What you make of information — your own understanding and knowledge gain — can never really be taken away from you.

Today we come to the end of a sobering month. We started the month — the year — with a sense of outrage over the tragedy that began on a bus in New Delhi. This roused many of us to protest and call for change. And then, in the second week of January, some of us were stopped in our tracks by a tragedy of a different sort. A 26-year-old American internet activist named Aaron Swartz committed suicide, setting off a series of anguished commentaries and angry questions from those who have been arguing for a more open knowledge environment.

Aaron had been labelled a criminal by the American legal system. By many accounts, what he did was not quite acceptable by the rules that bind most of modern society. He wanted to make all information free, all knowledge available to all (see his Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, available online, http://pastebin.com/cefxMVAy ). He detested the copyright regimes and protective barriers that held some information, some knowledge locked, accessible only to those who could pay. So he created tech tools that made it possible for people to share their own information easily, seamlessly, across the web. He also tried to download large amounts of privately held academic information — journal articles and databases — and ‘liberate’ them from the clutches of copyright. For this the US government slapped on him charges that many academics and internet freedom activists believe were far in excess of his alleged crime of illegally accessing privately owned information. In the words of New York University scholar Dana Boyd, he became an “example” and “a toy for a government set on showing their strength.” Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, had earlier tweeted, “Aaron dead. World wanderers, we have lost a wise elder. Hackers for right, we are one down. Parents all, we have lost a child. Let us weep.”

So what does the life of Aaron Swartz have to do with all of us, in schools and colleges in India, a hemisphere away?

Students here will perhaps relate to the desire to keep information free, given that books and other forms of knowledge are usually quite expensive. Most of us are aggressive downloaders, looking for free versions of not only academic (or entertainment) material but computer programs as well. It is just this sentiment that drives us to photocopy journal articles and books instead of buying them — not only are they expensive but also difficult to obtain. But ‘free’ in terms of cost to user is only one aspect of the Creative Commons idea that Aaron helped to initiate. Asking that information remain free and open to access does not imply a lack of respect or appreciation for the process of creation, or for the creator, of this information. In fact, it is an acceptance and acknowledgment of this value.

Sharing, not copying

We need to make a distinction between freely accessing information that we require to add to our knowledge or to help us in our education, and using that information for personal gain. This could be, for instance, passing off something as our own (plagiarism) or creating a commercial product using it (for financial profit). The spirit of open access and a free and open information environment is one of sharing and of giving credit for knowledge where it is due, NOT of indiscriminate copying.

It’s worth spending some time reading through and understanding what the Creative Commons (http://creativecommons.org/) is all about. Other groups, in India too, have been working hard to create and maintain a “Knowledge Commons” (the “commons” refers to a community-owned and shared space).

But the CC licence system is just one aspect of an open information environment. The larger issue is one of mindset, just as much as it is about open pathways, a multiplicity of languages, and access to different kinds of people (hearing-impaired, visually-challenged). It means that when we ourselves are playing the role of information generator, we need to think about making this information available in as ‘accessible’ a manner as possible for all those who may need to use it. It’s about developing an attitude of sharing rather than hoarding when it comes to knowledge and information.

Right through school, we tend to see advantage in keeping information to ourselves, particularly academic information that we think will give us an advantage in examinations and tests. We hide our notes and hoard any extra material we might lay our hands on. While I’m not suggesting that you indulge lazy classmates by doing all their library research for them, it may not be a bad idea to help people who may not be as resourceful, by pointing them to such information sources. What you make of information — your own understanding and knowledge gain — can never really be taken away from you.

Aaron Swartz’s brief but remarkably productive life was all about ‘liberating’ information from institutional shackles and putting it into the commons — and it’s up to the rest of us to preserve the shared space of information sharing.

The author teaches at the University of Hyderabad and edits Teacher Plus magazine. Email: usha.raman@gmail.com

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