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How open science have created the Internet

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Tim Berns Lee, a CERN employee, created the WWW information system around the year 1990. This system is now a core part of the Internet. The inventor wrote in the second sentence of his WorldWideWeb: Summary “The project started with the philosophy that much academic information should be freely available to anyone. It aims to allow information sharing within  internationally dispersed teams, and the dissemination of information by support groups.” This goes to show how open science is intrinsically linked to the recent information revolution.

It is commonly stated that open access became possible thanks to the Internet. This is of course true. The first peer reviewed journals that were free for readers were launched around 1990, and it was probably not possible to establish these journals earlier due to technical obstacles. But the idea of openness in science is significantly older. Today, I will try to argue for the claim that this idea was the main force behind computer network development.

ARPANET, the network which was the direct ancestor of the Internet, was created by a team of scientists working for the Advanced Research Projects Agency, part of the US Defense Department. However, commentators discussing the origins of the Internet claim that the ARPA was not interested in military strategies. “In the 1960s and 1970s, ARPA was an agency nearly unto itself, run primarily by and for academic researchers who were distant from military culture.” – says Gary Chapman in his “National Security and the Internet“. Charles Herzfeld, who served as the agency’s director at the time of launching the ARPANET, claimed that “(…) the ARPANET came out of our frustration that there were only a limited number of large, powerful research computers in the country, and that many research investigators, who should have access to them, were geographically separated from them.” Subsequently, ARPANET was developed as a strictly scholarly network, connecting mostly US universities and research centers. And, according to the director, the initial goal of the network, that later become the Internet, was sharing the facilities to make scientific work easier and more efficient.

The trend that strongly influenced the way in which this global network developed is hacker subculture, which evolved in the environment of the best American universities, in computer science laboratories. Hackers have always been obsessed with access, sharing and transparency. I have no evidence for this, but “hacker ethic” also seems to me as being rooted in the older idea of academic openness. And this ethic has a huge influence on Internet development and consequently, on the possibilities of knowledge dissemination.

The most radical example of the hacker attitude is the behavior of Richard Stallman, (founder of the GNU project) who worked at MIT and had access to ARPANET. He used to only use his initials “RMS” as both the login and password and informed other people about it to also provide them with access to the network. As he claimed “[When] passwords first appeared at the MIT AI Lab I [decided] to follow my belief that there should be no passwords,” Stallman would later say “Because I don’t believe that it’s really desirable to have security on a computer, I shouldn’t be willing to help uphold the security regime.” (See Free as in Freedom, Richard Stallman’s Crusade for Free Software).

Stallman, interviewed by Richard Poynder said also: “The point is that sharing knowledge is an important way in which people cooperate. To refuse to tell some one what he needs to know is hostile. To promise in advance not to tell others is betraying them.” Sharing knowledge is also a core ethical value of the research community, at least from the 18th century (have a look here for more information). And it seems to me that the hacker community became the new custodian of this ethos and thanks to them, open access to every bit of human knowledge is technically possible today.

Stallman was personally involved in the creation of the GNU/Linux operating system and in the “crusade” for free software. And there would be dramatically fewer servers and less Internet access without free and open software. The idea of free and open software was saved thanks to the hacker community, which originated from American academia.

As you can see, the relation between the centuries-old idea of open science and the current information revolution is more complex than we usually think. It is not the case that open access is just a side effect of the creation of a global network. Open science and open access was a goal of this network and other online services seem to be the side effects of the drive towards open knowledge. Moreover, it seems to me that the idea of open science and open knowledge is an unstoppable revolutionary force, that will continue to change the world we live in.

Image: Globe of Science and Innovation, photo by Karoly Lorentey, licensed under CC-BY 2.0

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