Last week Mary Kathleen Fessendon of Cornell Cinema asked me to introduce the documentary about Aaron Swartz, the Internet’s Own Boy. Below are the remarks I made. And in writing them I came to a little better understanding of why his story has gripped me so deeply. Not that I am alone, obviously, but spending more time and thought preparing these remarks than the last three talks I have prepared combined, I went a little deeper inside. I identify with his drive for reform, the intensity with which he engaged in life, and the internal dissonance that can come from having a public persona and private struggles. Honored at the request to speak about this remarkable young man, I am also grateful for the opportunity to share my thoughts with you in this blog.
Aaron Swartz was a precocious, intellectually gifted child. His gifts naturally leaned towards those most desired in an information political economy: extraordinary aptitude in both verbal and mathematical abilities. His interests in the Internet made the connection between the person and the society a match.
And what a unique moment for a match! A world historical transformation when technology crests economic, social, political and ideological shifts, taking us along on its wave to a qualitatively different place than we were just 25 years ago. That is far less than the average lifetime. I have lived it. You are in its presence and have your future is vested in it.
Let’s point out the highlights of Aaron Swartz’s contributions to that transformation.
Overall, he grasped the potential of the Internet to be both a new form of communication and process for information. Information is a commodity.
As a child, he worked up a very, albeit quite primitive, prototype for what we now known as Wikipedia. Knowledge is critical to inquiry.
As a young teen-ager, he was part of a group that designed the underlying software for what we now call RSS feeds. Citizens want, in fact need, news to participate in civil society.
In late adolescence, he worked with the legal scholar, Lawrence Lessig to create the Creative Commons, an alternative copyright regime that is now commonly used by authors and artists. Intellectual property is a critical political issue of our age.
He was a millionaire before age 20. The Internet is a goldmine.
Stanford admitted him; but he left at the end of his freshman year. In that choice he joins a very elite set of pioneers in information and Internet technologies: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and, notably, Bradlee/Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.
This last point is tricky. He made this decision right in the chronological pocket of where you are. For some very miniscule number of people: Gates, Jobs and Zuckerberg, it turned out to be a profitable choice. And let us remember: these men were entrepreneurs. But for so many it is or would be a terrible mistake. An argument can be made that the lack of a college education did not help Manning or Snowden in the choices they made in life-altering decisions. These men are reformers, and that is the category into which Swartz belongs. He eschewed the money he made. He could not abide working in technology or communication companies. Another argument can be made that for a reformer, a college education is all the more valuable. Radical reformers often cross legal boundaries, which often result in fines or loss of freedoms. A college education helps one to make self-aware choices. And if fate befalls harsh consequence, at least in having that education you have something intangible that no one can away from you.
I do not have answers about Mr. Swartz, but as an observer of contemporary Internet culture, law and politics, I do have questions.
Why did he leave college
Who guided his decision?
Was he open to his parents or other adult guidance about it?
Did they ask penetrating questions?
Or … were people so entranced by his precocious gifts, witnesses to this extraordinary match between the historical moment and the person, that they overlooked common benchmarks, needs, of childhood and late adolescence?
After all, he was a young man who skipped steps. The film suggests that, consumed by his interests in technology, he avoided the miserable awkwardness of middle school years, typical teen-age angst about identity, the torture of college selection, application and acceptance.
Was everyone in his life – including himself -- so beguiled as to not ask questions about his psychological state? Did anyone notice evidence of mood disorders, attention deficient, hyper-activity, or what are now referred to as “on the spectrum” challenges?
As a production, this documentary is very well done. The director also of We are Legion, about the hacktavist group Anonymous, Brian Knappenberger beautifully lauds his subject, and he is focus is obviously political, so he gives us only fragmentary hints at other dimensions of Mr. Swartz. As a teen-ager we learn that Mr. Swartz had irritable bowel syndrome. He took steroids, which, it is alleged in the film, stunted his growth. Once or twice, “depression” is mentioned, but almost so that his family and girlfriends can dismiss it – yet, in his own writings, which have been public for some time, he clearly identifies the symptoms and names it.
Why are we so resistant to looking at mental health? Would we rather be beguiled? Would we rather believe in notions of unalloyed brilliance and precocious gifts? As a historian I cannot help but make the connection to how some prefer to view American history as “exceptional” and “unblemished.” Is the American dream, as we have defined it: upward mobility … without genocide, slavery, poverty, and discrimination? Are we now in another period of such transformative excitement as to believe that the Internet and Google transcend history? Structural inequalities? Human nature? Have we reached a place where civilization has no discontent? If so, that view is a dangerous illusion.
Critical legal and political issues intersect this documentary. Some are obvious, for example the need for reform of the Copyright Act of 1976 and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986.
Just those dates alone speak volumes, and for those interested, in remarks after the film, I would be glad to make more detailed comments.
Others are less obvious, such as:
What laws, be they in lobbying or tax, allow wealthy individuals and corporations to call the shots in American society and culture?
How do we influence mores and ethics to keep our politicians, prosecutors and activists’ personal ambition in check with public service?
What constitutes civil disobedience?
The documentary is particularly weak on this point. At precisely the moment when we want to know more about the quality of Mr. Swartz’s activism, the narrative defaults to sentimentality. If his actions were in the name of civil disobedience, were they in the tradition of Thoreau’s essay on the subject in which he was jailed rather than pay a poll tax over his objections to slavery?
Or in Susan B. Anthony’s arrest and incarceration in the Canandaigua jail, just miles up the Finger Lakes from here, for voting in the presidential election of 1872 … almost half a century before women’s suffrage?
Or in Martin Luther King Jr.’s moving Letter from Birmingham Jail, where he sat for leading a non-violence march for which white segregationists had refused, arbitrarily, capriciously and discriminatorily, to issue a permit?
Or something else? The documentary fails to face the question squarely.
The ending is sad. But having the privilege to introduce this film to you tonight, I have a challenge for you. Think about how we can move legal reform forward not with desperation but endurance. The key to civil disobedience is not ducking the laws, but accepting the punishment to place unfair laws or unjust leaders in the bold relief of critical inquiry and to galvanize people to action. Citizenship lies in the core of that challenge. Citizenship is essential to democracy. Embrace it with intelligence, compassion, and purpose in your life.
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