we're in trouble! - (2 points)

U58563 at uicvm.uic.edu U58563 at uicvm.uic.edu
Thu Jun 30 20:19:02 EST 1994

In article <1994Jun29.004025.26110 at martha.utcc.utk.edu>, ctfaulkn at utkvx.utk.edu
says:                                           ...Needless to say we need
>to do a better job of getting our work into popular media such as "discover,
>Omni, and popular science" if the objective is to promote appreciation and
>understanding of scientific research.
   You're not the only one who has suggested that we need to get the general
public more involved in science.  Well, OK then:  suppose some interested high
school student makes a trek to, say, the Rush University library in Chicago,
Illinois, and wants to find all about modern research that could cure a nasty
case of herpes or something.  Well, he comes in the door and the place is
stuffed with journals, which is good.  They don't mess with archaic technology
for doing the searches either, so he can look up "herpes" conveniently on a
nearby computer terminal.  So far, so good.  Oh yes, he needs to get the right
CD to do the search, fine... so he goes to the desk and asks for it.  "And your
SS number, please?"  Yes, that's right --- in order to GET the CD to do that
simple search, to use all those wonderful searches --- to do that, one must
have a number with the SS like unto a Rush member.
   Why?  Copyright restrictions.  It seems that the person who sold them the
disk forbids them to make it publicly available.  And without any other form of
index, well... Time for the kid to go home and do something productive, like
practice basketball.
   Which leads me to a point.  Again and again I see scientific information
denied to people for one simple reason:  Because the essence of copyright law
is to keep information SECRET --- unless you can pay, and dearly.  Whether it
is the occasional public school teacher who is reluctant to copy out an article
because of legal reasons, and gives a fuzzy lecture instead, or the on-line
database that might have provided any kid with a modem with complete access to
all the journals of the world, that instead provides only a subset of the
abstracts (if he knows about NCBI, and can get permission, and has the right
kind of net connection), from the smallest to the largest there is an
inevitable conflict between a system by which information is to be regarded as
property, to be denied to all but a few, and a scientific culture that requires
free exchange of information for its very survival.
   Of course there are options.  There always are, since, as Bruce Sterling
says, information *wants* to be free.  In Chicago there is a way for that kid
to get those searches done, for instance, though not one that I would want to
describe precisely lest the same legal nitwits descend on that source as well.
But the question is, how hard can we allow it to become, before that kid stays
home and plays his Nintendo instead?  How many people can we afford to keep
separated from sources of knowledge, before they turn against us and destroy
us?  How parochial and accepting of these limitations can we become, before
our objectives turn from research and publication, to a jealous defense of our
own privileged position?
   Note:  Although I have hammered on indices in this example, the problem is
much more widespread than this, obviously.  I think we can quickly assemble any
number of -essential- sources of information, computer programs, manuals, etc.
that MUST be available to a person before he can do serious work in any given
line of research.  In the age of Internet, all these things could -already- be
available freely.

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