Pretty much everything I do on a daily basis I have learned how to do on my own. It stuns me sometimes that I earn my living doing something that was never taught to me in school, that I just picked up over the years. The pace of change and the ways that the internet and technology have changed our lives (mostly for the good, sometimes for the bad) have been so all-encompassing that we often fail to take notice.
But every so often, you have to step back from this modern world and say “wow”. I realize that a large part of the reason I have been able to live as I do, making my living as I do, is because there is a wealth of freely available knowledge out there. Recently I’ve been auditing a programming class at Stanford University. No, really. And it is absolutely free. Who would have thought that I, with my terrible grades in high school, would one day be taking courses at such a prestigious university? Or that any of the things I would want to learn about are just a few keystrokes and a little motivation away? I can take courses and ask questions of some of the best minds out there, and they respond, helping me along in my education. And I in turn try to offer help to those at an earlier stage of development than me. This free exchange of information is vital to a creative society. It is one of the reasons I am so concerned with the runaway laws pertaining to copyright and patents in this country. They are overkill and poison to a creative society. Copyright and intellectual property rights were meant to secure benefits to the creators for a restricted period of time, after which they should be public domain. It is only through the free exchange of ideas (in all realms) that a society, its arts and sciences, can move forward. The rise of the internet, when coupled with the extension of copyright in perpetuity, has a chilling effect on the ability of creative people and innovators everywhere. None of us stands alone, we are all bathed in the culture, and it is in relation to that culture, and on the shoulders of others that we are able to contribute to both our own and the general welfare. The recipe for progress isn’t a single ingredient, it is a mixture, timing, and refinement.
Fortunately, there are some wonderful responses to the problem out there, from Creative Commons to open source software to various universities and individuals in all kinds of fields that share their work without charge or after a short period of exclusivity. They set an example for how I want to live my life and why I think it is important to give back. It is clear to me how I have been helped by freely available information, and it is clear to me how important it is to share what we know with others.