Wednesday, February 5, 2000
J. Harmon Grahn, Editor
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I've had some very warm and encouraging feedback in response to the latest edition of The New Paradigm vol. III #4, "The World Wide Web"; the most stimulating of which is the following article by Richard Stallman of the GNU Project at the Free Sofware Foundation.
Thursday, February 03, 2000 Richard Stallman wrote:
What Richard had to say did indeed interest me very much, and I have a hunch it will interest you as well. Accordingly, without further preamble, here is...
"The Free Universal Encyclopedia
and Learning Resource"
By Richard Stallman
But this future is not inevitable; corporations are mobilizing now to direct the future down a different track, in which they control and restrict access to learning materials, so as to extract money from people who want to learn.
To ensure that the web develops toward the best and most natural outcome, where it becomes a free encyclopedia, we must make a conscious effort to prevent deliberate sequestration of the encyclopedic and educational information on the net. We cannot stop business from restricting the information it makes available; what we can do is provide an alternative. We need to launch a movement to develop a universal free encyclopedia, much as the Free Software movement gave us the free software operating system GNU/Linux. The free encyclopedia will provide an alternative to the restricted ones that media corporations will write.
The rest of this article aims to lay out what the free encyclopedia needs to do, what sort of freedoms it needs to give the public, and how we can get started on developing it.
The free encyclopedia will not be published in any one place. It will consist of all web pages that cover suitable topics, and have been made suitably available. These pages will be developed in a decentralized manner by thousands of contributors, each independently writing articles and posting them on various web servers. No one organization will be in charge, because such centralization would be incompatible with decentralized progress.
So it is important to welcome and encourage smaller contributions. Writing a textbook for a whole semester's material is a big job, and only a small fraction of teachers will contribute that much. But writing about a topic small enough for one meeting of a class is a contribution that many can afford to make. Enough of these small maps can survey the whole world of knowledge.
In projects like this, progress is slow for the first few years; then it accelerates as the work that has been done attracts more and more people to join in. Eventually there is an avalanche of progress. So we should not feel discouraged when the first few years do not bring us close to completion. It makes sense to choose the first steps to illustrate what can be done, and to spread interest in the long-term goal, so as to inspire others to join in.
This means that the pioneers' job, in the early years, is above all to be steadfast. We must be on guard against downgrading to a less useful, less idealistic goal, just because of the magnitude of the task. Instead of measuring our early steps against the size of the whole job, we should think of them as examples, and have confidence that they will inspire a growing number of contributors to join and finish the job.
However, only some kinds of information belongs in an encyclopedia. For example, scholarly papers, detailed statistical data bases, news reports, fiction and art, extensive bibliographies, and catalogs of merchandise, useful as they are, are outside the scope of an encyclopedia. (Some of the articles might usefully contain links to such works.)
Courses in the learning resource are a generalization to hypertext of the textbooks used for teaching a subject to yourself or to a class. The learning resource should eventually include courses for all academic subjects, from mathematics to art history, and practical subjects such as gardening as well, to the extent this makes sense. (Some practical subjects, such as massage or instrumental ensemble playing, may not be possible to study from a "book" without a human teacher – these are arguably not useful to include.) It should cover these subjects at all the levels that are useful, which might in some cases range from first grade to graduate school.
A useful encyclopedia article will address a specific topic at a particular level, and each author will contribute mainly by focusing on an area that he or she knows very well. But we should keep in the back of our minds, while doing this, the vision of a free encyclopedia that is universal in scope – so we can firmly reject any attempt to put artificial limits on either the scope or the free status of the encyclopedia.
Conventional non-free encyclopedias published by companies such as Microsoft will surely be made available on the web, sooner or later – but you will probably have to pay to read an article, and you surely won't be allowed to redistribute them. If we are content with knowledge as a commodity, accessible only through a computerized bureaucracy, we can simply let companies provide it.
But if we want to keep human knowledge open and freely available to humanity, we have to do the work to make it available that way. We have to write a free encyclopedia – so we must first determine the proper interpretation of "free" for an encyclopedia on the Internet. We must decide what criteria of freedom a free encyclopedia and a free learning resource should meet.
There is no need to set up an organization or a bureaucracy to do this, because Internet users like to set up "mirror sites" which hold duplicate copies of interesting web pages. What we must do in advance is ensure that this is legally permitted.
Therefore, each encyclopedia article and each course should explicitly grant irrevocable permission for anyone to make verbatim copies available on mirror sites. This permission should be one of the basic stated principles of the free encyclopedia.
Some day there may be systematic efforts to ensure that each article and course is replicated in many copies – perhaps at least once on each of the six inhabited continents. This would be a natural extension of the mission of archiving that libraries undertake today. But it would be premature to make formal plans for this now. It is sufficient for now to resolve to make sure people have permission to do this mirroring when they get around to it.
Trying to fight this tendency would be self-defeating. The easier way to make the encyclopedia available in all languages is by encouraging one person to translate what another has written. In this way, each article can be translated into many languages.
But if this requires explicit permission, it will be too difficult. Therefore, we must adopt a basic rule that anyone is permitted to publish an accurate translation of any article or course, with proper attribution. Each article and each course should carry a statement giving permission for translations.
To ensure accuracy of translation, the author of the original should reserve the right to insist on corrections in a translation. A translator should perhaps have to give the original author a reasonable amount of time to do this, perhaps three months, before publishing the translation in the first place. After that, the translator should continue to install corrections at the author's request, whenever the author asks for them.
In time, as the number of people involved in encyclopedia activity increases, contributors may form Translation Accuracy Societies for various languages, which undertake to ensure the accuracy of translations into those languages. An author could then designate a Translation Accuracy Society to check and correct a certain translation of a certain work. It may be wise to keep the TranslationAccuracy Societies separate from the actual translators, so that each translation will be checked by someone other than the translator.
Different authors may – if they care – set different rules for what constitutes proper attribution to them; that is ok. As long as the rules set for a particular work are not unreasonable or impractical, they will cause no problem.
Therefore, modifying an existing course must be permitted; each course should carry a statement giving permission to publish a modified version.
It makes sense to require modified versions to carry proper attribution giving credit to the authors of the previous version, and be labeled clearly as modified, so that there is no confusion about whose views they present.
Beyond that, an altered version of a picture could illustrate a different but related idea. You could start with a diagram useful for one theorem in geometry, and add to it, to produce a diagram that is relevant to another theorem.
Permission to modify pictures and videos is particularly important because the alternative, to make your own picture or video from scratch, is often very hard. It is not terribly hard to write your own text, to convey certain facts from your own angle, but doing the same thing with a picture is not feasible.
Of course, modified versions of pictures and videos should be labeled as modified, to prevent misattribution of their contents, and should give credit properly to the original.
If the free encyclopedia is a success, it will become so ubiquitous and important that we dare not allow any organization to decide what counts as part of it. This organization would have too much power; people would seek to politicize or corrupt it, and could easily succeed.
The only solution to that problem is not to have any such organization, and reject the idea of centralized quality control.
Instead, we should let everyone decide. If a web page is about a suitable topic, and meets the criteria for an article, then we can consider it an article. If a page meets the criteria for a course, then we can consider it a course.
But what if some pages are erroneous, or even deceptive? We cannot assume this won't happen. But the corrective is for other articles to point out the error. Instead of having "quality control" by one privileged organization, we will have review by various groups, which will earn respect by their own policies and actions. In a world where no one is infallible, this is the best we can do.
So it will be useful for readers to be able to see who endorses or has reviewed a given article's version of the subject. In fields such as science, engineering, and history, there are formal standards of peer review. We should encourage authors of articles and courses to seek peer review, both through existing formal scholarly mechanisms, and through the informal mechanism of asking respected names in the field for permission to cite their endorsement in the article or course.
A peer-review endorsement applies to one version of a work, not to modified versions. Therefore, when a course has peer-review endorsements, it should require anyone who publishes a modified version of the course to remove the endorsements. (The author of the modified version would be free to seek new endorsements for that version.)
Since no one organization will be in charge of the encyclopedia, there cannot be one authoritative catalogue. Instead, anyone will be free to make a catalogue, just as anyone is free to provide peer review. Cataloguers will gain respect according to their decisions.
Encyclopedia pages will surely be listed in ordinary web search sites, and perhaps those are the only catalogues that will be needed. But true catalogues should permit redistribution, translation, and modification – that is, the criteria for courses should apply to catalogues as well.
What can usefully be done from the beginning is to report new encyclopedia articles to a particular site, which can record their names as raw material for real catalogues, whenever people start to write them.
This rule will make sure we respect our own rules, in the same way that the exclusionary rule for evidence is supposed to make police respect their own rules: by not allowing us to treat work which fails to meet the criteria as if it did meet them.
The idea of the World Wide Web is that links tie various separate pages into a larger whole. So when encyclopedia articles or courses link to a certain page, those links effectively make the page part of the encyclopedia. To claim otherwise would be self-deception.
If we are to take seriously the criteria set forth above, or whatever criteria we settle on, we have to base our actions on them, by not incorporating a page into our network of pages if it doesn't fit the criteria.
When a topic ought to be covered in the encyclopedia or with a course, but it isn't, we must make sure we don't forget that we have a gap. The exclusionary rule will remind us. Each time we think of making a link to the unacceptable page, and we stop because of the exclusionary rule, that will remind us that someone ought to write another page about the same topic – one that is free enough to be part of the encyclopedia. Eventually, one of us will do the job.
On the other hand, many web pages cover material that wouldn't normally be included in an encyclopedia – for example, scholarly papers, detailed statistical data bases, news reports, fiction and art, extensive bibliographies, and catalogs of merchandise. Such pages, regardless of whether they are free enough to be in the encyclopedia, are outside its scope. They do not represent gaps in the encyclopedia. So there is no need to apply the encyclopedia criteria in making links to such pages.
To produce a complete encyclopedia which satisfies the principles of freedom stated here will take a long time, but we will get it done eventually – as long as we remember the goal. The greatest danger is that we will lose sight of the goal and settle for less. The exclusionary rule will make sure we keep going all the way.
It will be up to professors to resist this tendency. But there is more than one way to do so. The most obvious basis for objection is to say, "I own this work, and I, not the university, have the right to sell it to a company if I wish". But that places the faculty on the same selfish moral level as the university, so that neither side has a moral advantage in the argument.
If, on the other hand, professors say, "I want to be able to make my work fully available to the public without restriction," they occupy the commanding moral position, which a university can oppose only by setting itself against the public, against learning, and against scholarship.
Resisting the selling of the university will not be easy. Professors had better make use of any advantage they can find – especially moral advantages.
Two other points that will help are that (1) a few prestigious universities will probably gobble up most of the commercial business, so other universities would be deluding themselves to think they can really get a great deal of funds from selling themselves, and (2) media companies like Disney are likely to drive even the elite universities out of the most lucrative parts of the business.
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Your friendly Editor here again. Now this is a concept that really gets me excited! It gives me a vision of a global community of individuals united by the shared desire for a totally unencumbered exchange of ideas and information among minds throughout the Planet. I would like to address a question, however, that is likely to arise in the mind of a potential contributor to the "Free Universal Encyclopedia and Learning Resource," which might be expressed bluntly as, "What's the pay-off for me, if I contribute an article, or a book, or a course, which may be freely copied, redistributed, modified or incorporated, in whole or in part, into derivative works? How do I get paid for my very considerable labors?"
It's a fair question, is it not? And one likely to occur early on to a good many talented individuals who might like to participate, given a satisfactory answer. I think there is a satisfactory answer - or a collection of answers, which combine into something with enormous appeal, at least for some.
First, I think there are a few reliable assumptions we can make about someone attracted to the idea of contributing to a Free Universal Encyclopedia. Such a person is already positive toward the general concept of freely shared information; appreciates its intrinsic value, beyond its immediate, strictly mercenary value; recognizes the advantages of having available an information resource upon which one may draw freely and liberally for any purpose. In order for such a resource to exist, creative, knowledgeable, skilled individuals must contribute to its content, freely, voluntarily, "with no strings attached." Such contributions may be seen as a species of "investment," tendered in the hope and expectation of the eventual reward of a freely available, powerful information resource, which is itself intrinsically valuable; and its value increases in proportion to the breadth and depth and quality of its content.
Nor does this imply that mercenary rewards are out of the question; for if an individual has something of value to contribute to the Free Universal Encyclopedia, it may safely be presumed shim is somehow involved with imparting information anyway, and most probably has more than one arrow in shim's quiver. A quality article, book or course in the Free Universal Encyclopedia, in other words, may not itself be directly remunerated; but it will, if capably crafted, stand for long as a credit and a testimony to the knowledge, skill and integrity of its author; and it may well reward the generosity of its contributor with many profitable opportunities.
Additionally, there are possibly unimagined rewards to be had from a genuinely free and unencumbered, dynamic information resource. Unimagined, because such a thing has never before been part of Human experience. Information has time out of mind been systematically concealed, obscured, jealously guarded; on the basis of the "old paradigm" assumption that "knowledge is power," and in a "fight/flight," "kill-or-be-killed," "take-it-or-lose-it," "us vs. them" kind of world, "power" is at a premium and must be ruthlessly sought and vigilantly protected.
But to the awakening vision of a "new paradigm" mentality, such is not the appearance of things at all. In such a vision one perceives limitless abundance everywhere; there is nothing lacking, hence no motivation for conflict, and experience confirms that the more one shares, the more one is richly rewarded, with heaps piled upon heaps, in full measure and shaken down.
That may sound to cynical ears fresh from the shadows of the past Dark Age like so much pie-in-the-sky idealism; but imagine the practical "nuts & bolts" strides Humanity might take if we really did, freely, generously and with no expectation of immediate reward, share with one another anything and everything we know about, or know how to do. The Inventor groping toward a new technology might substantialize shim's vision very quickly if shim could freely draw upon the work of Peers who had already solved some of the problems shim is wrestling with. The days of "reinventing the wheel" would be over, and every Human effort, in every sphere, could more readily be brought to bear exclusively upon unsolved problems, rather than upon duplicating the clandestine efforts of others who feel compelled to "hide their light under a bushel."
That is after all the ideal of Science: the methodical building of the "edifice of Human knowledge" by laying fact upon fact, discovery upon discovery, the common work of a global confluence of Human minds, experimenters, investigators in every part of the world, of every sphere of Human interest, curiosity or practical application. But it only works when knowledge is shared; and it works in direct proportionality to the extent to which knowledge is shared. If knowledge were shared with total freedom, without restrictions or encumbrances of any kind, with unlimited opportunity to adapt it, build upon it, improve upon it... in purely "nuts & bolts" terms the Dark Age of jealously guarded secrets and the purely mercenary sale of information would swiftly fall away into the abyss of the disremembered past, and Humanity would soar to unimagined heights, and beyond.
Therefore, I submit that contributions to the Free Universal Encyclopedia will not go unrewarded, even if the rewards cannot necessarily be quantified in strictly mercenary terms. The value of the universal availability of an expanding corpus of entirely unencumbered information in every sphere of Human interest will be experienced as ample compensation to its contributors, and its value will be directly proportional to the quality of their contributions. The "pay-off" may be minimal early on, but if pioneer contributors are steadfast and meticulous about the quality of their work, there must eventually come a time when that quality will attract further high-quality contributions from a proliferating network of sources. The growth of the Free Universal Encyclopedia could be explosive at some point, as potential contributors realize the probable rewards of having material of their authorship included in the Encyclopedia; for although anything in the Encyclopedia may be freely copied, redistributed, modified, and/or incorporated into derivative works, all this must be done with author attribution - so every item in the Free Universal Encyclopedia functions not only as useful information, but also as an in-depth advertisement for its author.
I would now like to address the topic of content and scope of the Free Universal Encyclopedia; but this has grown already to at least maximum proportions for a single edition, so I will defer additional discussion to a sequel. The topic for next time is the matter of what should and should not be included within the Free Universal Encyclopedia; what should be the criteria for selection; who, if anybody, should administer such criteria? Richard Stallman has made some very stimulating recommendations along these lines, above. I would like to elaborate on the issue myself; and of course invite anyone interested to do likewise.
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