Thursday, 10 December 2015

The Internet: Open and Staying Open?

The Open Access debate takes a number of forms, and touches on a number of aspects of our digital practices, academic, creative and everyday. So what is Open Access?

Suber (2004) offers the following succinct definition:

Open-access literature is digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions. What makes it possible is the internet and the consent of the author or copyright-holder.

What makes it possible is the internet…this is the argument that Lessig (2001) makes for keeping the Internet as part of the commons, as free as free speech (but not like free beer which in every bar is always tomorrow).
Lessig’s central claim is:

[] there is a benefit to resources held in common and that the Internet is the best evidence of that benefit

He also contends that the Internet forms an innovation commons.
His debate is not about property but about who, if anyone, controls or should control access to these resources held in common. His book’s copyright page has the “all rights reserved” statement crossed out, in line with the spirit of open access and artefacts held under commons license.
Copyright page of Lessig's The Future of Ideas with Copyright crossed out

Authors of the resultant report of a seminar under the auspices of the European Science Foundation (ESF), regarding Changing Publication Cultures in the Humanities, state:

We consider it important to promote open access, to democratize access to content.

Just as the printing press began the democratization of knowledge (or at least information access), today the Internet exponentially extends that process.
 Old manual printing press                              Animation of word Acadoodle on blue lit background
The printing press of old made hard copies, today we live in an age of dynamic data.

Democratic access implies access by the many rather than by the few who up to now acted as gatekeepers of the content and guardians of their privileged access. Again the ESF authors encourage an open approach:

We encourage scholars to choose open access and to take advantage of the opportunities it offers

Lessig argues that “always and everywhere, free resources have been crucial to innovation and creativity; that without them, creativity is crippled” and that “digital technology could enable an extraordinary range of ordinary people to become part of a creative process.” Basically many could move from the life of consumer to a life of creator. Clearly, Lessig feels that liberating our natural creativity is a more meaningful way of life, and would add value to our society. Indeed by keeping these resources free, they gain value.

Lessig quotes Shapiro as optimistic. The ESF report is also somewhat optimistic. However, Lessig’s own view is rather pessimistic. His view is that the freedom and neutrality at the core of the Internet, one of the entities that should remain in the commons, as a foundation of innovation and creativity, is under threat. One analogy in his notes comes from a Cisco whitepaper (1999) which imagines what life would be like if you wanted to drive to a street of bookshops but kept getting rerouted to a specific bookshop not of your choice.

Lessig’s book dates from 2001, today when we look for information (especially about products) we are taken in hand by recommender systems that channel our search down a slick, well-oiled path to a specific shop front. And the shop front may follow us around the web for several days.
According to Lessig, the net of control is being thrown over the Internet and we are doing nothing about it, his book’s final words. This is where the role of modern researchers comes in. The ESF authors state:

Humanities research pertains not only to topics within contemporary societal and cultural trends but also often to topics outside them.

As public intellectuals, researchers can promote knowledge democratization and ensure free digital access to allow for a creative space open to all. Such intellectual leadership leads to a more mature society which can have the courage to allow the existence of a space for untethered imagination to create and share, because who knows what the next Internet will be?


Lessig, L. (2002). The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World. Random House Inc., New York, NY, USA.

Suber, P. (2015). Very Brief Introduction to Open Access. Retrieved 21 November 2015, from

Cisco White Paper, “Controlling Your Network—A Must for Cable Operators” (1999), 5, available at

Aliaga-Lavrijsen, J. (2012). Changing Publication Cultures in the Humanities (European Science Foundation).ResearchGate. Retrieved 21 November 2015, from

Shapiro, A. (1999) The Control Revolution: How the Internet Is Putting Individuals in Charge and Changing the World We Know (New York: PublicAffairs),. (2015). Retrieved 10 December 2015, from

Talking Humanities. (2015). Should historians learn text processing techniques? Retrieved 10 December 2015, from

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