ADU Class of 2001
I'm pleased to have been volunteered to be one of the graduation speakers today.
Graduations are ritual occasions, as you know. They mark the end of a chapter in our lives and celebrate the achievement of our goals while encouraging us to reflect on the work we still have yet to do. It's therefore appropriate for us to be proud of what we have accomplished and humble about what we have not.
I would therefore like to begin with a quick expression of thanks that I hope will leave all of you bursting with pride. I can't begin to describe how enriching and rewarding I've found this program to be. It has been wonderful to spend so much time with a subject that I have always been curious about, in the company of other smart and curious people.
We have been blessed with the quality of our curriculum. We have our professors, our teaching assistants, and our administrators to thank. In addition, we have been blessed by the quality of the company we've had in our fellow students. I'm still amazed that the University was able to recruit such an extraordinary group of people in such a short time, and I am extremely grateful for the chance to have known each one of you. I am not exaggerating when I say that I expect to look back on this year as one of the best things I've done.
Even so, I'm afraid that I will continue in the future to have a kind of trouble that I've had all year when attempting to describe ArsDigita University. Despite the praise I've had for the curriculum and the people, I've been hard-pressed to explain, to myself or others, exactly why this program exists or why we've done it.
Let me clarify. It hasn't been hard at all to explain why I have done it. Nor, I suspect, has it been hard for any of you to do the same. The opportunity for a free computer science education makes sense to all of us, in the context of our histories, our aspirations, and our curiosities. We know this about each other.
What is not clear is why we have done it, or why it was worth the money it took to make it happen.
One of the first things about ArsDigita University that caught my attention when I heard about the program was the sense of mission that was communicated on the website.
I quote: "The goal of ArsDigita University is to offer the world's best computer science education, at an undergraduate level, to people who are currently unable to obtain it. Our foundation's overall mission is to encourage the development of Web services that work better for users and society. The mission will be easier if a large group of people who agree with our philosophy are educated to the highest levels of skill in computer science."
There were two ideas that stood out to me here. First, "to offer the world's best education to people who are currently unable to obtain it." Second, "the development of Web services" -- which, given our curriculum, could be fairly extended to include all sorts of technical services -- "that work better for users and society."
It seemed to me that these two ideas cut to the core of the social issues surrounding computer technology and the corresponding information revolution. How do these technologies make life better or worse, and for whom? Who has access to these technologies, and why? These are important issues for us to consider, not as programmers but as citizens, and I looked forward to the opportunity to discuss them with a group of bright people in an intentional setting.
That we have not discussed these things as a group is a real shame, in my opinion, although from the way the program was initiated and has developed I don't feel it's a surprise.
Take, for example, the question of education for people who are currently unable to obtain it. This seems to beg corresponding questions of who is able to obtain education, what sort of education they are able to obtain, and why. It seemed natural to me that a program with this goal might want to pay special attention to identifying promising students from a diversity of backgrounds, including non-traditional ones: students who might be expected to put energy into building infrastructures for communities that are currently under-served by the ongoing technical revolution. I thought it odd that admissions was to be based largely on SAT scores and past educational achievement if the goal of the program was, in some way, to challenge the status quo.
I asked about this on two separate occasions during my telephone interview process, even though I had already begun to guess what the answer would be. I was expecting to hear that the University's primary concern was the recruitment of students who had already proved their ability to perform, and that given the short timeframe conventional means such as SAT scores were a necessary help. I expected to hear that the program is of no use to anyone if its academic value is not high, that the quality of the academics would depend on the quality of the students, that the prime mission at this stage in the game was to put the school on solid academic footing, and that other considerations -- larger considerations of who really is and is not "currently able to obtain" a computer science education, or why -- would have to take a back seat.
This was the answer I got, more or less. At least, it was clear that the primary goal of the admissions process was to recruit people who would be able to withstand the rigors of the curriculum. What I did not get was a sense that anybody at the top agreed with me that the larger issue of who does and does not have access to education -- or, in particular, who does and does not have access to good SAT scores, or promising four-year transcripts -- was important, something to be taken more seriously when the school was more established, or really even something to be addressed in the admissions process.
I began to fear that I would not encounter at ArsDigita University a curricular commitment to the question of what is better for users and society where technology is concerned. Nevertheless, I arrived to much enthusiasm and optimism among the students. I have heard over and over from almost all of you that this course has, indeed, been a Great Idea, and a great success, and that it is a shame that it will not continue next year.
I agree that this course has been great -- in particular, I agree that we have proved that it is possible to educate adults of various backgrounds in the fundamentals of computer science in the course of a year. This was not a trivial task, and it is good to know that such an immersion strategy can be successful in this area. But the fact that we can do what we have just done does not explain why we should do it, or why others should support us.
When we first discussed topics for our speeches today, Bryon and I agreed that, in some vague way, he would talk about the past and I would talk about the future.
Here, then, is my prediction: for ArsDigita University to have a future, we must do a better job of articulating the purpose it serves. We must find a deeper justification of why it is good and why it should be supported. In particular, we must take seriously the key question posed on our website: using our new skills, what can we do that is better for society?
I don't mean to suggest that, as individuals, we don't take this question seriously, for I know that we do. We each have our private convictions and passions, and we have had many chances -- including an embarrassingly large number at Coyote and the Cambridge Brewing Company -- to share them with each other. What we have not done is approached this question as a group concern, or thought about how technology might enable others to approach this question as a group concern. In the future, we must do both.
In particular, we must challenge the idea that "open source," whether in software or in education, is an end in itself. Early on, Richard Stallman provided us with a handy slogan, which is that software should be free -- not as in free beer, but as in free speech. I think it's fair to say that ArsDigita University stands for the same principles in education that the Free Software Foundation stands for in code. We do what we do with confidence in the self-evident good of making technical knowledge, along with good practices in design and implementation, available to everyone who wants to download it. I suspect that it is this confidence that has made ArsDigita University what it is: an excellent place for free knowledge to be recorded and made available without much thought put into the corresponding need to advocate for the wise use of that knowledge.
Now, I agree that the free flow of information is good. I just don't agree that it's a self-evident good; or, more to the point, I don't agree that it's self-evident that the free flow of information will lead to good. On the topic of open source, as with other moral absolutes -- free speech, human rights, the right to property, the will of God -- I side with the pragmatist philosophy articulated by the American philosopher John Dewey.
To quote Richard Rorty: "For Deweyans, the whole idea of 'authority' is suspect.... Dewey preferred to skip talk of 'authority', 'legitimacy' and 'obligation'" -- and let me interrput here to use as an example the authoritative belief that information, by its very nature, wants to be free, and that we have a corresponding obligation to free it -- "and to talk instead about 'applied intelligence' and 'democracy'. He hoped we would stop using the juridical vocabulary which Kant made fashionable among philosophers, and start using metaphors drawn from town meetings rather than from tribunals. He wanted the first question of both politics and philosophy to be not, 'What is legitimate?' or 'What is authoritative?' but, 'What can we get together and agree on?'"
I think this question -- "What can we get together and agree on?" -- has particular resonance for us in our endeavor.
If we want to advocate for open source software and education, we must work together to decide the practical impact we want to have on the world and consider the best way to have that impact. As anybody who has done community development or public health work can tell you, using information to change people's lives is not a passive activity. I did sexuality education training in college, back in the early '90s when educators and public health officials were first realizing that knowledge about how HIV is transmitted is not necessarily, in and of itself, enough to make people change their sexual behavior to protect themselves. It was not until educators began to look at the context in which people live their lives that they were able to craft messages -- and programs, such as needle exchanges -- to more effectively make a difference.
Likewise, it's great that our course materials will continue to be available online, but it's important to realize that this is not a radical change from the past, when complete education on a variety of subjects was available to a bright and motivated student at any good public library. The fact that our course work is there for the taking does not mean that it will be taken, or used well if it is.
The bottom line is this: educating yourself is a private affair, but using your education for the good of society is a public affair. It requires a public forum in which the good of society can be considered and from which social consensus can emerge.
So, we should talk about this stuff. But, moreover, we should help others to talk about this stuff. We are the latest members of the technical class responsible to our society for designing and maintaining the structures that allow information to be shared. It is up to people like us to determine the extent to which the internet will be this sort of public forum.
In the recent book, "Republic.com," Cass Sunstein of the University of Chicago Law School sets out two requirements for what he terms a "well-functioning system of democratic deliberation":
"First, people should be exposed to materials that they would not have chosen in advance. Unplanned, unanticipated encounters are central to democracy itself. Such encounters often involve topics and points of view that people have not sought out and perhaps find quite irritating. They are important partly to ensure against fragmentation and extremism, which are predictable outcomes of any situation in which like-minded people speak only with themselves...
"Second, many or most citizens should have a range of common experiences. Without shared experiences, a heterogeneous society will have a much more difficult time in addressing social problems... Common experiences, emphatically including the common experiences made possible by the media, perform a form of social glue. A system of communications that radically diminishes the number of such experiences will create a number of problems, not least because of the increase in social fragmentation."
It is not at all clear to me that the internet meets these requirements. Sunstein in particular sees a threat in the proliferation of technologies and services that encourage consumers to filter what they see. The internet's ability to bring people together or, instead, to encourage people to spend their time in increasingly marginalized worlds of their own making is a serious issue. There is no reason to believe it will be addressed through our education if we do not have a corresponding conversation about our values.
Another area that requires such conversation is the area of copyright and intellectual property. Just last month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in "New York Times v. Tasini," that "a group of publishers, including The Times, infringed the copyrights of freelance contributors by making the freelancers' work accessible without permission on electronic databases after publication." The Times estimates that about 115,000 freelance articles -- 8 percent of the total number of articles that appeared in the newspaper between 1980 and 1995 -- will need to be deleted from their database as a result of the ruling.
This case again raises the question of public good. Siva Vaidhyamathan, a media scholar who teaches at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, has argued that the original intention of copyright and patents, as introduced into the Constitution by James Madison and argued in the Federalist Papers, was never to protect intellectual property. Rather, he claims that "the framers and later jurists concluded that creativity depends on the use, criticism, supplementation, and consideration of previous works. Therefore, they argued, authors should enjoy [the monopoly of copyright] just long enough to provide an incentive to create more, but the work should live afterward in the 'public domain,' as common property of the reading public."
Who should own the results of intellectual labor when, as with ideas and code, those results can be shared for free? How should we balance our need to profit from our labor with our concern for the common good? I think these questions are as important to our education as questions of math, or theory, or engineering.
As we leave ArsDigita behind -- or, I hope, as we continue to pursue the project in a different form -- I encourage us to keep sight of Dewey's question: "What can we get together and agree on?" We can make an effort to have this conversation among ourselves, and we can work to cultivate this conversation in a new realm: the internet. I believe we have an obligation to do both.