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It will be yet another social good if a secondary impact of the SOPA/PIPA protest and strike is that we are all reminded that the World Wide Web was designed with an open structure inviting participation, not just consumption.    Wikipedia, which is currently dark yet offering a “congressman-finder tool” to aid you in writing your representative to protest this intrusive legislation that could effectively end the Open Web, was built by us, by volunteers, by amateurs, by Web participants.   If we forget that, if we think an app on a walled Apple product that does not play well with others, is the only way to be part of the Internet Age, then we have lost the most profound change in Information and Communication Technology since the last Information Age, the invention of the steam-powered press.


The defining quality of the Web is contribution.  We make it.   We can lose it.   The SOPA/PiPA protest reminds us that, collectively, we can do good and we can work to keep this amazing moment in human history a moment of interaction.   Think about it.   Going dark is important.   Understanding what that collective, collaborative power is–what our responsibility and role are–is even more so.


Historian Robert Darnton says this is the fourth great Information Age in human history, the fourth time a technology has changed forever how humans interact.  Writing in 4000 BCE, movable type in 10th C China and 15th C Europe, mass printing in the late 18th and early 19th century, and the Internet, made public with the release of the Mosaic 1.0 browser commercially in April 1993.


At Stanford, 23,000 people received certificates from an AI class taught to Stanford students and then online for free by one of the world’s greatest AI specialists.  Wikipedia was made by all of us.   We have potential here.  Or we can just think of the Internet as an app and want more and more and more of them given to us, made for us, toys to play with.


The nonprofit I cofounded, HASTAC (“haystack”) has the motto “Learning the Future Together.”  We mean that.  We aren’t just “digital humanists.”  That is a convenient term and now the accepted one for the field but it minimizes the scope of what we all hope to accomplish together at HASTAC  We are co-learners using every discipline, every skill, every person who wants to join to participate in a transformation in how and what we learn together.  Digital Humanists have, thankfully, been a leading voice within the academy for the importance of the Open Web.


But it isn’t just about creating a new field, about creating yet another of the academy’s walled gardens.  It is about changing how we think and learn together, K-lifelong.  HASTAC extends its reach to all forms of learning, and underscores that, unless we are digitally literate, unless we understand how important the Web is to our lives today, we risk losing its potential, its possibilities for innovation, its opportunities for change on a global level.  The very concepts and methods of how we learn were shaped for the Industrial Age, to a workforce whose foundation was the assembly line, standardization, and oligopoly (corporate rule by a few with laws designed to protect their power and stature in the world).   That has to change.


We need interactive, peer-driven, open and free “start up” learning for the digital age.   That means rethinking the whole shape and power and purpose of education for the 21st century.   That cannot happen without a Web as free and open as we can keep it.    That cannot happen if the Web is privatized, controlled, and captured—even more than it already is.  If the Web is simply a digitized oligopoly, we’ve lost.  But it’s not too late.     This SOPA/PIPA protest and strike is a turning point moment.  We have to take responsibility for the turning. 


Feminists in the 1970s used to shout, “Take back the Night!”    I want to shout “Take back the Web!”


The World Wide Web.   That’s us.  We are the Web.  Use it or lose it.   Know it or forego it.     Understand it or shortchange it.  Program or be programmed.   Strike today.   Fight for the Open Web tomorrow and every day hereafter. . .

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Cathy N. Davidson

Cathy N. Davidson

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