This fragility can be observed, more than anywhere else, in the closing of the 'Knowledge Commons', the global shared pool of knowledge and information. If anything, this progress that we celebrate is largely about the progress in knowledge: Our understanding about our universe is far greater, far more nuanced and more pervasive than it ever has been. And, despite the enlightenment myth of Newton's apple and the works of lone geniuses, we know that the progress in knowledge is a social thing, it grows through connections. Knowledge created through collaboration and sharing is what got us to the modern age, and this is what sustained the progress that we celebrate. However, we can not take this for granted anymore.
If anything, the death of Aaron Swartz signifies the fragility of our progress. Aaron Swartz, regardless of how the law enforcement agencies saw him, was not a felon: He was a highly intelligent architect of social knowledge, a contributor to the development of RSS and founder of Reddit, someone who deeply believed that knowledge should be free and shared. He did what he believed in - set free research papers, funded originally through public money but expropriated by big publishing companies and databases, onto the cloud. He was hounded for his 'crime', far more severely than an irresponsible banker playing with LIBOR rates and threatening livelihoods of millions of people will be treated. His suicide, if anything, is about privatization of the knowledge commons and the biggest threat to our progress.
Since the corporations have caught on to 'intellectual capital', knowledge as the source of prosperity, the efforts to privatize, in order to monetize, knowledge was relentless. The gift economy inherent in knowledge work has been replaced, ineffectively but irreversibly, with transactions and contracts, eventually subverting the nature of knowledge altogether. The research spirit has been tamed to be result driven; the universities, the sources of knowledge production in a modern society, portrayed as idle and places of 'pie in the sky' thinking effectively dismembered of the 'gift' spirit that sustained them.
Coursera is a private initiative, even For-profit. The business model of Coursera, if pundits are to be believed, is to collect data on how people learn by observing and collecting data on millions of learners, just like Google does. But, the lesson of Coursera is really in the impromptu meetup groups that spring up everywhere in the world, the ones without prompting and tracking, the kind of communities universities originally hosted and were designed to nurture. And, this is where it may have a lesson for our universities: If the universities fail to play their role in creation, maintenance and growth of the knowledge commons, they are likely to become obsolete, fast. Peter Drucker said the universities might disappear in thirty years (and he said that in 1997) and some people are prophesying that MOOCs will hasten that demise: It seems they may, but in an inadvertent way, and only if the universities fail to imagine and live up to what they are really for.