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[liberationtech] <nettime> Response to "Academe Is Complicit" essay

Eugen Leitl eugen at
Wed Jan 23 04:55:31 PST 2013

----- Forwarded message from Lincoln Cushing <lcushing at> -----

From: Lincoln Cushing <lcushing at>
Date: Tue, 22 Jan 2013 21:04:03 -0800
To: nettime-l at
Subject: <nettime> Response to "Academe Is Complicit" essay

Nettime colleagues:

I was forwarded Timothy Burke's provocative piece through the
Progressive Librarians Guild (I've been a member for over ten years).
I'm replying with an adaptation of something I wrote following
another essay examining Aaron Swartz's death. While Mr. Swartz's
death was tragic, his persecution by the US Attorney General's office
heavyhanded, and many of the information liberation positions he
espoused noble, I was struck by the criticism in Burke's essay leveled

JSTOR has become a veritable punching bag of the "Free Culture
Movement." Noted professor Larry Lessig takes a whack at them in
his video lecture appropriately titled "What's wrong with JSTOR":

In it, he bushwhacks a scholar for explaining her empty office
bookshelves by saying that "Everything I needed is on the Internet
now." Lessig's meanspirited point was that from the academic's
perspective - namely working at an institution with well-endowed
electronic journal site licenses - she was both privileged and
correct. Alas, for the rest of us poor slobs in the real world her
statement isn't true. Evil content aggregators like JSTOR have gobbled
up all the good stuff.

But wait - Lessig's argument only works within the narrow definition
of online access.

I'm certainly no fan of JSTOR. I, like all of you, have stumbled
across tasty citations to works on Google, only to be zapped with the
unwelcome news that I'd have to pay to see it. But JSTOR does provide
a service. Their arrangements are not exclusive. You want to go to
your local university library and scan an article from 1975? Go ahead,
the free JSTOR citation tells you exactly what to look for. Sure, the
original research may well have been paid for by public funds, but
that does not mean that somehow it should magically appear for free on
the Web. There are real costs to doing this work, and unless The State
is willing to do it (and I would argue they should), corporations will
step in. Public domain does not mean free access, just the potential
for it.

I'm sure there are other aspects of JSTOR that are problematic
(apparently their executives each made over $250,000 in 2009, but
I'm not paying their salary). I am hopeful that examinations of the
circumstances surrounding the Swartz tragedy can lead to discussing
and developing a clearer analysis of the real problems facing our
field. For example, I see the insidious expansion of photo aggregators
like Corbis and Getty One being much more dangerous than JSTOR. Those
folks are truly buying up our culture, and it scares me. Burke raises
the complicity of academe in the privatization of knowledge. I ask -
what have any of us actually done to make information available to the

Much of my own work as an activist archivist involves digitization
of analog content and sharing it with the world. I shoot posters,
which is not easy, and I've built and paid for a custom studio for
doing that. I've helped mount thousands of social justice poster
images on the Web. But I don't post high-resolution images. I, and
the institutions I work with, feel that those images deserve some
protection from corporate appropriation without compensation. Thanks
you, Creative Commons. By withholding free access to the ultimate
goody, the 60 megabyte image file, am I a traitor to the "Free Culture
Movement"? I certainly hope not.

Yours for democratic knowledge,

Lincoln Cushing
Documents for the Public

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----- End forwarded message -----
Eugen* Leitl <a href="">leitl</a>
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