Knowledge is power, the saying goes, though if you look at how the world actually works, ignorant rich people have a lot more power than knowledgeable poor ones. A more precise formulation might be that marketable knowledge is power, which is why your friend in the financial services industry rolls his eyes whenever you hold forth on the subject of French medieval poetry. Two documentaries opening this week, Ivory Tower and The Internet’s Own Boy, touch on the subject of monetizing knowledge, and you’re liable to find each infuriating in its own way if you see the U.S. as a country rapidly devolving into a two-tiered society.
The Internet’s Own Boy tells the sad story of Aaron Swartz, a Highland Park native who was recognized as a computer prodigy in his early teens and by his early 20s had devoted himself to the cause of democratizing knowledge through the Internet. He became a millionaire at age 19 when Reddit, the social information site he helped create, was bought by Conde Nast Publications; seven years later, in January 2013, he hanged himself when it became clear that he faced serious prison time for having connected his hard drive to an unsupervised networking switch at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and downloaded hundreds of academic journal articles from the digital archive JSTOR, to be uploaded later to a file-sharing site. MIT and JSTOR declined to press charges, but the U.S. attorney’s office went after Swartz, hoping to make an example of an Internet rock star who’d taken a highly combative stance toward both public and private institutions that hoarded information.
Swartz was born in 1986, around the time personal computers were becoming commonplace in middle-class homes, and early on he demonstrated a facility for programming and an appetite for innovation. At age 12 he created a website that allowed people to create and edit their own encyclopedia entries—an early version of Wikipedia. As his brother, Noah, remembers in the documentary, one of Aaron’s teachers argued, “This is a terrible idea! You can’t just let anyone author the encyclopedia.” But the site won a prize from the Cambridge web design firm ArsDigita, and the next year Swartz participated in the online programming community that developed RSS technology. Given this sort of intellectual stimulus and ego reinforcement, he soon grew disenchanted with high school, preferring to educate himself and focus on computers.
Following the lucrative sale of Reddit, Swartz moved to San Francisco to work for Conde Nast, but he was disgusted by the get-rich-quick mentality of Silicon Valley, preferring to apply his formidable code-writing skills to the more politically progressive end of increasing people’s access to information in the public domain. In 2006 he helped develop the Open Library, a digital index intended to provide a single, comprehensive page for every book ever published. Soon afterward he became an architect of the PACER Recycling Project, which circumvented the government’s clumsy and costly Public Access to Court Electronic Records site; by perfecting the project’s code, Swartz was able to download some 2.7 million federal court documents and release them to the nonprofit Public.Resource.org. This led to an even more ambitious and risky operation: the secret, wholesale downloading of academic journal articles from JSTOR, a not-for-profit company that sold digital copies of academic journal articles.
For someone who cleared a million bucks on his own creative work before he was old enough to vote, Swartz was pretty cavalier about offering up other people’s creative work for free. But The Internet’s Own Boy isn’t the sort of movie that trades in moral complexity. For director Brian Knappenberger and everyone he interviews, Swartz was a martyr pure and simple, the victim of an overzealous U.S. attorney named Stephen Heymann who took advantage of an outmoded piece of legislation (the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act) to construct a crime where none had occurred (as a Harvard fellow, Swartz was entitled to download articles from JSTOR free of charge, and he never got a chance to upload them before he was busted). They’re wrong when they argue that no one is hurt by such guerrilla operations—scholarship is expensive to produce, and destroying its market value isn’t likely to increase production—but Swartz was right in believing there must be a more equitable arrangement for everyone.
Ivory Tower considers a more widespread commodification of knowledge: our increasingly unstable and unaffordable system of higher education. Produced by CNN, it takes a blandly consumerist stance toward the subject of learning; for director Andrew Rossi and the yammering broadcasters collected in his opening montage, a college diploma has no value whatsoever apart from the salary it can fetch you once you’re on the job market. Yet given the skyrocketing cost of tuition (which has increased a whopping 1120 percent since 1978), the crushing debt being incurred by young people in order to graduate (which passed the $1 trillion mark this year), and the dismal job market they encounter as soon as they doff their caps and gowns, the wisdom of attending college is being questioned as never before in the nation’s history. Without a bachelor’s degree, you may find your lifetime earning potential severely curtailed, yet the cost of that degree may cripple you financially for decades to come.
Rossi methodically unpacks the various factors that have caused tuition rates to spiral out of control. Over the past 30 years, the endless competition among colleges and universities for prestigious staff and facilities has inflated costs exponentially, with more and more money going for new building construction, executive compensation, ballooning administrative staffs, and student goodies like tanning beds, plasma TVs, and climbing walls. At the same time, troubled state governments slashed their funding of higher education, and our old pal Ronald Reagan decimated the federal student loan and Pell Grant programs in his heroic crusade to get government off our backs. More generally, college has come to be viewed as a middle-class entitlement, with kids attending school to party instead of study and viewing every class as a consumer product that ought to include a passing grade.
In Ivory Tower the poster child for this decaying value system is Cooper Union, the venerable design school in New York City. Founded in 1859 by the industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper, the school was so handsomely endowed that for more than 150 years it offered free tuition to every student. But by 2013, Cooper Union had taken on a staggering $175 million debt to construct a lavish new building designed by architect Thom Mayne, and disastrous hedge fund investments had left it unable to cover an annual mortage payment in excess of $10 million. President Jamshed Bharucha, whose compensation includes a $750,000 salary and free tenancy in a town house, became a lightning rod for student anger after the board of trustees, bowing to economy reality, voted to charge tuition for the first time. Rossi documents the student action that occupied the president’s office for 65 straight days, though in the end, the action failed and Cooper Union betrayed its celebrated legacy of offering a free education.
One wonders what Aaron Swartz—who could barely be bothered with high school or college—thought about the Stanford University professors who banded together to form Udacity.com, a system of massive open online courses (or MOOCs) that promised to deliver a world-class education to anyone with a laptop and modem. California governor Jerry Brown, whose state has slashed college funding by one quarter since 2008, decided to give Udacity a shot, and last year it was incorporated into the curriculum of San Jose State University. Ann Larson, an adjunct professor at the school, points out to Rossi, “We’re really creating hierarchies, where the students who can afford it work with teachers, have one-on-one face time with faculty, and students who can’t afford it will go on YouTube.” Pass rates and student feedback were so dismal that SJSU suspended the program after one semester, but it may be the harbinger of a 21st century in which knowledge really is free—and worth every cent.
Correction: This review has been amended to correctly reflect JSTOR’s not-for-profit business model.