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Beloved internet and information activist Aaron Swartz took his life a few days ago. Since then, the internet has been in a state of networked mourning as renowned digerati and freedom fighters share personal stories of Aaron alongside their rage and frustration.
For while it was no secret that Aaron struggled with depression, it was also no secret that recent years have been particularly hellish: Exactly two years before his suicide on January 11, Aaron was arrested. Seven months later he was charged with a host of counts under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (among other statutes). The U.S. government actively pursued this case at a level disproportionate to the purported damage, using their position of authority to bully. As I wrote earlier in raw emotional form, I adored Aaron for all his brilliance and flaws, his passion and stubbornness. Although I, and others, are still struggling to make sense of the loss, his suicide raises a host of significant issues that need to be publicly discussed.
Because like the other cases brought against hackers across the country, the case against Aaron isn’t just about technology providing new means for people to act independently and enact democracy. It isn’t even really about justice and national security. It’s about a broader, systemic battle.
It’s about power.
In recent years, hackers and geeks have challenged the status quo, calling into question the legitimacy of countless political moves and other powerful organizations’ actions that take place under the umbrella of national interests and information security.
Reasonable people can disagree about the tactics and where and when a particular approach pushes too far, but in many cases, hackers’ intentions have been valiant. Some are focused on freeing information while others are concerned with protecting innocent users from corporate laziness by fixing known vulnerabilities. Many of the beliefs that Aaron stood for – the liberation of knowledge, open access to information, code as free speech, and the use of code to make the world better – are core values in the hacker community. Numerous activist geeks have attempted to liberate information, combat corruption, and challenge unchecked power in many forms.
The hacker ethic may be peculiar to outsiders. But it stems from a deep commitment to justice, fairness, and freedom. Anthropologist Gabriella Coleman describes in her phenomenal book Coding Freedom how hacker ethic gets encoded into both technical and political practice. (Fittingly, you can download the book for free.)
Because of these central values and beliefs, many hackers are confounded by systems of power that stick to the letters but ignore broader principles. Much public effort has been put into controlling and harmonizing geek resistance, squashing rebellion, and punishing whoever authorities can get their hands on for whatever crimes they can charge.
But most geeks operate in gray zones, making it hard for them to be pinned down.
Many hackers are genuinely trying to be contemporary freedom fighters.
It’s in this context that Aaron’s stunt to free JSTOR’s material using MIT’s network gave federal agents enough evidence to bring him to trial so they could use him as an example, condemning him before the trial even began. All for the performance of justice.
Yet many hackers see themselves as – and are genuinely trying to be – contemporary freedom fighters. In Swartz’s case, those in power used him, reframing his information liberation project as a story of a vicious hacker whose terroristic acts are meant to destroy democracy. Credible experts were already scheduled to testify against the government’s claims, to share that “I know a criminal hack when I see it, and Aaron’s downloading of journal articles from an unlocked closet is not an offense worth 35 years in jail.” (Note, Aaron had been offered 6 months, but only if he would plead guilty to a series of felony charges he didn’t feel he was guilty of.)
Why should this matter to you? Especially if you didn’t know Aaron Swartz, aren’t a hacker, or think this has nothing to do with you?
Because the whole point of a functioning democracy – the very principles this country was founded on – is to always question the uses and abuses of power in order to prevent autocratic tyranny from emerging. The reason you see so many internet commenters raging against the machine right now is because the people in power have been unable to see past acts like Aaron’s and understand the intentions and activism driving it.
Not much can be gained from reifying the us-versus-them game that got us here in the first place.
I, like others, often disagreed with Aaron’s particular approach to freeing the world’s information, but I didn’t disagree with him about the goal. What’s going on isn’t about undermining democracy, but about preserving democracy in a networked world.
So there is a lot of justifiable outrage out there. Many people want the heads of the key administrators who helped create the context in which Aaron took his life. MIT’s administration has decided to do an internal investigation into the university’s decision to act when JSTOR dropped the case. Members of the hacktivist collective Anonymous even leveraged loopholes in MIT servers to publicly demand justice.
But we should also fear the likelihood that Aaron will be turned into a martyr: an abstraction of a geek activist destroyed by the state.
Not much can be gained from reifying the us-versus-them game that got us here in the first place. It doesn’t help any one or any cause to incite more individual geek cowboys as they haphazardly throw themselves against the powers that be.
There are many paths of activism and ways to create cultural change. Some are self-destructive because the kinds of risk-taking involved often result in being targeted. Others are more focused around coordinated organizing.
When Aaron organized others to rally – as he did in SOPA/PIPA and with many of his other actions to combat self-serving manipulation of information – he was phenomenally successful at getting collective buy-in. At making a difference by working with and through others. By not just hacking, but building things.
There are many paths of activism and ways to create cultural change.
What haunted him to his end were the repercussions of a lone ranger action – at trying to make a difference by working alone. When people who don’t know Aaron celebrate him, they focus on this aspect, the part that acted as an individual agent of change. The part that made him especially vulnerable.
So what I really hope comes out of this tragedy is some serious community reflection about the tactics of change-making and activism employed by geeks to combat abuses of power. If we want to achieve our core values and goals — whatever they are — I don’t think we’ll ever make a difference by creating more martyrs in a cultural war. We need to find another way. We can’t afford to allow powerful entities destroy our passionate savants.
Aaron’s funeral was yesterday. What Aaron should be remembered for is not what he did as an individual, but how he empowered so many others – and provided a foundation for change and activism that went far beyond him.