Steal This Education

Publication date: 20 September 2010
Originally published 2010 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 13-Nov-2015.


I think copyright infringement may save millions of lives.

Allow me to explain.

I hope we can all agree that most, if not all, of the problems of human society can best be solved by education.

(Actually, I know that "we all", taking that to mean everyone in the world, definitely can't agree on that, without extending the definition of "education" to include "careful preservation of a proud tradition of ignorance". But humour me.)

Education tends to take a generation or two to work its magic, though, which is why politicians care so little about it. But if you want to improve the lot of the human race in general, better access to information isn't just the best way to go about it, it's the only way.

Until recently, improving information access in benighted parts of the world meant sending people who knew stuff there, to build schools and train teachers. This is not a speedy process.

Modern information technology offers some very serious short-cuts. It's now quite easy, to choose just one example, to stick a useful percentage of the whole of Wikipedia on a laptop's hard drive. That's not actually the sum total of human knowledge, but it's a heck of a library, from the point of view of your average poor African village.

(It's possible that inexpensive standalone "Wikipedia readers" will find themselves a niche market, like the current niche for purpose-built electronic Bible readers. I'm sure it'll be simplicity itself to persuade the organisations that send free Bibles to poor people to include a free Wikipedia, too.)

There were several reasons why throwing technology at the developing world used to be a bad idea.

The tech itself was far too expensive, for a start. It needed too much electricity. And there was no way to connect it to the rich world's Internet.

Well, all that is now either fixed, or darn close to it.

Never mind computers specially made for the developing world, like the drama-plagued OLPC XO-1. There's now a long list of hand-me-down technology that's almost worthless in rich nations, but doesn't require a great deal of power, and can do electronic-library jobs easily.

Pentium, and older, laptops. 680x0 Apple PowerBooks. Heck, even PalmPilots well into their teenage years. Add an old dot-matrix printer if you need hard copies. It costs more to mail this stuff than it does to buy it.

The Internet-connectivity problem remains, but dial-up-speed Internet actually is now accessible, reasonably affordably, in all sorts of improbable places. A single dial-up link may take a whole day to download an episode of Desperate Housewives, but it can snarf an advanced medical library, that can then be sneakernetted elsewhere, in about a week. If you'd like to download something approaching the entirety of Western philosophy, you'll only need a few days. It may still be a few years before you start seeing random Namibians on ChatRoulette, but slow wireless data-links and cheap Flash drives can already get any Internet data to almost anywhere.

Which brings us to piracy.

You can download a great deal of educational material for free, legally. There's Wikipedia, of course. And the Project Gutenberg library of out-of-copyright books, which is mainly fiction and probably not the best source for up-to-date medical texts, but has some other categories that still have practical value. (See also the Texts Archive. Most of that's of little practical use, but a 19th-century engineering text could easily be very valuable to a 21st-century village handyman who can't afford an eight-dollar, or even four-dollar, paper version.)

There are also many online Open University courses. MIT, for instance, has an ongoing project to put all of its undergrad and graduate courses on the Web for free. Various public and government institutions that don't need to make money from publications are also hopping on the free-e-book bandwagon; individually, a scam-warning book here and a NASA aeronautics book there aren't particularly important, but given time these sorts of things should add up to a substantial, free library.

If you're trying to teach yourself about one particular thing, though, there's a good chance that free resources won't cut it.

Perhaps one good old-fashioned personal Web site will answer every question you have about how to make springs, or whatever. But you'll probably find you need some textbooks, at the very least. And textbook publishers are renowned for charging every last penny the market will bear, as frequently as possible.

Fifty bucks for one textbook is painful enough for Western university students. If you're living in some part of the world where fifty bucks is your entire household budget for the next two months, there's no way you're ever going to buy that book.

Unless, of course, some uni student takes a weekend to scan the book and then make a torrent of the PDF. As, inevitably, many uni students have.

(Technical publishers have been in the vanguard of the e-book revolution. It's now unremarkable for a technical publisher to sell ten e-books for every one paper edition of a new book. This is generally good news for the pirates; when a text starts out in electronic format, even if it's DRMed to the eyeballs, it's a lot easier for a savvy pirate to crack and distribute than it'd be to scan, and OCR, and very optionally proofread, and distribute, the dead-tree edition. As usual with DRM, the legitimate customers suffer, while the pirates get a superior product.)

Hidden in among all those petabytes of reality shows and Madonna albums and pr0n on your local wretched hive of BitTorrent scum and villainy is a surprising amount of educational material. (Well, it surprised me, anyway.)

Permaculture. Animal husbandry. Basic medicine. Advanced medicine, for that matter. Whole libraries of "Appropriate Technology" publications, about making efficient stoves and evaporative food coolers and comfortable mud-brick houses. Sheet music, even.

Torrented texts are mostly in English, of course, but I'm starting to suspect that the language barrier is the last serious one that remains between this information and the people most in need of it.

It may not even be illegal - or, at least, not as illegal as you'd think. There are several countries that have no copyright laws, and/or aren't signatories to any international copyright treaties. Most of these countries don't have much in the way of civil legal systems anyway, but for what it's worth, this generally means that there's nothing illegal about selling or giving away pirated stuff in those countries, and someone in one of those countries who downloads copyrighted material from a sender in, say, the USA, will not be breaking any laws. (The sender will still be breaking the law, though.)

We already have strong precedents for affordable technology driving data - usually pirated data - into poor parts of the world. Anywhere in the developing world where you can plug in a TV, you'll find people watching awful copies of brand-new movies on VCD/SVCD players. Further out in the sticks, mobile phones have for some time now been popular all-purpose information appliances; right now, there are people on the Mongolian steppes swapping MP3s and porn over Bluetooth.

Entertainment media always drive these phenomena; I'm sure the ratio of entertaining to educational pirated data filtering into the developing world is even worse than the ratio in wealthy countries. But when an illustrated textbook is no harder to copy than a Van Halen album, education can easily sneak in too.

Saying "information wants to be free, man" while you seed the h.264 rip of Avatar is not a very defensible position. But giving distant strangers a free education, against the wishes of a publishing company and its lobbyists, is different. I think it's actually kind of like the push to get pharmaceutical megacorps to allow their drugs to be manufactured in poor countries and sold for what they actually cost to make.

I also do not think that there is anything wrong with some dude in Mali pirating a book that teaches him how to eliminate cholera in his village.

Just try not to think about how many copies of the Library of Western Philosophy could have been downloaded with the bandwidth that was instead devoted to Meet The Spartans.

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