What would Aaron Swartz want you to do?

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?

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4 thoughts on “What would Aaron Swartz want you to do?

  1. aram

    Great post! One thing we should certainly do is make sure that our papers are all on the arxiv or some other such repository.

    One nitpick: I think it’s unfair to compare driverless cars to public transit, since they are only partially substitutes for each other. But they do substitute pretty directly for our current cars. And making this change, while leaving everything else the same, would mostly eliminate the 1.3 million annual deaths from car accidents (plus the many more nonfatal injuries, and the property damage, which was estimated in the US at 3% of GDP). Surely a biker like you would enjoy a world where cars are all driven by robots. So I think we should all be pounding the table demanding their development!

  2. Glencora Borradaile Post author

    I disagree. Replacing cars with driverless cars may reduce the number of deaths from car accidents, but it will prolong (at best) our environmental crisis. And the environmental crisis causes deaths (anw will do so increasingly) and property damage.

    Did you know that those in their 20s are increasingly using public transit? Did you know that that is in large part due to their wish to stay connected while in transit? Give those 20-somethings an option for private transit that does the same thing and the toehold we have on decreased consumption via reduced private-car ownership disappears.

  3. aram

    I guess this is going off-topic, but driverless cars will also help public transit. Most US bus systems would be much more effective (similar fuel costs with higher ridership) if there were twice as many buses that were half as large. In countries where labor is cheap these sort of large vans are common, e.g. in Senegal there are large buses for the major routes and 15-person vans for most others. Robot taxis could be shared as well, and even if not, they would reduce the need for building new cars, which is itself very costly. Eliminating accidents would also permit dramatically lighter cars (only once all human-driven cars are off the road).

    Are there statistics about how much of increased public transit use is due to smartphones? (Personally I use buses much more now because I can use maps.google.com in places I haven’t been to before, but I doubt that’s typical.) Anecdotally it seems that people have responded to the need to stay connected by doing things like texting and driving a lot.

    1. Glencora Borradaile Post author

      In response to the first paragraph: I think this is beside the point of driverless cars. I think we need to address the transportation problem on two fronts: reduce the distance that people are travelling; reduce the amount of energy per person-mile (efficient mass transit). Driverless cars won’t drive (ha) people toward either of these choices. Hopefully the cost will be prohibitively expensive until the cost of gasoline gives us some real pressure.

      In response to the second paragraph: I’m not sure, but I have seen studies linking increased public transit use after Google Transit has “come” to an area.

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