Information Access: COVID-19 Changes Everything. I’m Here for It. - Op-Ed Piece

“Click the banner for 30 minutes of uninterrupted listening.”


“You’ve discovered a Premium feature.”


“This LibriVox recording is in the public domain. For more information, or to volunteer, please visit LibriVox.org.”


Access to information is something we take for granted. That is until it’s suddenly gone.


During social distancing, millions are wondering how they will access the information, materials, resources, texts, knowledge, literature, art, music, entertainment, and other support they are accustomed to.

Workplaces—shut down.


Sporting events—canceled.


Wifi...is...bufffffeeerrrinnnnggg....


Will COVID-19 permanently change access to the stuff we’re used to having?


Actually, it already has.


I've noticed an amazing number of companies providing their services for free or a reduced price during this time. On behalf of us all, thank you.


However, I wonder: how will COVID-19 change the world (other than the obvious)?


In the past, information was highly curated. We accessed it through print media, typically stored in monasteries or the manor homes of the rich and powerful.


COVID-19, however, is a hailstorm of open access.

Paywalls, gatekeepers, regulations, middlemen, and other barriers are tumbling rapidly. Providers are reducing prices or offering products for free. Artists, musicians, writers, and other cultural producers are offering their services via LiveStream. For example, the Metropolitan Opera streams some of their past performances free of charge during this difficult time.


And I say, throw open the gates. Let the sunshine in and bask in the glow.


We were already seeing a decline in the formalized, ritualized learning of the past. Just look at Project Gutenberg or LibriVox. Online universities, Duolingo, YouTube tutorials…you name it, you can learn it online.


COVID-19 could make this rule, rather than the exception.


We might never achieve fully open access, as there will always be cultural, economic, and political barriers to information. Only Utopia would provide completely free and open access to all. Let's take the opportunity to throw down a few access barriers and keep them thrown down.


Take Spotify as an example. If you stream music for free, you might have noticed that most of the ads are actually just ads for Spotify Premium. Or, if you hadn’t noticed before, you have now. You’re welcome.


What this tells me is that Spotify doesn’t actually need the ad revenue, or they’d have more ads for concerts and hair products and meal services. Instead, they put those ads on there to annoy you into paying for Premium (reason #1 why I positively refuse to do so, by the way).


Or, what about your data package? Mine gives me 20 gigs of high-speed data, after which it gets paaaaainfully slow. Why 20? Why not 30? Or 40? Or 4,000?


They don’t want us to notice that it’s all made up.

Sure, these resources require certain overhead costs. Yes, we need infrastructure and equipment and repair technicians and thousands of other essential personnel to provide technology, art, music, literature, information (etc.) to the masses. We want those people paid.


By and large, though, curators charge us for an ephemeral, infinite resource that could be much more accessible. In some ways, it's like charging us for air.


No, I am not saying artists, writers, thinkers, and other producers of information should not receive payment for their work. In fact, I’m saying they should be paid more.


Let’s pay the originators of the content, not the middlemen.


Academic textbooks are a classic example. Right now, textbook companies are scrambling to provide open-access textbooks for university students under quarantine.


Why? Because the authors of those textbooks hardly see a penny. Students, though, pay hundreds upon hundreds of dollars per book.


And you know what? They don’t even read them. Sorry, but they don’t.


Where does that money go?


That’s right. Into the pockets of those medieval misers.


Instead of continuing to pay for mainstream media, why not seek out, produce, and circulate quality open-source materials and local culture? Why not try a little classic literature instead of Netflix?


Spread the word. Let’s never go back.


Let’s foster fewer middlemen, lower costs, and freer access for all.


Pay attention, now: I am not suggesting that you contact your legislators. Governmental control would only make the problem worse. That would be going backward, not forward.


I am also not suggesting that we ignore copyrights, safeguards, or other societal checks and balances.

What I am suggesting is that we, as the consumers, producers, and users of information, pay for information by choice, not by default. Seek out reliable open-source materials, and wherever possible, pay the producers of content directly. Support independent journalists and cancel the subscriptions you don’t absolutely need. Take your local writers or artists out for coffee (after social distancing has ended, of course!).


Consider this your caveat emptor—you hold the money, so you hold the power.

And if your service goes back up at the end of the quarantine, change providers.


What would you do if you had more knowledge resources at your disposal? How would you live if your art, literature, music, and other cultural objects were just a little cheaper, just a little more accessible, just a little more share-able?


In the oft-repeated words of R.E.M, “It’s the end of the world as we know it. I feel fine.”


What changes are you seeing in the way we are using technology because of the virus?

Let us know in the comments below.

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Sarah Beach is a writer, editor, and researcher with an intense need for herbal tea. She writes about a variety of subjects, including social media, mental health, memes, and holistic wellness. Sarah is a graduate student in the field of Communication Studies and teaches rhetoric. She is also a registered Reiki practitioner and enthusiastic ukulele player. When she’s not writing, you can find her wandering aimlessly outdoors or watching period dramas.

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