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.

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.

Scholarly Heaven

Amateurs have always been a large part of the scientific community. In some fields, such as entomology, the majority of research is carried out by non-professionals. Now, with the advent of the internet, DIY movements and online amateur communities, this reality is more and more visible. Articles from Harvard Magazine to Wired acknowledge the growing trend of “citizen science”, yet I believe there lacks a “seat of knowledge” made for twenty-first century’s amateur scientists, a place different from usual universities and research institutes.
To further advance humankind’s knowledge, embracing “amateur” research is mandatory. Throughout history, amateurs had places to interact with professional scholars, as Peter Burke wrote in A Social History Of Knowledge: ” : “Informal conversation must always have been important in intellectual exchanges, but the settings for such activities have changed over the centuries. In London in the late seventeenth century, some of the new coffeehouses were known to be centres of discussion on particular topics, from literature to natural philosophy. In Cambridge in the 1870s, the ‘laboratory tea’ became an institution. Even more important in the history of knowledge in Britain in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was the pub. Individuals who wanted to discuss natural science – artisan botanists in the nineteenth-century Lancashire, for instance – found their way to public houses. Oxford pubs were central to the development of British anthropology in the 1930s and 1940s, under the guidance first of Alfred Radcliffe-Brown and then of Edward Evans-Pritchard. In Cambridge, it was in the Eagle that, over a doubtless semi-liquid lunch in 1953, Francis Crick announced the discovery of the structure of DNA. In Geneva, by contrast, it was in the cafeteria at CERN in 1990 that Tim Berners-Lee christened the World Wide Web. In Silicon Valley, ‘late-evening conversations at the Walker’s Wagon Wheel Bar and Grill in Mountain View’ are said to have done ‘more for the diffusion of technological innovation than most seminars in Stanford’ “. We can find analogies between theses places and online forums/communities which give the opportunity for amateur and professional researchers to discuss and work together,  however a more formal, physical space is needed for both amateurs and professionals to collaborate. In the late sixteenth century, such a place existed in Europe – the academia -, an institution where meetings and discussions took place, where respected scholars from universities and amateurs gathered to advance scientific knowledge. In his book, Burke insisted on the fact that “Forms of sociability had – and still have – their influence on the distribution and even the production of knowledge”, thus this new “seat of knowledge” will aim at recreating the kind of settings permitting scientists from all horizons to come together and work on their research, to discuss and benefit from twenty-first century habits like DIY and Open Source/Open Science.
We can think of this new place as a new incarnation of the Institute for Advanced Study, or of MIT’s AI Laboratory, a Shangri-La for scientists, where anyone wanting to contribute to science can come and where competence is the only criteria for hiring. I call this place the Scholarly Heaven.

 

What would the Scholarly Heaven look like? I imagine it as a mix between the Googleplex and a Hackerspace, like Paris’ La Paillasse: a friendly, cosy space where you have access to tools and a like minded community, where you can work and interact with others, but also eat (with free food on campus) and play, or give a lecture, or start a hackathon.
The Googleplex itself is modeled after some of academia’s jewels, like the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), which Oppenheimer – who was its director for nearly twenty years – described as “an intellectual hotel”, designed to take care of scientists so that they are in the best environment possible to work. Google made its campus an IAS for engineers, and hackerspaces around the globe create this kind of setup for the DIY community. The Scholarly Heaven will be part hackerspace, part institution like Google or the IAS. It will offer the same freedom a hackerspace allows while maintaining a high level of excellence in research and engineering by hiring the best members of the community.
I’ll talk about funding later, but we can imagine the Scholarly Heaven to be a full fledged research institute, employing top-notch researchers, equipped with state-of-the-art tools like a research ship or a particle accelerator, while at the same time allowing hobbyists to use these equipments to conduct their own research and perhaps make some amazing breakthroughs along the way.
As an Internet Era institution, the Scholarly Heaven will also be an online community for people to communicate and work together anywhere in the world. Michael Nielsen, in The future of science and his book Reinventing Discovery envisioned such an online agora: “Like Einstein, we have a small group of trusted collaborators with whom we exchange questions and ideas when we are stuck. Unfortunately, most of the time even our collaborators aren’t that much help. They may point us in the right direction, but rarely do they have exactly the expertise we need. Is it possible to scale up this conversational model, and build an online collaboration market to exchange questions and ideas, a sort of collective working memory for the scientific community?
It is natural to be skeptical of this idea, but an extremely demanding creative culture already exists which shows that such a collaboration market is feasible – the culture of free and open source software. Scientists browsing for the first time through the development forums of open source programming projects are often shocked at the high level of discussion. They expect amateur hour at the local karaoke bar; instead, they find professional programmers routinely sharing their questions and ideas, helping solve each other’s problems, often exerting great intellectual effort and ingenuity. Rather than hoarding their questions and ideas, as scientists do for fear of being scooped, the programmers revel in swapping them. Some of the world’s best programmers hang out in these forums, swapping tips, answering questions and participating in the conversation.”

At the Scholarly Heaven, paid researchers would research whatever it is that they find interesting, as long as they contribute to science; which is similar to what the IAS expects its scholars to do. However, IAS’ scholars can do literally whatever they want: they have no assignments whatsoever. Some people have questioned this approach, and although a “publish or perish” pressure wouldn’t be welcomed at the Scholarly Heaven, paid researchers would be required to actually share what they are working on (but in a very simple, informal way: perhaps make a video or write a blog post on their research topic once in a while).
Unlike the IAS, where only theoretical research is undertaken, the Scholarly Heaven would embrace both theoretical and experimental works, since both contribute in different ways to improve our knowledge of the Universe.
Researchers would be (like at the IAS) free from the grant-seeking pressure most scientists are familiar with nowadays. In a recent article from The Verge, researchers from the IAS agreed that it “offers them something that other schools don’t: freedom from research expectations and the associated financial strain. ‘Nobody tells you what to think about, or says, “I’ll only give you money if you think about how to solve this problem” ‘ [Helmut] Hofer says ‘It’s harder and harder to get money and here we don’t deal so much with that stress’ “.
In fact, older institutions, like Pavia University, understood that freedom from financial pressure was necessary for scientists to accomplish their best works: Pavia gave Galileo Galilei a job without teaching nor specific research requirements.
The Library of Alexandria, perhaps the most famous example of a Scholarly Heaven, gave its scholars free rein to pursue their own interests. The Ptolemies understood what scientific freedom was and the fruits it could bear twenty-four centuries ago, yet today’s universities and research institutes are putting more and more pressure and constraints on their staff!
Except this “show what you’re working on once in a while” requirement, the Scholarly Heaven wouldn’t impose any presence or teaching requirements (though the later would be encouraged).
In Alexandria’s Library, teaching wasn’t a requirement either, as Matthew Battles wrote in Library, an unquiet history: “Although it was meant to attract scholars and thinkers, no formal teaching program was adopted. This was one of its chief benefits to scholars; for then as now, intellectuals found teaching as much a burden as a calling. The royal pension freed scholars from having to advertise for pupils to walk around with, while the heaps of scrolls offered them inexhaustible opportunities for their work”, and yet some scholars did teach, because they wanted to. I expect a similar thing would happen at the Scholarly Heaven – and those who teach by passion rather than constraint teach the best courses.
To sum up what life would be like for paid researchers at the Scholarly Heaven, I’ll quote The Verge article again: “faculty members don’t teach, scholars don’t need to publish, and nobody will tell anybody what they should and shouldn’t investigate. Everybody at IAS has carte-blanche to do whatever it is that they want.”
One requirement though for researchers: embracing Open Science. At the Scholarly Heaven, researchers would publish their papers in Open Access and post their data in an open repository. The future of research institutions the Scholarly Heaven represents would be more open, and so would be its works.
The Scholarly Heaven would offer online and on-campus courses, which everyone regardless of his/her background could take and complete. Again, the Scholarly Heaven would offer the best of both worlds: like MOOCs, its courses would be open to everyone; and like universities, it would deliver grades; but on a per-course basis. It would revolutionize higher education by allowing people to choose their courses and thus build a “custom CV”, and it would free students of the burden of uninteresting courses. Every student would thus be free to pursue his/her interests, and to be rewarded for it. Courses would be a small part of the education the Scholarly Heaven would deliver, and they would be totally optional. Instead, students would be encouraged to start their own projects, like I suggested in a previous essay.

So basically three types of people would come to the Scholarly Heaven: amateurs, students, and paid researchers. Everyone would be free to come and do research or take a course, or teach one (though the content of the course will need to be checked by the faculty – or the online community – to make sure what is taught is correct).
For post-docs looking for tenure, the Scholarly Heaven would provide them freedom to work as hard as they wish to prove themselves worthy of the position they’re seeking at a university. They would be able to dedicate 100% of their time to their research, while at regular universities post-docs have to teach and lose a lot of time doing so.
The Scholarly Heaven would ultimately hire researchers to constitute a permanent faculty. I described what it would be like for paid researchers to work there above, but I haven’t defined what I mean by “paid researchers”. No need to have fancy PhDs to get hired as a researcher. At the Scholarly Heaven, competence and experience are key. “Amateurs” can be as good as professionals, even if they don’t have the same curriculum.  To be hired as a researcher, one would have to show his passion, knowledge and experience, perhaps by being interviewed by a group of fellow scholars who would review the application and previously published papers.
MIT’s AI Lab used to welcome amateurs, though they only hired college-trained scientists. As well as welcoming amateurs to work along with professionals, the Scholarly Heaven would also hire the best of them to join the ranks of the professionals. Justin Peters for Slate described MIT’s AI Lab in these words: “the AI Lab was a sort of programming utopia that drew computer enthusiasts from all around – a Brook Farm for the digital age. It was a flat, non-hierarchical system, where you were judged on the caliber of your work, not age or status or title or educational background. ‘There were people that were hangers on, that were not real students or staff members. They just were there, and they were helping’, says Brewster Kahle, an AI Lab affiliate in the early 1980s. ‘And that openness was very creative and wonderful.’ ” The Scholarly Heaven would take this philosophy a step further by hiring people regardless of age, status, title or educational background – taking only competence into account.

 

How could the Scholarly Heaven come into existence? Before talking about funding, it is worth noting that the Scholarly Heaven would be a lean organization that would reject bureaucracy.
The IAS used to operate in a very lean way, though today it seems bureaucracy has taken over the management of the place, as one researcher complained in Who Got Einstein’s Office: “When Oppenheimer was the director he didn’t spend all his time running the place. He used to do physics half the time. He used to have one secretary, a business manager, and a lady who did the housing arrangements. Now there’s a director, and an associate director, and each of them has assistants plus secretaries, sometimes two secretaries. This is poisonous. After a while the administration lives for itself, and the faculty becomes a side-issue.” We need to prevent this from happening at the Scholarly Heaven, and I expect its administration to be composed of a small team of scientists, not bureaucrats.
Let’s talk about money now. Funding for the Scholarly Heaven could come from three main sources:

-individuals, in the form of membership fees, donations (some wealthy individuals like tech billionaires would be welcomed)

-companies, who could benefit from the research made at the Scholarly Heaven and hire talents there

-tuition fees: perhaps making all courses free but taking the test paying, like many MOOCs are doing?
A big endowment will be necessary in order to establish the Scholarly Heaven (Jeff Bezos, Larry Page, Sergey Brin?). In 1988, when Who Got Einstein’s Office was published, the IAS had an operating budget of “over $10 million per year, which it pays out of its endowment, currently valued at well over $100 million, and out of the income derived from its investments [since then, both the endowment and annual budget have gone up]. The rate of return on its investments varies from year to year, but recently it has averaged about 17 percent per annum. In fiscal year 1984/85, though, the annual rate of return was 26,9 percent. Unlike other utopias envisioned by idealists down through the ages, this one is not afraid of money.” Definitely the kind of financial situation I wish the Scholarly Heaven to be in.
The IAS is also supported by very wealthy individuals, such as Google’s Eric Schmidt or European Central Bank’s Mario Draghi, who sit on its board of trustees. This kind of continuous support would be welcomed too, but let’s not forget the thousands of amateur scientists and science enthusiasts who together can contribute huge amounts of money and brain power!

I think the Scholarly Heaven represents the future of research institutions. Could we try to make this idea a reality?

Tablets won’t revolutionize education. It’s way past time for a real reform

The education system has always been a pain in the ass for me. And yet I’m always hungry to know more things. I just don’t like to be told what I should or shouldn’t learn. I live in France so here I’ll talk about the french education system, but from what I know in the United States and around the world, what I’m going to say applies there as well. My experience with the education system has been, and still is, quite ugly; or I should say: ugly as fuck -like ugly to the point of being seriously depressed – despite the fact that I  am a good student (like, top of my class or not far from it since elementary school). I’m now in college, and it’s still bad.

I’ll recall my experience from age 8-9 to this day (I’m 18) and I’ll make comments on how to improve the education system from the point of view of a student who still has fresh memories of what school is. So it’ll be quiet different from what you can hear from teachers’ unions who want to improve the education system only if it doesn’t affect their benefits (disclosure: both my parents are teachers), or from tech companies like Apple or Google (another disclosure: I’m a Google and Apple fan, but their discourse “give kids iPads and they’ll be happier and learn better” is plain bullshit – tablets are useless if we don’t change the curriculum and the very way schools work and students learn).

I have little memories of the 1st to 4th grades. My mom told me I enjoyed going to school. I remember having good, sweet teachers, I learned to read, write, count without any problem, I found school quite nice and I still think learning to write, read and count isn’t really “funny”, it’s something you have to do, and frankly, when you’re 5, 6, 7, or 8 years old, you don’t really think too much about it. My parents told me I needed to learn these things, and they helped me. I think the problem today with kids having troubles to read and write and count is because of their parents who don’t push them enough. There’s nothing really wrong with education between the 1st and 4th grade. If your kid has troubles learning to read or write, don’t blame his teacher, blame yourself – you have to infuse the appetite for learning in your kids, school alone isn’t enough.

The only year I vividly remember from elementary school is my 5th grade. It started really bad. Most of my friends were a year older than me, so when I reached 5th grade they were off to Junior High School, and I was afraid of being alone, and I was quickly bored by the required curriculum. It was way to simple and I would finish most exercises well ahead of everybody else and would have to wait before correcting them with the class. But hopefully, I had an amazing teacher who quickly realized I was bored. His name is mister Bruno Sidoli. Probably the best teacher I ever had. He asked my parents if he could get me to do more things when I finished exercises before the rest of my class. He let me choose what I wanted to do. I decided to prepare exposés about scientific subjects for my peers ( subjects were up to me).
When I finished an exercise, while the rest of the class continued to do it, I’d sneak into my teacher’s office and reach for his computer and would look for material to prepare an exposé. It would take me a week or two to find books, articles I wanted to use and to write a poster about the subject. Mister Sidoli printed what I needed, and most importantly, he asked the good questions: “should you trust this source?” “do you have any other source for this part of your exposé?”. He taught me to be more curious, to dig deeper in the subjects I wanted to talk about, to question things. I’d then present my poster to the class, with my teacher letting me moderate questions, etc. I learned a lot of things by myself under his guidance, it was a pure delight.
He was an amazing teacher who knew how to explain things, to entertain his students with very diverse activities and projects: a very high quality school journal run by pupils, science projects, etc.
Mister Sidoli didn’t always follow the assigned curriculum – (which allowed all these side projects) and as far as I’m concerned, he taught me how to learn by myself. My curiosity derives primarily from this teacher, who got me interested in so many different things, and I’ll never thank him enough for that.

Then I got to Junior High. Met a bunch of new people; some stupid as fuck, some who are now amongst my best friends. However, my four years in Junior High completely killed my motivation for education (but not for learning, these are two different things). There were absolutely no possibilities for side projects, you just moved from class to class, from La Fontaine to Pythagoras and then to Louis XIV. The relationships with teachers were far less personal, they knew much less about you and were not able to understand your personality and what you were eager to learn.
The Junior High building in itself felt like a prison; it was really closed, you were assigned to a classroom for a certain period of time, you couldn’t do anything else, you had to be there or you would be punished. It felt really claustrophobic to me. High school was a bit better at this level, and college now is just fine.

In 6th grade, I arrived as motivated as someone could possibly be. I found the new organization to be really great at that point (having different teachers, etc) and I was happy to learn new things. I created along with a friend a science club with my biology teacher. My 6th grade was great overall, I participated a lot in class but I got a bit bored by the end of the year. The summer holidays were welcomed.

In 7th grade, I invested myself a lot in biology class, I lost interest for most of the other classes, except for the French one, where I had another great teacher, mister Baranger. A writer himself, I was fascinated by his very complex personality. I wanted to become maybe a novel writer at the time, and he gave me amazing advices. I had two pupils in my class who were troublemakers and had big difficulties writing and reading french. I’m pretty sure one of them is in jail now or will soon be. But mister Baranger got them to do grammar exercises and writings by giving them texts to study that they liked. Texts about gangsters, Scarface’s screenplay, etc. And it worked. In the other classes they were either doing nothing or disrupting, but in his class they were working, not a lot, but they were working. Because they studied things that they liked. The subject interested them, so learning some grammar lesson out of it was kind of an accident, but still, they were learning a grammar lesson. Mister Baranger had an amazing general culture and knew many many things – he knew how to find great topics and original exercises for us-.
Except in Biology and French courses, I participated less and less in class as I was more and more bored.  I selected the classes I wanted to work for, and didn’t give a fuck about the others (while still maintaining high marks).

8th grade was a pivotal year. I didn’t have mister Baranger anymore, I was bored by everything we were supposed to learn (even biology because I was ahead of the curriculum), so I wasn’t participating. I didn’t give a shit. So I chatted with my friends and even if I had pretty good marks, that was not to the taste of my teachers. At the end of my second trimester, I received a “behavior warning” because I was distracted in class. Of course I was distracted. It was boring and there was no way of doing anything interesting.
After this stupid behavior warning, I decided to try to get interested in what we were doing, and to work a bit to have even higher marks so that I’d receive the congratulations of the class council at the end of the third semester. I studied harder, did my best to participate in class and shut the fuck up, but it just didn’t work. I raised my average by nearly two points (I was into the range of marks where you can be given the congrats of the council), and yet I didn’t get the slightest encouragement from the class council. I was really disappointed, and angry to have worked on so boring stuff to get nothing in return, not even congrats (and certainly no intellectual satisfaction)!
That’s when I decided to stop giving a fuck about school. I stopped working on anything I found boring. It didn’t seem to change a damn thing whether I was working or not anyway.
I hated Junior High so much it hurt. I was so bored I slid into a deep depression – I’m not even sure I’m out of it as of today. Physically, my claustrophobia made me feel like I was going to throw up the minute I walked into a classroom. I was so bored it made me sick. It got to a point where my doctor made me stop going to school two-three weeks before the end of the year. I couldn’t take it anymore. I was deeply depressed during the summer holidays but it got slightly better just in time for 9th grade.

lwgENyH

For my last year in Junior High, I decided to speak up about anything I thought was wrong. Like, if I was confronted to a rule I hated, I would say to the adult in front of me enforcing this rule that it was pure bullshit – it got quite tense sometimes as I would yell at anything I found ridiculous, including the principal of the school, who knew me quite well by that time. 9th grade was kind of a liberation to me. I was still bored, I still hated getting up every morning to do pointless things, but I spoke up. By making jokes mostly. It was a way for me to make the class less boring by entertaining everyone. In my 8th grade I had remained silent, taking everything until my body just said stop, so in 9th grade it was time to release all this pressure and anger.
As you can imagine, it didn’t went very well. I still had very good marks, but my jokes were sometimes misunderstood, especially by my english teacher, who thought, and I’m sorry about this, that I made jokes to disrupt her class. No, not at all. I made jokes so that it would be less boring. She wrote in my report card “Pierre préfère briller dans l’art du commentaire en tout genre” (roughly “Pierre shines at the art of making all sorts of comments”).
A typical day for me would be boring but punctuated by jokes and sometimes very heated discussions about punishments and arbitrary rules inside my school. As I had stopped worrying about boring schoolwork, I spent all of my free time pursuing my passions – entomology at that point. I had plenty of time. And I mostly learned english by chatting in forums about entomology, by discussing with contacts all over the world, by reading scientific articles in english. I learned a lot about geography also. I learned many many things via my passions, much more than I could hope to learn with the present education system.
You see, when you have something you’re interested in, if you dig into it, you’ll always learn something. It’s inevitable. But the fact is, the education system doesn’t care about your curiosity, it doesn’t care about intelligent, good students – every single initiative to improve the education system is to make it better for below average students. Good students can’t have any troubles right, so why should we care about them, their well being and their intellectual development?

From 9th grade on, what is needed is a total change in how education is done. By 8th grade you have the basic knowledge I expect everyone to have. It might be boring (and it surely is in my opinion), but if you have good teachers like Misters Sidoli and Baranger, 1st through 8th grades are going to be just fine, so we should let teachers be much more free to leave the assigned curriculum and work on side projects or follow students’ interests. The rest after that is a bonus. High School taught me not only boring things but also totally useless stuff, mostly. Of course, there were some interesting classes, for exemple a history class on space exploration, or a biology class on neurology, but most of the time it was just boring.

I’m now at University and it’s still quiet boring. You’re still not free to take the courses you’re interested in, you have these stupid required courses. And the model of the magistral lecture is just bad. That’s not how you learn anymore. So, how do we reform education?

From the 1st to the 8th or 9th grade at most, I don’t think we should change much of the curriculum. However, we should give teachers more freedom to go deeper in some topics that they or their students like. Thus the exam between Junior High and High School and the one at the end of the three years of high school should disappear to make room for a more malleable curriculum. If we don’t get rid of them, nothing will change.
On the status of the Elementary School/ Junior High and High School teacher: they should be paid more, that’s for sure. However, they should be fireable easily so that when you have a bad teacher he can be removed quickly from his position.
To learn more about the education reform for 1st to 8th grader, I recommend you read the excellent article Wired published on the subject (“How a radical teaching method could unleash a generation of geniuses“). It describes the experiments of Sugata Mitra, the Brooklyn Free School and many others to let kids learn by themselves (their teaching methods are very close to what I had when I was in 5th grade) and states cleverly that “our educational system is rooted in the industrial age. It values punctuality, attendance, and silence above all else.” What Wired describes should be the new norm in education from the 1st to 8th grade: a change in the methods used, allowing kids to learn by themselves and to have the will to learn – without dramatically changing what is taught, so that kids all have basic knowledge in maths, science, history, literature, etc.
I also have to say it somewhere: education teaches the truth and only the truth. Teaching creationism and other blatant lies from the Bible or other religious pieces of shit is a crime. If you want your kids to believe in these things, take them to the church, but don’t expect schools to transform into churches.
State and Church are and must remain separated. There’s no way any religious teaching can find its way in a school curriculum.

After Junior High or even after the 8th grade, education should be even more different. The internet changed the way we learn. You can nearly all learn by yourself. Teachers should just be guides (like my elementary teacher mister Sidoli). When you want to know how to write a specific word you google it. You don’t need a teacher for this anymore. But someone to teach you how to search, how to question things, to verify sources, to become someone who has some critical thinking, that’s what we need teachers for.

Why couldn't you graduate when you have access to this? (here iTunes U)
Why can’t you graduate when you have access to this? (here iTunes U)

As Aaron Swartz said:  “Seriously, who really cares how long the Nile river is, or who was the first to discover cheese. How is memorizing that ever going to help anyone? Instead, we need to give kids projects that allow them to exercise their minds and discover things for themselves. Instead of stuffing them with ‘knowledge’ we need to give them the power to find out what they want to know.”
By the time you’re 14-15 years old, you should be able to start your own projects: research projects, engineering, art projects, etc. For example, if you’re passionate about novel writing, start writing a novel! Your french teacher (if you’re french, of course) would be your guide, would recommend books you might want to read, he would explain to you difficult grammar rules. Your history teacher could help you do some background research or check the historic coherence of what you’re writing.
If you’re passionate about biology, why not start researching? Building experiments, reading articles in foreign languages about your research topic, then, why not, writing and publishing an article with your results? High school would be a totally free place: students could walk from class to class freely (there wouldn’t be any real class anyway), come at any time from 8 a.m to 6p.m, or work from home. It wouldn’t be the kind of prison I knew. No more claustrophobia. Instead, couches, laptops, labs, a theater, and motivated teachers here to help you discover what it is that you want to learn. The only requirement being that you do what you love, and that you actually do something. As Joshua Davis explained : “Einstein spent a year at a Pestalozzi-inspired school in the mid-1890s, and he later credited it with giving him the freedom to begin his first thought experiments on the theory of relativity. Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin similarly claim that their Montessori schooling imbued them with a spirit of independence and creativity.”

The same reform applies for college. You would only get even more serious in college. You would have access to top notch researchers and professors and expensive lab material amongst many other things.

There’s only one thing I want to do in my life: research (in neurosciences and entomology). It obsesses me to the point of not working my university courses if they do not relate directly to these topics. So why wouldn’t my university let me drop out and become a researcher?
In his book “Who Got Einstein’s Office?” Ed Regis reported that Abraham Flexner, founder of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, believed in the creation of a university where teachers and students would work together to “advance the frontiers of knowledge, to explore the unknown” – that is, to do research together.

Working on your own projects in college would be a much better way to find a job than a degree. If you want to become a journalist, do you really need an English degree? Don’t you need to start learning how to research a subject and write about it very early on instead? If you want to become a biologist, does it matter if you took the required math course? Or isn’t it better if you’ve been doing research for years? Aaron Swartz had the same idea “If I wanted to start a more effective university, it would be pretty simple. Hire the smartest people and accept the smartest students, get them to work on projects that interest them … organize a bunch of show-and-tells and mixers, and for the most part let them figure stuff out on their own.”

The advantages of this new method would be numerous: first, it would create an appetite for learning (which has disappeared in my peers, I’m saddened to realize). Second, it would give students the key to a successful professional life, giving them first hand experience of what it is like to be an engineer, a scientist, a businessman, etc. Third, it could unleash geniuses: imagine letting someone brillant in high school do some research on cancer therapy for example. With the economic protection the school offers him (he doesn’t have to worry about grants, etc) he can try many many things, and will certainly fail. But what if he succeeds at finding a molecule, a gene, which has curative effects? Jack Andraka had access to Johns Hopkins’ oncology lab. That’s the kind of opportunity we should offer to students interested in oncology. Even if they’re only 15.

The Burning of Library.nu

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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.

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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.