Touch Me Harshly with Dangerous Ideas

The unused potential of universities

A little while ago I participated at MIT Media Lab’s Forbidden Research event, focused on presenting research topics that are often avoided, inconvenient to talk about, or plainly forbidden. Like, you know, this session on investigating arousal in pedophiles using photorealistic children renderings in virtual reality. While the goal was sound (working out how to help pedophiles and save children), boy, do I want to hear the details.

But coming from the the mouths of the well-educated, properly-mannered and otherwise part-of-the-establishment presenters, these ideas just didn’t touch me deeply. My beliefs were questioned only in the most delicate, non-threatening way.

“I have never learned anything from any man who agreed with me”
— D.F. Malone

In this crowd, Alexandra Elbakyan, of Sci-Hub’s fame, stood out as a complete outsider. While her dangerous idea — scraping paywalled academic papers and making them available to all — was as wild as many other ideas we heard that day, Ms. Elbakyan’s stance was unique. Instead of being a considerate person who would fully acknowledge that her actions were questionable, and then going on to present a solid case to justify them, just like Edward Snowden did earlier that day, Ms. Elbakyan showed no remorse and perhaps even no full grasp that illegal actions are not automatically justified even if meant for good deeds. Coupled with a poor presentation, heavy accent, and constant Skype notifications sound pinging in the background, Ms. Elbakyan failed to show proper respect to the high-profile event she was invited to present at and, coming across as an oddball, failed to capture the hearts and minds of the crowd that was only trained to sympathize with people like them.

But precisely because of all these reasons, her presentation was by far the most suited for Forbidden Research. Ms. Elbakyan was not only presenting dangerous ideas — she was pronouncing different rules of going about to make them happen. It was, for instance, in a stark opposition to some concluding remarks by Maria Zuber, MIT’s Vice President for Research, who, while sympathetic to the whole Forbidden Research dialogue, invited the participants to think about the consequences if anything went wrong. The whole institute might be shut down!, she explained.

I get it, of course. I’ve been part of the establishment for long enough to understand how it functions and how goals ought to be achieved. Only he who plays by the rules can eventually transform the system. But precisely because of that it is so important and so refreshing to hear from people who don’t share the same views and who are insensitive to the sensitivities of the supposedly liberal academic establishment.

Credit: Keulė Rūkė

Which brings us to Trump, of course. Anybody else take the note of Peter Thiel, the renowned Silicon Valley investor, blessing Trump as a great presidential candidate at RNC? A libertarian gay immigrant supporting Trump — what’s the catch?

The catch, as Holman Jenkins argues in his WSJ piece, is to stir the status quo. And the status quo right now allows for debating about same-gender bathrooms but not poverty, racial tensions, gun control, and money in politics in the US. Of course, technically there is freedom of speech and it works so well that Snowden is forced to an exile and Chelsea Manning is, well, she hardly is anymore. The topics of true importance are dangerous and hard, so they rarely get sufficient attention and sufficient courage from the politicians to be addressed. So they drag along year after year until the tensions can no longer be maintained and are channeled out through a revolution or a war.

We could have achieved much grander goals if we had the courage to act (and sometimes make mistakes). Stop arguing, start collaborating. And you know what unites people very well? A common enemy. A real threat to the status quo. A Trump who is too unpredictable and too wild to be treated as yet another oddball who only talks but doesn’t act.

Privacy is what allows us to determine our beliefs without being influenced by others, subject to peer pressure, or judged before those beliefs are fully formed.
— Edward Snowden via Salon

Disobedient thoughts thrive in the pockets of society that are just beyond the governing arm of the establishment. These are the gray zones no government likes because they cannot be predicted. They allow terrorists and innovators alike to thrive. In overreactive societies, like the American, the government uses the terrorism argument to suppress these gray zones, but at an under-appreciated cost of also hurting innovation and its own future.

It is hard to fight this fundamental desire of a government to control everything. So perhaps unexpectedly we ought to celebrate the diversity of government regimes in the world. Snowden and Elbakyan can broadcast their messages and act because they are shielded by the friendly nation of Russia. We move our servers to obscure countries as a practical solution to the sad state of copyright legislation that is not being addressed in the West. And while funding agencies still cannot comprehend the critical difference between gold and green open access, Elbakyan is giving a green light to all already today in the face of the liberal Western establishment whose attempts to change publishing landscape are just not rapid enough. And yes, it is in the face of these liberal academics because they fail to understand that the game is actually fair here: Elbakyan is not giving a damn about some corrupt, unnatural notion of copyright, but Elsevier is also not giving a damn about academia when racking up the profits of 37% and locking up scientific advancements.

Being part of the same Western society, with the same training and the same values, we tend to be politically correct and accept different opinions, and not rush to conclusions, and not judge prematurely, and seek for a dialogue… and then mourn the refugee crisis, and shake heads in disbelief hearing about terrorist attacks, and forget Crimea.

Radical ideas are not always the correct response — electing Trump in Russia, for instance, would not change anything — but sometimes, under the right circumstances — and I have a full trust that the American society deeply values its freedom and democracy— these radical ideas allow us to deliver adequate responses where our standard practices and law are just not working.

Of all the places, I think universities are in the best position to create these pockets of savage thought. It is precisely the mission of a university: to ensure the freedom of thought. But hey, you know, they could close the entire Institute down, and so universities tend to choose only the slightly disobedient middle way. They would invite Snowden to Skype-in but would not legally defend Aaron Schwartz. Open support for Elbakyan would cost them countless conservative donors. So much for the “Each of you has the power to change the world” that we heard from Muhammad Yunus during our graduation from MIT, dear friends.

But my dear MIT and my dear academia, realize this: While radical changes are hard to orchestrate from the inside, radical actions from the outside can fuel the desired changes inside. Help foster them. Give them voice. Advocate for them at the White House. Disobey whenever the stakes are low. You can take risks! You need to take risk just like your employees are taking risks with their research in order to keep advancing. And, in the moments of despair that always come to those who dare, remember that revolutions happen faster than it takes bureaucrats to figure out how to close the whole Institute down.