Charlie Nesson – who introduces himself as “Charles the Infuriator” – is chewing on an interesting new train of thought: the openness of universities. Charlie is the founder of the Berkman Center and often drags our center in interesting new intellectual directions. Larry Lessig dedicated Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace to Charlie, declaring, “For Charlie Nesson: Whose Every Idea Seems Crazy… For About A Year.”
(I’ve worked with Charlie for a few years now, and I find myself wondering whether the better way to think about Charlie’s ideas is “median craziness”. I think some ideas remain crazy for several years and others are non-crazy almost immediately, with median craziness of one year…)
Charlie is organizing a conference at the University this summer, asking the question, “How Open Will Harvard Be to Internet and Society?” Some examples make it a bit easier to understand what he’s asking:
– At Harvard’s business school, it’s forbidden to use Google to “solve” a case study by figuring out how the business actually turned out. Is this a broken educational model, where you need to shut out the openness of knowledge to make your teaching methods work? This expands to a larger question: do we need to rethink how classrooms work in an era where everyone is capable of being in an online space at the same time as they’re in a physical space?
– Does it make sense for scholars to use public money to do research, then hand that research over to a private company, which farms them out to other scholars who perform peer review – for free – then binds and sells the research for an awful lot of money? This model may have made sense years ago, but does it make sense in a digital age, or should Harvard move towards an Open Access model for publishing?
– How does corporate or government funding of research work to make parts of universities open and closed? How do we feel about closing off areas of knowledge due to the constraints of funding?
– Universities like MIT have taken big steps towards making their courses and software open and accessible to the wider world. Why have so few American universities embraced what’s available through these repositories?
Given these questions, Charlie invites the room to suggest their topics for this conference. The room is packed, and we get a wide range of ideas offered:
– Is there a need for closed spaces to encourage innovation? Are students in an open classroom willing to speak up the same way they would in an closed, private one?
– What makes a university somehow more trustworthy than a corporation or a government? Given that Harvard is as wealthy, burecratic and labyrinthine as many governments, why are we somehow a locus of openness?
– How do we balance the rights of paying students at a university with the opportunity of sharing knowledge with students of an “open”, virtual university?
– Should all government-funded research go into the public domain?
– Are classnotes a derivative work of the professor’s lecture?
– Given how important email is for university business, are we worried about how insecure and spoofable it is?
– How does openness affect a university’s brand? Is Harvard still Harvard if you can do all the coursework online?
Charlie offers his own question at the end of the brainstorm: Is the deal between Google and universities a good deal for the university world? He’s referring to the deal where Google has agreed to digitize a large portion of Harvard’s library and make the works available to the web via their search engine, and to Harvard as well. Charlie points out that the terms of the deal between Google and Harvard are secret, but that the deals with University of Michigan and the University of California are available online – he’s read the Michigan deal and refers to it as “one of the worst contracts I’ve ever read”.
The question Charlie and many others are asking about the Google deal have to do with whether the terms of the deal open up knowledge, or tether it to a single provider. Charlie wonders, “Can we hand the Golden Disk to Yahoo? “The Michigan deal appears to give rights to the scanned documents to Google and to Michigan, and specifies a fee for making those documents available to a third party, suggesting that we might be able to hand over the disk, but only for a price. This is a real concern to folks who feel like putting this knowledge in Google’s hands gives them disproportionate power… and the notion that the university’s “crown jewels” are subject to a secret agreement is an interesting caution for folks who argue that universities are more open than corporations or governments.
Hoping to provoke me, I suspect, Charlie asks me whether I would support a Harvard project to build “an open source metaverse”. He knows that I’m on record as being skeptical about the hype around the Second Life project. And he’s teaching a class with his daughter this semester which takes place, in part, in Second Life. Taking the bait, I argue (somewhat disingenuously) that there’s an open source alternative to Second Life in Open Croquet, that Charlie’s decision to run a Harvard class in Second Life gives Linden Labs a great deal of free publicity, and that Charlie must be mad to create intellectual property in a format that can’t be freely moved to another server. Hilarity ensues, culminating in Charlie miming his death from my vorpal rhetorical blows and collapsing to the floor.
Basically, my argument was this: because Second Life objects, at present, can only run on the servers created by Linden Labs, Charlie is taking a big risk on a single company by supporting Linden. He could have thrown the weight and prestige of Harvard behind another project like Open Croquet – which, admittedly, is in an early state and has few users – which would benefit from the PR, the user feedback and the content created. Since Croquet is open source, written in Smalltalk and very extensible, it seems to jibe better with Charlie’s arguments about openness and the university than the Second Life platform. I get the sense that Charlie’s pretty sympathetic to this argument – it may be worth seeing if there’s a way to get Harvard to be an early adopter of the Croquet platform.