/ aaron swartz

Some thoughts on Aaron Swartz day

A great deal has already been written about the life of Aaron Swartz, and if you believe the most common accounts then Swartz was a great genius - part of the second wave of founding fathers of the web, the first of which included people such as Tim Berners-Lee and Ian Murdock.

But that's not my take. I think Aaron was like most other hackers. If you read his blog, which was later made into a book, he had the same youthful follies, misconceptions, self-doubt, relationship anxieties and funny dietary quirks that most others do. One amusing entry which I remember from his blog was his amazement upon reading Chomsky's book Manufacturing Consent and how it changed his view of the world.

What differentiated Aaron from garden variety ivy league university attendants was that he was able to transcend the startup mentality and see beyond the blinkered horizons of the money-grabbing technocrats. Being able to do that makes you a "real hacker" in my estimation. Within the domain of software startup companies many pay lip service to "changing the world" for the better, but few of them are actually sincere about it. Mostly they only care about obtaining as much cash as possible - primarily from other people's labour - and then checking out of reality to retire to some gated community McMansion or private island. I think Aaron Swartz took that type of rhetoric at face value and actually did try to change the world in some ways. Maybe he even succeeded to some extent.

The amount of source code which resulted in his demise is tiny. Appropriately named keepgrabbing, it comprises of only a few lines of Python calling the curl command. When I first saw it I thought to myself "Aaron Swartz died over this??". And it's true that he did. At the time in 2010 there was a great fear of Anonymous, which Gabriella Coleman describes in her book in an account in which she is invited to the Pentagon. The elites imagined that some shadowy global conspiracy of masked hackers could possibly infiltrate their databases and erode the accumulated Information Capital. Someone like Aaron fit with their stereotype and so MIT tried to nail him to the cross as an example, despite the flimsiness of the legal case. I don't think anyone at MIT was ever held accountable for what they did to him. But such is the nature of power.

Is there anything which the rise and fall of Aaron Swartz can teach us today? I think there are a few lessons. If you find yourself being hammered by some spurious lawsuit then seek help from your community. Don't follow the standard lawyer's advice to speak to noone about the case, because this type of psychological isolation can be fatal. I expect that if the court case had proceeded then the penalty would not have been as extensive as threatened, or similarly to the Chelsea Manning case there would have been plenty of scope for further appeals which would have had a good chance of success.

The problem which Swartz highlighted in his Guerilla Open Access Manifesto of course still remains. Yes, there are other ways to obtain academic papers now, but they're not strictly legal. There still needs to be a campaign to make all academic knowledge produced with public money available to the public, without prohibitive paywalls. It's a doable project but more political than technological by nature. As Aaron Swartz said:

"With enough of us, around the world, we'll not just send a strong message opposing the privatization of knowledge — we'll make it a thing of the past."