During the totalitarian Soviet Regime, dissident intellectuals would manually transcribe and distribute important censored documents, books, and magazine articles much the same way that early friars might have, in a process known as Samizdat. The term, coined by Nikolay Glazkov, literally refers to 'self-publishing', but has come to represent the process of effectively transcribing and distributing underground data through a peer-to-peer network. Early Samizdat was largely handwritten, transcribed painstakingly from smuggled pages and photo-negatives. The process could not have been easily reproduced via typewriter, as the KGB was able to identify "fingerprint" differences through how various typewriters behaved, and had already itemized all production models, allowing for easy backtracking and seizure.
Sometimes, foreign typewriters would be smuggled en-mass from the west to make the transcription process harder to trace. Oftentimes, texts would be bound inside the sleeves of books that had been ideologically-approved by the Soviet Government in order to hide their true nature. This requirement would force officials to actually read the contents of the non-totalitarian contraband book in question, which of course ensured that no state official was able to identify one -- much less a random one off a shelf. After all, what kind of nationalist lackey's ever going to engage in the text of a book? And yet this process was still fraught with danger, despite these precautions. The upper class of wealthy elite were occasional consumers of these works -- and they had little reason not to notify the authorities of supply lines. Those who went to all the trouble to encourage the form of expression ran the risk of severe punishment -- lifetime prison sentences, labor camps, even death. Deviation from the norm in autocracies is rarely accepted -- In my mind, it it one of the surefire indicators of a non-democratic society. Much the same, the will of the people to deliberately defy these restrictions imposed on the freedom of expression is one of the surefire indicators of the perseverance of the human spirit in an otherwise inhumane circumstance.
As time went on, and the world entered the 1980s, it became easier for underground organizations to take a variety of resourceful approaches in the pursuit of reproducing information for a peer network. Some organizations made secret night-shift raids, hacking mainframe computers, and mass-producing titles in the dead of the night. Some even began clandestine printing-press networks that were able to churn out illegal copies of censored material in a semi-professional manner. The texts varied dramatically in genre: fiction was always popular, as were political writings with a broad variety of perspectives. Religious texts were produced by underground Catholics, Orthodox, and Baptist Christians. There were even Buddhist texts in circulation, or texts that advocated the end of Jewish persecution under the Soviet regime. Crimean's, Volga Germans, Ukrainians, and countless other nationalities joined the discussion protesting the occupation of the Eastern Block.
It was right around this point in my poring over old documents, studying writers and tactics used, that I drew the uncomfortable mental connection between historical Samizdat and our modern day piracy networks. After all, we're at a point where the influence of open source information in the form of public research articles is being manipulated to serve a profitable agenda. It's no secret that American textbooks, as part-in-parcel relation with a relatively inflexible commodity that is the university diploma, are being raised to unjustifiable prices. Hell, Amercian textbook prices have been soaring faster than real wages, new housing and even healthcare. For some people, there exists an inevitable alternative -- acquiring information that has been made illegal to possess.
Which brings us to examples of a truly peculiar example of a dark-web black market -- repugnant transactions, information piracy performed across borders, declared illegal in numerous jurisdictions and countries, and yet effortlessly circumvented, rendered unenforceable through it's open-source nature. I speak, of course, of Library Genesis. A distribution for textbooks and scientific articles.
Library Genesis is a file-sharing shadow library, similar to The Pirate Bay, but with a focus on literature. It maintains that it's merely a 'link aggregator' that compiles information from publicly available data and user-submitted files. This of course does a perfect job of explaining why it's made enemies with ISPs in France, Germany, Greece, Belgium, Russia, and the state of New York.
And yet, you may be hard pressed to find a modern university student condemning free access to public information -- or the digital version of the textbooks associated with them. Indeed, you might be just as likely to find somebody who never once in their life illegally downloaded an mp3 file from the internet. Perhaps less so, as students aren't always motivated by profit -- some also just genuinely enjoy learning.
It is an undeniable fact that the existence of Library Genesis -- alongside the encrypted file staring sites that support it -- pose a threat to the stability of the textbook industry today. Indeed, it threatens to upturn the entirety of how we view public access to educational documents. From every level, local to corporate, and regardless of national borders, the unrestricted access to information is calling into question the legitimacy of the way of life we've depended on for so long now. But how does its existence mark a major reevaluation in our perspective of education costs?
The Standards Democracies Are Held To:
I believe it is a democracy's functioning responsibility to ensure that the tools necessary to attain a high paying -- and highly-taxable -- job are put in the hands of as many citizens as possible. When the quality of life for an everyday citizen improves -- through roads, healthcare, workers compensation, insurance, and especially education -- then they're more able to produce high quantities of taxable wealth for the government to run on.
When a nation does not have any incentive to better improve these qualities of living, that is to say when their wealth is not derived primarily from the citizens, then this is a sign that a nation is more autocratic than it is democratic. In places where governments rely on gold or oil or grain exports to fund their armies and executives, then there is no reason to care at all for the well-being of the commoner -- and there's all the more reason to slaughter or starve them, before they can threaten to revolt or declare independence. This is the fundamental difference that separates places like North Korea or Russia from Ireland or Germany -- how much the government depends on the citizens taxes to survive.
I think what I find so especially fucked about this pursuit is that there's not really any justified reasoning for this phenomena besides its niche application for universities -- and yet, it effects the flow of information within and around that setting. I've had moments where I found I can't buy Hans Morgenthau textbooks to read just for fun, because his intellectual property is almost entirely privatized and used in higher education. This effectively builds a thousand-dollar paywall for me to access any tangible legacy of a historic individual.
Other times, it's more self-motivated, a more tangible form of selfishness for us to witness. I'm certain all modern students have had that problem of a professor making their own textbook required reading material for their own course. At that point, if you're already locked into a class and unable to withdraw, the matter of buying a textbook for a necessary course can become a matter of pass-or-fail, justifying further exploitation and price gouging.
(Basically, you have two kinds of professors -- you know who's getting the good feedback at the end of the semester.)
I guess I'm in a weird place here myself. As a publisher, as an author, even I can't ever justify this kind of pricing. Yes, I sell copies of my science fiction. Yes, I'm producing intellectual property for money. But let's be honest, I'm not asking for some enormous amount over market value. When you buy my book, you're largely paying me to have the information all nicely bound together to be used as a coaster for your tea. And there's nothing preventing you from enjoying the same stuff posted online free of charge.
A Defense for Library Genesis
As open source projects like Wikipedia have demonstrated, it's not only possible to have a open-collaborative system of distributing educational information, it is easily regarded as a indispensable boon towards human development as we venture further into the 21st century. The prospect of having a free, universally-accessible collection of knowledge that is managed and funded entirely by volunteer efforts is often hailed as one of the greater triumphs of the information age.
That we might believe that these standards are somehow changed just because a website is distributing similar information that is otherwise regarded as being expensive intellectual property is nothing short of lunacy. No level-headed individual would claim that it's justifiable for a textbook company to mandate the purchase of their latest edition when no changes are made to the intellectual content, but only to the page numbers and answer keys. Library Genesis has made such a stance clear: In 2015, they fell under legal fire from Elsevier, which claimed they were granting free access to their copyright material. In response, Library Genesis admins retorted that Elsevier was gaining most of its profits from publicly funded research -- research which should be made accessible to any taxpayer who funded it. Their lack of response has been deafening.
And yet, as uncontroversial as the matter of open-source freedom of information may be by the masses, it's still made illegal in a multitude of nations -- the unenforceable nature of properly encrypted file-transfer notwithstanding. Starting in 2020, efforts have been made by freedom of information activists to decentralize the library, making peer-to-peer seeds available for users through The Interplanetary Fileshare System, or IPFS. In short -- it's now possible for anybody with a hard drive and an internet connection to secure the existence of any textbook uploaded to the Library. And it's not too hard to get started with contributing, either.
A Poignant Relation to the Open Source Nature of Cryptocurrency
I think it'd do well to recollect how relatively young cryptocurrency is, compared to the vastness of Peer-to-Peer file sharing. I implore you to recall what it may say about the people of a nation at a given point in their history when everyday citizens are willing to endure the adversity of exploring a new frontier regardless of what their own government permits. When we consider samizdat, we must consider what this phenomena means for personal freedom, safety and security, and the drive for ingenuity, all in the face of some greater pursuit of a deeper human need left unsatisfied. What does it say about a collection of people, committed to a cause, who are delivering what their own governments are either unwilling or unable to provide?
As the Soviets inadvertently pioneered Samizdat in a manner so robust that it remains relevant in our modern lives through its open source P2P nature, so might the early introduction of cryptocurrency in nations around the globe begin to effect how you, dear reader, are able to use open-source finance in your own home country. I think it's already fascinating enough to watch the trade volume explosions happen in Venezuela, South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, and Ukraine, to name a few. These are places in the world where, in some cases, citizens have chosen to depend on cryptocurrency as a means of exchange in favor of their collapsing national currencies. Some nations, like Estonia, are even considering making state-backed cryptocurrencies to be accepted on open exchanges and to be regarded as legitimate national tender.
All of this comes with dizzying implications. As a largely decentralized medium of exchange with a massive open market for adoption, people are effectively tasting what it's like to be able to choose their own currency of value. And while first impressions with engaging in the new frontier are always tumultuous, the process may soon be refined. As more people are adopting cryptocurrencies, more people will be able to settle on exchange protocols that are easier to use, engaging in everyday trivial transaction, and ultimately easing its widespread acceptance.
With this sudden mass-adoption comes other possible consequences. Overnight, people are able to exchange goods and establish transaction regardless of borders. Citizens are able to transfer wealth across nations for minimal cost, through a trustless and secure system. Some are even exchanging their native currency when moving to or visiting another country at a reasonable exchange rate, allowing for greater freedom of movement.
I think that examples of samizdat in foreign nations serve as an excellent template for what to expect from new frontiers for free information in the years to come. We've already seen the changes in the music industry that preceded it, back when companies watched as free transfer of audio files from peer-to-peer became the mainstream norm. Anybody expecting entertainment media to be the only industry effected by the growing freedom of decentralized information may be in for an unwelcome surprise when they awaken one morning to find that entire swaths of nations in the most unexpected corners of the world have rapidly turned to a single shared unit of decentralized currency. Any longer, it's not so inconceivable a notion.
If you'd like to learn more about how to support Library Genesis: I'd recommend you check out the IPFS Free Library Guide at https://freeread.org/ipfs/, which outlines how you can begin managing torrents for the Library Genesis Seeding Project.
If you'd like to learn more about how to support intercontinental management of cryptocurrency: I'd recommend you check out how to get started with mining (every user-verified transaction helps decentralize the process!) or otherwise follow the official guides on how to start your own cryptocurrency node.