I hadn’t checked my rss-feed reader since the winter break. After the (deserved) attention of the life and untimely death of Aaron Swartz, I was interested in hearing the thoughts of my fellow computer scientists and so delved into the hundreds of unread articles in my rss-feed reader. I was saddened to see that of the 19 personal blogs of computer scientists that I follow, there was only one mention of Aaron Swartz.
Also in the news: driverless cars. Commentators inevitably rave at being able to read a book or watch a movie on the way to work or avoiding those DUII charges. You know what has those features today? Public transit. And you know what doesn’t help to counter the real problem we are increasingly facing, that of overuse of limited resources? Private, individual transportation.
More news: Facebook’s new searching feature, allowing Facebook users to access information that other Facebook users have donated to Facebook in exchange for having up to date information about their friends’ pets and drinking Odysseys. There is a reason why Facebook needed to do this. Facebook has carved out a segment of the web that is proprietary, that only they allow or disallow access to, based necessarily on their profit margin.
As computer science academics we are in a very powerful position. We are trusted with shaping the next generation that will make very important decisions that will have far-reaching social implications. Decisions like those over Facebook’s privacy defaults, motivating technology that enables autonomous private vehicles at the expense of the public interest, defining ownership of electronic media. We make those decisions ourselves in our research; what we research, how we allow our research to be used.
Aaron Swartz cared about this and I think the world would be a better place if we all took action to advance his ideals. We can do so by thinking about our actions. How are you going to get to work today? What are you going to do when you get there? How are you going to choose which problems to focus on? What will you allow your university tech transfer office to do with your IP? What are you going to teach your students, implicitly and explicitly?