Aaron Swartz Day 2017

My name is Mek, Citizen of the World, and I have the privilege of serving at Internet Archive on Aaron's Open Library.

There's a Japanese word 生き甲斐 (ikigai), "one's reason for being". My ikigai is to facilitate pushing the limit of responsible human achievement. To see how far humanity can get when unnecessary obstacles are removed; When caring, ethical, motivated people are empowered to act with the fullest of their human potential.

With this in mind, I have a few questions I'd ask you to consider:

  1. How does an individual with no disposable income become a competitive expert in biology?
  2. How many people worldwide are unable to contribute to the fullest of their capability because they don't have access to the learning materials to fuel their potential?
  3. How pervasive is this problem and what is the opportunity cost of this performance gap to the world?

To quote Aaron, "Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world's entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations."

Overdrive is an online distributor which runs an ebook lending platform on behalf of libraries. They make it so libraries can make their holdings digital and accessible.

This is advantageous for several reasons:

  1. It expands their user-base, their usage, and makes the model of ebook lending viable for sufficiently endowed libraries. This serves their mission to increase readership and in turn helps them acquire additional funds from sponsors.
  2. Libraries are notoriously understaffed, especially when it comes to engineering staff. Most libraries don't have the resources or budget to build their own online lending platform.
  3. Overdrive has an exclusive partnership with Amazon and can get their books directly onto reader's kindles. This is a major feature unavailable to players like New York Public Library and Open Library.
  4. Libraries have no illusions that they are the David in the arena of publishing Goliaths. Libraries employ great discretion to ensure their operations satisfy the requirements of publishers. Often times this dissuades libraries entirely from trying to survive and stay relevant by having digital offerings. After all, what public library has resources enough to endure litigation costs? And worse than monetary costs, who wants to be the library responsible for losing an important decision which ruins things for other libraries? Overdrive provides libraries an important buffer by working with publishers.

Except when I say Overdrive works with publishers, what I really mean is that Overdrive agrees to pay the absurd ransom that publishers demand in order to lease their books on behalf of libraries.

Here's an important point:

How much does it cost to distribute ebooks? Is it more or less than a physical book? Through services like Overdrive, the average library paid six times the consumer price for e-books on the USA Today bestseller list.

A 2015 Douglas County Library catalog shows the library price for the physical book, "Speaking in Bones" was $15. On Amazon, you and I would have paid $10.99. Douglas County had to pay $84 to make the same ebook available via overdrive[1]. Worse, often times this price only entitles libraries to access it for a period, such as 2 years, or comes with limits on the total number of borrows.

With prices like that, you may think libraries wouldn't bite. But what other choice do they have? Users want ebooks and they want them on their kindle. And libraries face a lot of adversity trying to accomplish either well. But 90% of the approximately 16,400 US public libraries make ebooks available on OverDrive. And there's a 99% renewal rate[2]. This equates to impressive profits for the publishers and over $100 million in revenue for OverDrive. But don't forget for a moment, that we the taxpayers are paying for it.

The Internet Archive also runs a public library called Open Library. It was started by Aaron circa 2005 as a way to unite libraries together, to build an open catalog of all the world's books. Today, Open Library makes hundreds of thousands of Internet Archive's digitized modern books freely available to borrow online.

It come as some surprise that 20% of our traffic is from readers in India. Consider the average salary in Mumbai is 782,000 Rupees. That's $12,000 USD.[3] There are over 18M people in mumbai. Among them are people with wonderful abilities. People with the capability to be doctors, or biomolecular engineers. But even the brightest people need a foundation to grow. How far would you get in your field if just 3 Elsevier journal subscriptions: Molecular and Cell Biology of Lipids. Gene Regulatory Mechanisms. Molecular Cell Research ($3,800 each)[4] costs the same as your yearly income?

In 2011, Pew Research examined over 100 countries and concluded 71% of the world's population lives on less than $10 a day[5]. That's hardly enough discretionary income for a single book. What incentive does Overdrive and publishers have to serve this demographic? What leverage do these countries have to fund sustainable and thriving library systems when even American libraries and universities are feeling the burn; the high cost and obstacles of digital access.

Days like today are important. Aaron is important. Even more so today than when he fought against inequality six years ago.

As cryptocurrencies surge and tempt to change our economic landscape, as publishers and conglomerates double down in defense against the free flow of information, it's imperative for us -- literally those of us in this room -- to make sure... as we ride the wave, others aren't left to drown.

To answer the framing question: Billions of hours of locked up human potential weigh in the balance. It’s one of the world’s greatest inefficiencies and opportunities.

Let today be your yearly reminder that a room full of people can make a difference. With our choices and our actions. Where we choose to work. How we vote. What conversations we have. Our decision to donate. If you choose to do just one thing, I hope you'll join us tomorrow for Aaron's Hackathon and help plant the seeds of another year of positive change. To preserve the web as a treasured, open public utility. To protect privacy. To give a voice to those who need it most. And to empower, with information, those who would craft a brighter world for everyone, if only given the chance.

A followup can be read on facebook:

Capitalists: If I work hard, I should earn money and obtain power. If some power emerges in the world which I disagree with, I should be able to actualize this money into action to protect my interests. If 70% of the world live on less than $10 per day and aren't equally equipped to play this game, they can work hard and rise up the rungs. As someone privileged, I do my part by helping give these people jobs and benefits. Certain social causes I am on board with, but I want to offer them myself. I shouldn't have to use my money to support efforts which are inefficiently run by government programs or those which could undermine my business.

These 70%: Finding a job is hard when you don't have the necessary skills. It's easier to become an entrepreneur when you have sufficient time to brainstorm, access to capital, and are surrounded by talent. My time goes into finding a way to pay rent each month. Internet access is a luxury, I don't have bandwidth for youtube. Moving to San Francisco or New York may not be an option for me even if I work hard. Sometimes it's a lottery. It sucks to leave your life to lottery, and some may argue all you have to do is work hard and capitalism realizes this. But life is a lottery. That's why I was born in Malawi and separated from my family and support network. I am willing to work hard; I lack access to resources and opportunities. I wish people realized that $50 for me makes a greater difference than $50 to someone who earns $500k/yr.

Me: Working at a non profit is really hard. We recognize there are so many people who don't have access to the tools and resources they need to be successful. When we try to provide services of our own, they are inefficient because we have to carefully navigate all the for-profits who apply pressure to stunt our progress. I like capitalism for many of its principles. It has led to many advancements for which I am thankful. But so did slavery and I think such examples should serve as reminders that systems can be effective without being equitable. It's not so much a matter of fairness as it is a matter of principle. A belief and concession that there are certain freedoms all humans should be able to enjoy. And our accountability should not be limited to concern actions which place someone in such an oppressive position, but also necessitate helping people escape it. Not extending a hand to someone who is drowning is little more to be proud of than pushing them in. As suggested by Mahatma Ghandi, “A nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members". Capitalism in practice is more like a game of texas hold'em than it is a self-balancing system for rewarding ability. At the end of the day, winner takes all -- an exciting principle for many. Over the last 100 years we've seen intense wealth concentration in the hands of the few. Capitalism boils down to capital being the currency of decision making. That one person can influence the currents of social decision making through financial leverage. In this way, one person may hold the ability to satisfy one's basic needs over their heads like a carrot, in exchange for furthering an agenda which they wouldn't normally support if they were on equal footing. The problem is, capitalism means only the winners get a voice. When the few are making decisions for the many, we no longer have a democratic republic. The reason I want to empower the 70% isn't because it's fair or just -- though I do think it is demanded by our principles, by our bill of rights. It's because in such a system a winner can emerge who doesn't share the values or respect the freedoms of the people. And in such a world, I will necessary be included among these people. I want our team to stand a chance. To persevere. If humanity is to overcome existential and global catastrophic risk, disease, genocide, and stand up against tyranny, I don't think we can afford to leave anyone behind.