Aaron Swartz: Remembered, not redacted


In January, 26-year-old Aaron Swartz, founder of Reddit, co-creator of RSS technology (on which much of your internet experience is based), and collaborator on the Creative Commons project, killed himself. As with many of the revolutionary self-immolations in recent and not-so-recent memory, Swartz’s suicide refuses the imposition of anti-terror and late liberal market logics barring the open exchange of information on the internet. These recently released documents (below in Scribd) reveal details of the the FBIs 2008 investigation of Swartz. The FBI was tracking Swartz because he legally downloaded documents which were being offered for free on a temporary basis by the otherwise pay-for-play Public Access to Court Electronic Records repository. Alongside Aaron’s downloading, there were calls for the information, which is technically part of the public record, to be maintained as a commons. The FBI did not pursue charges based on their investigation.

In 2010 and 2011, Swartz had legal access to the JSTOR database through his fellowship at Harvard and through MIT’s so-called Open Campus initiative. Despite being permitted to view and download documents, which he did in great quantity, Swartz was arrested in January 2011 for criminal intent. He was later released and it appeared that the charges would be held in abeyance provided Swartz returned the documents to JSTOR. Rather than rolling over to this indeterminate administrative judgment, Swartz fought the implication that his actions constituted stealing or fraud. He ramped up his advocacy and discourse around freedom of information and access to research products produced and disseminated with substantially public funding. Nevertheless, in July 2011, Swartz was indicted by a grand jury and faced a bevy of fraud and malfeasance charges. Amid much back-and-forth, JSTOR, MIT, and the U.S. Attorney’s office attempted to force Swartz to face charges to which he pled not guilty and for which many prominent voices maintained the possible maximum sentence was highly disproportional. Swartz himself maintained that he should not be considered a felon for legally obtaining any number of documents from JSTOR. And, while the database was willing to accept a more moderate punishment, MIT wouldn’t budge; they wanted full prosecutorial weight.

On January 11, 2013, Swartz was found dead in his apartment by his partner.
He hanged himself.

I have followed this story with great interest not only because of the general importance and underreporting of information freedom and internet access issues, but also because Swartz’s suicide struck me as a revolutionary act, especially for academics, researchers, and ‘knowledge workers,’ whose labor products become commodities for warehouse databases and universities, often at the cost of wide public accessibility. The logic of intellectual property has been the subject of academic debate across the political spectrum. But I don’t I write as an expert, only as someone wading into the waters of intellectual property and knowledge production for (somebody’s) profit. So far, it feels like another form of indentured servitude, much like my student debts.

The creeping commodification of the ‘space inside our heads’ demands that we be willing to sign over significant rights to our work in order to participate in the professionalization of academic life. Granted, there are occasionally material (more often symbolic) benefits for such exchanges, but it is more often the case that few people can access our research because the publishing logic is more beholden to property concerns than to any notion of the commons or of public good. Such tendencies play into conservative critiques of the academy as willfully obscure, seeking only tenure and cloistered conversation. Granted, there are no shortage of certainly armchair academics who want nothing more than to be insulated from any democratically inclined forms of knowledge production and exchange. Nevertheless, the debate on open access continues to displace the slowly yawning gap between the model of traditional publishing and patronage and the willingness of more and more knowledge workers to seek their own open source outlets, like blogs and open source journals. On the other side of things, debates regarding the admissibility of such publications for professional ‘credit’ also continue.

What does all this add up to when we consider Aaron Swartz’s suicide? We should not yield to the narrative which suggests that it is the U.S. Attorney and MIT alone are the agents of his death. Surely, they have blood on their hands. Perhaps it is more relevant to point out that their actions create and maintain a normalized atmosphere of suspicion regarding open uses of the internet and participatory forms of knowledge production. Along with corporate interests, the state creates the very conditions in which Swartz can be suspected as a terrorist whose ‘intended’ crime is dissemination of goods temporarily or normatively in the public realm. The role of temporality and transferability of rights is one central theoretical question: If Swartz – or any member of the public – is afforded the right to access information, is the expectation that it will remain ‘within’ their head? One powerfully mundane analogy asks how Swartz’s actions are any different than taking too many books out of the library. The sins of the curious. Yielding the causality of Swartz’s death to the state or corporate interests misses sidesteps the potentiality that his willful act serves as a call to action on information sharing, non-commodified knowledge production, open source platforms, and anti-authoritarian spaces, digital and otherwise.

The vast global archive of scientific, creative, and philosophical research should not be enclosed by a few private corporations so that they can continue to collude with universities to squeeze every possible drop of profit from an activity that is quite deliberately poorly adapted to market logic. I will not launch into a Sorkin-esque defense of academia for itself. Instead, I’ll offer an anecdote: I just came from a meeting with a mentor who made it clear to me that our ability to translate our work ‘outside’ the academy is critical to any scholarly praxis. What we do indeed does matter and the production of knowledge is a concrete activity with concrete results: our writing and our concepts. I know many academics who do not hold these as precious jewels or museum pieces, they want them to be susceptible to the world, to be vulnerable to use and misuse, to be circulated, stolen, hijacked, transformed, operationalized, and remixed. The logic of the market demands that we undervalue our work because it often isn’t produced according to profit models and because it isn’t visible. (Unlike a financial instrument? A derivative? A laborer in a windowless factory?) Meanwhile, market logics overtake university labor practices and create all sorts of concrete instances of commodification of knowledge and academic labor at individual institutions. We must continually name and refuse these logics to the best of our abilities, as

Aaron refused it.

Academics often engage in parallel universes. One of my old professors used to refer to us as the ‘dominated wing of the dominant class.’ We continue to seek acknowledged publications because we know they are necessary to compete and because they bring needed recognition and praise from our peers. Alongside the publish or perish game, many of us engage in informal information sharing, self-publication, facebook quoting, tumblr mashups, twitter conversations, and all sorts of other more-or-less open source exchanges and playful perversions of proper knowledge. In many ways, this is not different from pre-internet academic life, though we now ostensibly have more options. If this is the case, why does the pressure seem so much higher than our mentors and brass-ring-holding advisors remember? We’re dealing not only with the particular internal politics of an institution and the more amorphous dynamics of ‘a discipline,’ but also with the hysterical shrieking of profit-motive and metric-based managerial logics imposed on academic work models.

There are no obvious actions to resist the late liberal saturation of academia. This is why Swartz’s seppuku speaks so powerfully and so clearly. It is unthinkable and irrational, it is beyond comprehension that such a brilliant and visionary young activist would kill himself on the basis of suspicion alone. The whole cultural logic of suicide seems inappropriate to his action. We cannot read Swartz’s death as a ‘mere suicide’ – with all the guilt that carries – as this only reinforces the anti-terror discourse. If the system works today, it works because it prevented crime. This is not how it was designed. Swartz’s suicide challenges us to see that the black and white veneer of Justice thinly covers a very real and vast middle ground in which state, institutional, and corporate pressure can impose silence and fear upon anyone seeking to exercise their curiosity to the maximum extent of the law.

If this all seems a bit paranoid, read up on CISPA.

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