfortunately most countries are unlikely to commit resources to protect knowledge. However, a side benefit of knowledge protection could encourage them to fund the Blue Shield Force: by preventing plundering, the Blue Shield Force would dramatically reduce art trafficking and thus cut a major source of revenues for terrorist organizations like the Islamic State.

The Blue Shield Force is essential in order to protect our cultural heritage during conflicts. In peace time, natural disasters and “natural” decay are the main threats to our heritage. Fortunately, libraries are getting digitized at an accelerating pace, and we can expect to have digital backups of most of our texts rather soon. Monuments, on the other hand, are more difficult to preserve.  A non profit called CyArk is using lasers to digitize entire buildings which is a great way to have a very detailed view of the monument in case it is damaged by some hazardous weather or by a conflict later on.

A combination of the Blue Shield Force, to protect our cultural heritage during conflicts, and of non profits like CyArk, to digitize it before a conflict or a natural disaster has a chance to destroy it, is a pretty solid insurance policy against time.

Furthermore, those who destroy or attempt to destroy our heritage should be prosecuted. Burning an important library is an odious crime. Destroying a World Heritage Site or other monuments internationally recognized as important for all humankind should be tried as a crime against humanity.

The destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas falls into the latter category. No one in the taliban was prosecuted for it. Every single senior taliban official responsible for this crime is still at large. The Mullah Omar, as the leader of the talibans ordered the Buddhas to be destroyed. He’s hiding somewhere in Pakistan. However as the top commander of the talibs, he might one day suffer the same fate as Usama Bin Laden. Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, former Foreign Minister of the talibans, is a free man living in Kabul. At the time of the Buddhas’ destruction, he said: “We do admit all these statues were the cultural heritage of Afghanistan, but we will not leave the part which is contrary to our belief.” The whereabouts of former Information Minister Qudratullah Jamal aren’t known, but he is presumably still alive and at large too.
Talibans’ spokesman Rahmatullah Hashemi, who defended the destruction of the Buddhas during an interview with Charlie Rose in 2001, is now working at the “Peace Research Institute Oslo” (PRIO), in Norway. He seems to have changed his mind about the talibans, and has left the group since at least 2004-2005. Still, even if he now condemns the destruction of the Buddhas (which, without public statements from him, cannot be verified), he was involved in it as a senior official of the regime. His responsibility in this crime should be decided by an International Court. Requests for an interview with Hashemi went unanswered.

Hashemi's page on the PRIO website (http://www.prio.org/People/Person/?x=8092)
Hashemi’s page on the PRIO website (http://www.prio.org/People/Person/?x=8092)

Interpol ought to have a division in charge of these kinds of crimes. They already have people working on stolen art and heritage, like Syrian artifacts or art stolen by the nazis, but they suffer from a terrible lack of resources and people to be capable of really hitting art trafficking hard. It is crucial to truly fund an investigation unit assigned to find and prosecute people who commit crimes against our cultural heritage, as well as fight against art trafficking and try to curtail it as much as possible. For the latter, tough sanctions on auction houses like Sotheby’s which sell artifacts from dubious provenances could be a good deterrent. A moratorium on selling Syrian artifacts is needed right now.

 

So in a nutshell, here’s the plan to protect our knowledge as much as possible from our stupidity and from natural disasters: prevention via restoration and digitization, protection with the Blue Shield Force, and prosecution with an Interpol “Blue Shield Group”.
In the (very) long term though, we can hope to have to rely on the Blue Shield Force and the Interpol Blue Shield Group less and less – that is, if we can offer an affordable, humanist and secular education to most of the world’s population. Truly educated people don’t destroy knowledge.

Objectivity

This post is going to be dull, I apologize, but it’s an important definition of “knowledge” and scientific research.

Though objectivity seems to be the philosophical status quo right now, the definition of the truth was long a subject of controversy for philosophers. From the ones who believed truth didn’t exist or that there were infinite versions of it to the ones believing we projected the frame of our knowledge on it, the notion of reality as being independent from us was accepted fairly recently. Bacon, in theorizing the scientific method, and basically inventing modern science, acknowledged the independence of the Universe – its physical properties – from the human mind – our understanding of these properties -. Starting with Bacon, scientists were increasingly using figures, statistics, trying to represent the world as accurately as possible, driven by this new ideal of impartial, impersonal, objective knowledge.
The truth is this philosophical and scientific ideal of objective knowledge.

Scientific research is founded on this principle of objectivity; that the Universe is understandable by the human mind, but also by any other intelligent being. Reason is the faculty that allows us to go from simple perceptions to knowledge. In other words, it allows us to understand reality.
We understand that we’re just intelligent animals, so if we can understand the Universe, another intelligent creature can too.
The content of science -knowledge, truth- is universal: it doesn’t depend on the knowing subject, it doesn’t depend on time, nor place. Gravity is supposed to apply everywhere in the Universe, any time, whether you know/acknowledge it or not (the cosmological principle).
Now of course, science encompasses many different disciplines: from art history to astrophysics, objective truth is sometimes difficult to see in certain subjects. If physics, biology are difficult to describe as unobjective, what about history, or sociology?
We have to carefully distinguish the truth, which is universal, and our conceptions of it. History is objective. Our interpretations of it aren’t. The Second World War happened. How you recall it might vary whether you live in Japan or the United States. Wikipedia, adhering to the principle of objectivity (which is a part of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, of which Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s founder, is a follower), developed the idea of the Neutral Point Of View: For controversial subjects, Wikipedia favors expressing the different points of view (as long as they are published by reliable sources, of course) in order to eliminate bias from the encyclopedia. That’s a good way to represent the state of our current knowledge while waiting for a consensus, for the objective truth to emerge.

So basically, every science, even the most “literary” one, adheres to the principle of objectivity. Indeed, if chimpanzees or octopuses were to study history, or biology, or mathematics, they should come to the same conclusions as we did, albeit in a different language. As Karl Popper wrote, objective knowledge is knowledge without a knowing subject. The sum of our knowledge, contained in all our scientific publications, is independent from humanity’s existence. It is an independent entity, which I described as a monolith, which we feed new knowledge by publishing new discoveries through scientific papers.
Objectivity is certainly part of the beauty and appeal of scientific research.
As I talked about Popper, I can’t not mention his theory of falsifiability. Scientific theories are confirmed by experiments; Popper argued experiments can’t “validate” a theory. They can prove it wrong, as just one experiment contradicting a theory is sufficient to destroy it. But to validate a theory, you’d need an infinity of experiments, which is impossible. For example, we can’t prove the theory of gravity, which I talked about earlier, to be 100% true. However, with all the data we have and  the experiments we realized, the probability of the theory of gravity being true is extremely high. Falsifiability helps us understand how we create concepts to explain the objective reality.

It’s interesting to realize that the concepts we create to understand objective reality (the theory of gravity to understand “gravity”) can be as close to this objective reality as is possible (the only barrier being the language we are forced to use to describe our concepts).
And as objective reality is understandable by human thought, it can be understood by Artificial Intelligences, too. As I wrote in “The Virtual Scientist”, AIs could help us discover new things and do science faster.
In the time-consuming knowledge- and data-intensive activities an AI could help us do, there is the example of the bot writing thousands of articles on Wikipedia. The bot mines databases for facts (about cities, species, etc.) and creates articles based on these facts. Of course, it’s not reinventing the wheel, but it saves Wikipedians time by doing simple, yet tedious work, so they can focus on writing the more subtle parts of the article.
If we gave an AI a representation of our world similar to the one we can enjoy through our senses, it could come up with a theory of gravity of its own for example; and that would be a big evidence of objectivity.

One scientific discipline is even closer to objective truth. Mathematics are a universal language, the purest, simplest expression of the truth. Though they are based on symbols, they don’t rely on language and culture, as our other concepts do; they rely on pure logic. It was Galileo who said the “book of the Universe is written in mathematics”. Carl Sagan and others hoped we could probably communicate with extraterrestrial intelligences by sending them mathematical works!
Computers are already producing mathematical proofs too big for humans to manually check. It doesn’t make these proofs wrong, though we have to find a way to confirm them for sure, but it’s an evidence of maths (and perhaps generally, science) being independent of human consciousness. A mathematical proof can be true, whether we are able to verify it by “human” means or not.
With science generally, and maths especially, humanity has a universal language, with which we represent, describe the objective reality of the Universe, and which we could use to communicate with other intelligent beings.
Knowledge, this independent entity, this monolith we feed with scientific papers, is the ultimate repository of this universal language.

But of course scientists make mistakes, and some papers which are fed to the monolith are wrong. In fact there’s a real problem with reproducibility of scientific papers right now. In biomedical research, a study found that less than 10% of scientific papers are reproducible, which is baffling: how can we claim science is about objectivity when so little publications are actually right?
The main problem is the pressure put on scientists to publish, which values quantity over quality, and effectively encourages scientists to fake results in order to get “exciting” articles published in high Impact Factor journals. Scientists are very rarely punished for these behaviors and usually continue their work in academia after their frauds have been exposed. We should sanction the ones who publish fake articles and/or fraudulent data.
More importantly, we should stop putting pressure on scientists to publish, and judge their value by the quality rather than the quantity of their publications.
Let’s encourage researchers to do great work, to be honest, and to publish only when it’s meaningful.
There’s an amazing website called Retraction Watch which tracks, as its name indicates, the retraction of fraudulent/false scientific publications. This initiative is a good example of the Internet’s power to make research more open and transparent, in a way that benefits the pursuit of the truth.

Our beliefs, personalities, and general humanity can be impediments in the quest to understand the Universe. However, knowing that reality exists independently of our own existence, and that all intelligent beings can understand it, with or without the help of sophisticated tools like computers, is very comforting.

The Burning of Library.nu

HollandHouseLibraryBlitz1940.jpg

Nearly two years ago, on February 2012, one of the largest library on Earth burned, and no “mainstream” media, no politician denounced it. The reason for this silence is that the library was “illegal” and that it wasn’t a physical one.
Library.nu was by far the biggest public library on the internet, with a catalogue of about 400,000 to 1,000,000 books. And, as Christopher Kelty, whom I’ll quote extensively in this essay, said, it contained “not just any books – not romance novels or the latest best-sellers – but scholarly books: textbooks, secondary treatises, obscure monographs, biographical analyses, technical manuals, collections of cutting edge research in engineering, mathematics, biology, social science and humanities. The texts ranges from so-called “orphan works” (out-of-print, but still copyrighted) to recent issues; from poorly scanned to expertly ripped; from English to German to French to Spanish to Russian, with the occasional Japanese or Chinese text. It was a remarquable effort of collective connoisseurship.”
Library.nu was indeed an academic library, the kind of one you would expect universities and research institutes to have. But the library closed. It vanished from the internet. It was, to use the physical library metaphor, as if one morning on your way to the library, you found that the entire building had disappeared. Where the library used to be, you’d find a single book on the ground, Blue Latitudes (before shutting down for good and displaying an Error 404 page, Library.nu redirected to the Amazon page of this book).

Library.nu was shut down along with its cyber file locker, ifile.it, by the injunction of a German Judge, at the request of seventeen scholarly publishers. The magnitude of this disaster is difficult to grasp.
While the library of Alexandria probably had hundreds of thousands of scrolls (the objective of Ptolemy II was to reach half a million), there were multiple scrolls for each work, and many duplicates; thus the number of individual works is unlikely to have been as high as 100,000 – between a tenth and a quarter of the number of titles library.nu made available.
Despite this mind boggling estimate, no one seemed to care about the end of Library.nu. Torrent Freak, the Huffington Post and Christopher Kelty’s op-ed on Aljazeera English’s website were roughly the only news coverage the event had. Why? Because the website offered all these works for free. It was indeed a copyright infringing site, like The Pirate Bay but for scholars. And scholarly publishers didn’t like the fact that researchers could access publications for free instead of paying hundreds if not thousands of dollars from their own pocket or from the institutions they were affiliated with (if they had the chance to be affiliated with an institution). Publishers went at war with the site. They sent cease and desist letters which had little impact. So they hired a law firm, Lausen Rechtsanwälte, to try to find who was in charge of Library.nu to sue him and take his website down.
The law firm, which also provides “lobbying services” (they try to screw you by defending big corporations’ interests at the European Commission), estimated the revenue of Library.nu and ifile.it : “The operators made an estimated annual turnover of €8 million ($10,602,400US) from advertising buys on the sites, donations and sales of premium-level accounts, making it one of the most significant piracy websites in the world.” It’s hard to say how Lausen Rechtsanwälte came up with this ludicrous figure, but their estimate is probably totally false. Let me explain why.
Library.nu had virtually no ad or very few, and its traffic was estimated to be at about 30,000 visitors per month, thus any advertising revenue must have been quite small. Remember this site is distributing academic publications, not porn and movies like The Pirate Bay for example. Free science books won’t drive as much traffic as free movies… Donations were also coming in small quantities (Library.nu wasn’t Wikipedia), the website just had a “donate” button and wasn’t actively seeking donations. The premium accounts were of course a source of revenue, but there were little of them. Finally, Lausen Rechtsanwälte didn’t take into account the costs of running such big websites (because, you know, 400,000 – 1,000,000 books? That’s quite a lot of technical costs). But the publishers needed something big, to make them look like victims, so they made this estimation up. And to put that in perspective, Elsevier, one of the seventeen publishing houses which sued Library.nu, made a €6,902 million (that’s nearly $9,5 billion) turnover in 2011 (the year Library.nu was at its apogee, and less than a year before it closed), up 2% from 2010 – it doesn’t look like Library.nu was damaging their business.

Then the law firm tried to find a way to identify the “operators” of the website. How did they succeed? The guy behind Library.nu made a terrible mistake while setting up the donation service: he used Paypal, which is not a good idea when you want anonymity. When you made a donation, the receipt you received from Paypal clearly mentioned the name of the man who owned Library.nu. And when the investigators looked at which bank account the money from the donations was going, it turned out to be either his bank account or one with his name attached to it.
If Bitcoins had been used, maybe Library.nu would still be up and running because of the total anonymity it allows (or at least it would have helped the website stay online a little longer – Law Enforcement Officials would have needed to use other ways to find who owned Library.nu). ifile.it and Library.nu were allegedly owned by the same person, an Irish twenty-something from Galway with a degree in IT who asked for his name to be withheld. I’ll call him Jack.

John Mooney reported that Jack’s venture “showed meagre profits until 2010, when it recorded income of more than €92,000”. So though the revenues of Library.nu aren’t well known, we know for sure that Jack didn’t become a billionaire with his website. (if he wanted to become one, he should have tried to get an MBA and a great job at Elsevier).

And that’s how Lausen Rechtsanwälte was able to close Library.nu. They discovered who owned it, so they were able to use the judiciary system to pressure the guy to stop his activities. Threatened with a massive fine, Jack, understandably, preferred to close the website rather than go to prison.

Result page of Library.nu

With the poor media coverage, when Library.nu burned, at first people didn’t understand what was happening. Then the news reach them through Torrent Freak or directly from Jack, who had set up an automatic response when you sent an email to admin@library.nu:
“Hello (this is an automated courtesy reply) Your email to Library.nu admin has been received. The website is shutting down due to legal bullshit :(, no further comments…
Regards Smiley”

Deceived users went on Reddit to mourn the death of Library.nu, they also shared their thoughts in the comment sections of the news articles.
On Reddit, user tripedal said “This was an invaluable resource for international academics. My doctoral research has taken a significant blow due to this recent shutdown.”
katapilla wrote “library.nu was an awesome site for the fact that some very old manuscript or books that are out of print were uploaded and taken care of by people who love to share hard-to-find books that can’t even be found in the bookstore anymore. As for the publishers who want to shut down sources of illegal book sharing sites, they may have to shut down the entire world wide web or Google; which I highly doubt it that modernization will go backward to the time when no internet existed.”
riziq32 was even more raw: “Those who burnt Alexandria are the same who took down Library.nu. This is a terrible loss for the students and the self-taught mainly, especially those of the third-world who, due to exchange rates and imports restriction, can’t afford to buy a 100 dollars academic book just to see if it’s useful or not. This isn’t an attack on piracy but an attack to the lovers of knowledge who found in Library.nu a tool to bypass geographic and economic difficulties and reach knowledge.”
The most amazing comment on Reddit though was made by PhilScholar. He wrote a short essay (which is too big to be put here in its entirety) that I would have loved to write myself. Read it, it’s amazing.
On Torrent Freak, many academics were just really mad about the burning of Library.nu
Sonia Useinova for example: “I teach at a leading university in Russia, I barely survive on my salary and with an average price of a monograph in my field of studies being well over $50 there’s no question of buying anything. No foreign scientific literature finds its way in our library, so Library.nu was one of the few ways I could find of reading books I have to.”
An anon asked “it’s a library, since when was that considered evil?”
User Angry Voter was really, really mad: “The violent anti-sharing parasites are a threat to civilization. They are the type of dunces that would have locked up the last copy of Euclid’s Elements and not let anyone read it.”
And Dan Harlow neatly explained why the burning of Library.nu was terrible “The thing that is unique about this is that Library.nu offered access to books that were nearly inaccessible through any other means (such as out of print) or were copies of scholarly works that cost hundreds of dollars to purchase through legal avenues. In a way this is like losing the Library of Alexandria all over again because many of these works will once again be seen by only a handful of people who either have fortunate access to them or the money to buy them. In fact, many academics used Library.nu as well. This was not just a book sharing site for people wanting the latest King novel, but a place where historians and mathematicians could easily gain access to important findings and research (both new, obscure and old) without having to jump through hoops, cut red-tape or spend a ton of their own money to access. That’s why this, above all the recent file sharing losses, is the one that hurts the most. Great research will now linger in a moldy corner of some publishers archive with a $100 price tag attached to it. The information inside will hardly be seen which hurts the author and the end consumer.”
Bloggers were also angry as hell about the burning of Library.nu. French blogger Yann Leroux wrote (in french) that a “greater crime than theft [copyright infringement] is the captation of knowledge and culture” He explained well that Library.nu did what traditional publishers are incapable of doing: making scientific research accessible to everyone. And closing it is a shame, comparable to the loss of the Library of Alexandria.

The guys who burned Library.nu are like the firefighters in Fahrenheit 451.

If the publishers want less piracy, they should innovate to make their works more accessible by having for example a subscription service like Spotify, but for academic papers – a single website or app where you could find every book/article from any publisher. But the publishers are incapable to agree on putting in common their works, even if it would benefit customers and themselves in the long run. They don’t care. They only think about short-term profits; the only time academic publishers seem to agree and to be capable of working together is when they’re lobbying Congress or when they’re suing websites such as Library.nu.

Without Library.nu, many researchers are now probably missing lots and lots of references for their works. Library.nu had a very powerful search engine, but now that it’s gone, looking for specific titles is a lot harder. If you don’t have access to a top university library and you’re searching for an out of print book, you’re basically stuck. And if you don’t have a lot of money, even if you find the book or article you’re looking for, you’re probably not going to spend $30 for an article or hundreds of dollars for a book just to see if it’s relevant to your research or to just read one chapter of it. Library.nu was incredibly useful for this kind of usage. There is no legal nor illegal alternative to it as of today.

25-A-young-boy-sits-amidst-the-ruins-of-a-London-bookshop-following-an-air-raid-Oct-8-1940-01

Restricted access to knowledge is nothing new; it has always existed. Ancient greek erudite used to keep knowledge for themselves and transmit it to a selected few. In the Middle Ages, knowledge was tightly guarded by the Church. With the printing press however, knowledge could be reproduced at very little cost. New knowledge and ideas could spread like wildfire. But of course, the Church and governments restricted its use at first – censoring, according privileges to some printing houses and denying the use of a printing press to others. In France, on January 13, 1535, a law was enacted (at the request of the Catholic Church) which forced the closure of all bookshops and stipulated death penalty by hanging for anybody using a printing press. This was less than a century after the printing press had been invented. But thanks to pirate printers, books were still sold in France. The law was ineffective and was of course dumped eventually. The same thing is happening with the Internet today. We’re in the early days of this technology, and it’s allowing a massive sharing of knowledge and ideas. And just as they did with the printing press, governments are trying to pass laws restricting usage of the Internet.
SOPA/ACTA for example (this week marks the second anniversary of the repealing of the law) came very close to be enacted. Without the uprising of activists around the world, it might have been enforced, and would have restricted free speech and, of course, file sharing, increasing the legal sanctions against websites such as MegaUpload or Library.nu.
Russia has its own version of SOPA, and it has been enforced since August 2013.
And the TPP is the new, hardcore draft of SOPA. It would increase the monopolies copyright creates and could kill the Internet as we know it. Wikileaks released the draft of the chapter on Intellectual Property. For analysis of the leaked document, see The Guardian , The Washington Post, Concurring Opinions and KEI Online.
As for Library.nu, as Christopher Kelty in his op-ed for Aljazeera said: “The legality of library.nu is also not the issue: trading in scanned, leaked or even properly purchased versions of digital books is thoroughly illegal. This is so much the case that it can’t be long before reading a book – making an unauthorized copy in your brain – is also made illegal”.

These restrictions are intolerable and must stop. Scientific publications must be free to access – or very cheap. Open Access is the future of publishing. And Creative Commons Licences are the future of Copyright. These laws are “a dying industries’ last charge to save themselves from oblivion” as Reddit user Javier wrote about the legal actions against Library.nu.
They are due to the intense lobbying Hollywood and publishing houses are doing to protect their interests. The Authors Guild v. Google case is a good exemple of editors trying to protect themselves from fair use.

“The world, it should not come as a surprise, is filled with people who want desperately to learn. This is what our world should be filled with. This is what scholars work hard to create: a world of reading , learning, thinking and scholarship. The users of library.nu were would-be scholars: those in the outer atmosphere of learning who wanted to know, argue, dispute, experiment and write just as those in the universities do.” Christopher Kelty wrote. To complete what he said, I’d like to quote Denis Diderot, who, in his essay “Lettre sur le commerce de la librairie” (which doesn’t seem to have an english translation) wrote: “Entre les différentes causes qui ont concouru à nous tirer de la barbarie, il ne faut pas oublier l’invention de l’art typographique. Donc, décourager, abattre, avilir cet art, c’est travailler à nous y replonger et faire ligue avec la foule des ennemis de la connaissance humaine.” [Amongst the different causes which contributed to lifting us from barbarism, we must not forget the invention of the typographic art. Therefore, dispiriting, pulling down, degrading this art, it’s trying to replunge us in barbarism and ganging with the crowd of enemies of human knowledge.] Of course the “typographic art” refers to the printing press, but we could replace the term by “the internet” and it would be quite a powerful statement against lobbyists, lawmakers and publishing houses which try to restrain free circulation of knowledge on the internet.

Kelty ended his article with a touch of hope “To make matters worse, our university libraries can no longer afford to buy these books and journals; and our few bookstores are no longer willing to carry them. So the result is that most of our best scholarship is being shot into some publisher’s black hole where it will never escape. That is, until library.nu and its successors make it available.”
Even if there is no real alternative to Library.nu two years after its destruction, it’s only a matter of time before we see it rising again from its ashes. Someone will eventually fill the gap the burning of Library.nu created. Publishing houses and their friends in power can’t put the genie back in the bottle. They’re fighting a war they already lost.