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Essay on Aaron Swartz

Intellectual Affairs

Aaron Swartz committed suicide last week at the age of 26. I would like to pay tribute to him by writing calm, elegiac prose conveying something of his intelligence, his passion, and the distinctive quality of puckishness that photographs of him managed to capture surprisingly well.

Unfortunately it does not look like that is going to be possible. Things would need to make more sense than they have, so far. Feelings of sadness and anger, which are perfectly appropriate responses, keep giving way to the paradoxical and incoherent state of mind in which I both grasp what has happened and simultaneously think that it can’t really be true. This reached its worst and most absurd expression in the passing thought that news of his suicide might be part of a scheme in which Aaron is alive and well, living under a new identity someplace where U.S. government prosecutors will never find him.

It’s possible! Well, no, of course it isn’t. This state of mind is what they call “being in denial,” and it’s embarrassing to recognize. But it hardly seems more irrational than the reality in question. For the government’s prosecution of Aaron for hacking into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's system to download a few million articles from scholarly journals was not just a case of intellectual-property law being enforced with too much zeal. It seems more like an expression of vindictiveness.

Consider something just reported by the Associated Press: “Andrew Good, a Boston attorney who represented Swartz in the case last year, said he told federal prosecutors in Massachusetts that Swartz was a suicide risk. 'Their response was, put him in jail, he’ll be safe there,' Good said." It is too hard to think about that. Better to imagine him escaping, carrying on his work in silence, cunning, and exile.

He was already something of a legend when we met for lunch not quite five years ago, having already been in touch for a couple of years. At the time, he was known for his role in the creation of RSS and Infogami; his internet-freedom activism and legal troubles were to come. Among his projects had been the online archive he created for Lingua Franca magazine, then defunct though still widely admired. I had been a contributing writer for LF and heard about Aaron from a couple of friends, and was very glad to be able to interview him about the Open Library cataloging initiative he was helping to launch.

Not that long before we were able to meet face-to-face, Aaron had given a talk called “How to Get a Job Like Mine” which covered his career up through the age of 20. In person, he was modest about his teenage coding career, or at least disinclined to say much about it, and I never got the feeling that his later exploits in taking on the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) database and JSTOR involved anything like hacker vainglory.

In his activism (legal and otherwise) as in his early coding projects, the emphasis was always squarely on making access to information and tools more widely available, on the grounds that restricting the flow of knowledge served only to make already-powerful people still more powerful. Aaron seemed earnest without being dour or humorless, which struck me as giving him one leg up on his hero Noam Chomsky.

While trying to pull these impressions together, I had a moment of seeing something about Aaron that never crossed my mind while he was alive, although it seems, with hindsight, pretty obvious: He was as perfect an embodiment of the mythological being known as the trickster as anyone could possibly be. My copy of Lewis Hyde’s brilliant book Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art (1998) has gone missing, but the author’s website has a pertinent description.

Trickster figures in various cultures “are the consummate boundary-crossers, slipping through keyholes, breaching walls, subverting defense systems. Always out to satisfy their inordinate appetites, lying, cheating, and stealing, tricksters are a great bother to have around, but paradoxically they are also indispensable heroes of culture. In North America, Coyote taught the race how to catch salmon, sing, and shoot arrows. In West Africa, Eshu introduced the art of divination so that suffering humans might know the purposes of heaven. In Greece, Hermes the Thief invented the art of sacrifice, the trick of making fire, and even language itself.”

The gods and worldly authorities alike think of the trickster as a criminal, or at least a bad apple. Furthermore, tricksters tend to be prodigies -- their genius for invention and disruption already evident in childhood, if not infancy. In the introduction to his book, Hyde writes that the trickster’s disregard for the rules “isn’t so much to get away with something or to get rich as to disturb the established categories of truth and property and, by so doing, open the road to possible new worlds.”

That names Aaron’s attitude beautifully, and my fleeting daydream that he might somehow be pulling a fast one on the authorities is like something out of a trickster narrative. The resemblance also goes some way towards explaining why, more than anyone I've ever met, he seems destined to be remembered as a hero for a long time to come. You don't get to make that many friends who are archetypes, but Aaron was an exceptional person no matter how you look at him.

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Essay on role of academe in the tragedy of Aaron Swartz's death

I don’t think there’s much more to say about Aaron Swartz. I didn’t know him personally, but like many others I am a beneficiary of the work he did. And I have agreed for much of my life as an academic with the thinking that led him to his fateful act in a closet at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Most centrally, that there are several ethical imperatives that should make everything that JSTOR (or any comparable bundling of scholarly publication) holds freely available to everyone: much of that work was underwritten directly or indirectly by public funds, the transformative impact of open access on inequality is already well-documented, and it's in keeping with the obligations and values that scholars allege to be central to their work.

Blame is coming down heavy on MIT and JSTOR, both of which were at pains to distance themselves from the legal persecution of Swartz even before news of his suicide broke, particularly JSTOR, which very early on asked that Swartz not be prosecuted. Blame is coming down even more heavily, as it should, on federal prosecutors who have been spewing a load of spurious garbage about the case for over a year. They had discretion and they abused it grievously in an era when vast webs of destructive and criminal activities have been discretionarily ignored if they stem from powerful men and powerful institutions. They chose to be Inspector Javert, chasing down Swartz over a loaf of bread.

But if we’re talking blame, then there’s a diffuse blame that ought to be conferred. In a way, it’s odd that MIT should have been the bagman for the ancien regime: its online presence and institutional thinking about digitization have otherwise been quite forward-thinking in many respects. If MIT allowed itself to be used by federal prosecutors looking to put an intellectual property head on a pike, that is less an extraordinary gesture by MIT and more a reflection of the academic default.

I’ve been frustrated for years, like other scholars and faculty members who take an interest in these issues, at the remarkable lassitude of academia as a whole toward publication, intellectual property and digitization. Faculty who tell me passionately about their commitment to social justice either are indifferent to these concerns or are sometimes supportive of the old order. They defend the ghastly proposition that universities (and governments) should continue to subsidize the production of scholarship that is then donated to for-profit publishers who then charge high prices to loan that work back to the institutions that subsidized its creation, and the corollary, demanded by those publishers, that the circulation of such work should be limited to those who pay those prices.

Print was expensive, print was specialized, and back in the age of print, what choice did we have? We have a choice now. Everything, everything, about the production of scholarship can be supported by consortial funds within academe. The major added value is provided by scholars, again largely for free, in the work of peer review. We could put the publishers who refuse to be partners in an open world of inquiry out of business tomorrow, and the only cost to academics would be the loss of some names for journals. Every journal we have can just have another name and be essentially the same thing. Every intellectual, every academic, every reader, every curious mind that wants to read scholarly work could be reading it tomorrow if they had access to a basic Internet connection, wherever they are in the world. Which is what we say we want.

I once had a colleague tell me a decade ago that this shift wouldn’t be a positive development because there’s a digital divide, that not everyone has access to digital devices, especially in the developing world. I asked this colleague, whose work is focused on the U.S., if she knew anything about the costs and problems that print imposed on libraries and archives and universities around the world, and of course she didn’t. Digitized scholarship can’t be lost or stolen the way that print can be, it doesn’t have to be mailed, it doesn’t have to have physical storage, it can’t be eaten by termites, it can’t get mold on it. If it were freed from the grasp of the publishers who charge insane prices for it, it could be disseminated for comparatively small costs to any institution or reader who wants access. Collections can be uniformly large everywhere that there’s a connection: what I can read and research, a colleague in Nairobi or Beijing or Moscow or São Paulo can read and research, unless their government (or mine) interferes. That simply couldn’t be in the age of print. Collections can support hundreds or thousands of simultaneous readers rather than just the one who has something checked out. I love the materiality of books, too, but on these kinds of issues, there’s no comparison. And no justification.

The major thing that stands in the way of the potentiality of this change is the passivity of scholars themselves. Aaron Swartz’s action, and its consequences, had as much to do with that generalized indifference as it did with any specific institution or organization. Not all culture needs to be open, and not all intellectual property claims are spurious. But scholarship should be and could be different, and has a claim to difference deep in its alleged values. There should be nothing that stops us from achieving the simplest thing that Swartz was asking of us, right now, in memory of him.

Timothy Burke is professor of history at Swarthmore College.

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