A tribute to Aaron Swartz

James Anderson is a Ph.D student in Mass Communications and Media Arts at the Southern Illinois University Carbondale. His research interests include social movements, critical pedagogy and political economy. In his guest post for RE.FRAMING ACTIVISM, James pays tribute to the cyber activist Aaron Swartz.

“Information is power,” cyber activist Aaron Swartz wrote in his Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto.  Crucially, he added, “But like all power there are those who want to keep it for themselves.” Swartz helped develop the RSS web application at the age of 14, served as early architect in creating the Creative Commons alternative to copyright, co-founded Reddit, constructed a vast online public library for all at archive.org and was one of the most vocal and committed opponents to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) — a particularly draconian piece of legislation that was defeated by a ground swelling of grassroots activism.

Swartz was a committed social justice advocate.  He committed suicide January 11 at the age of 26.

Legal scholar Lawrence Lessig called him “brilliant, and funny. A kid genius. A soul, a conscience,” and said that he was “driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying. Richard Stallman, prolific computer programmer and famed “hacktivist” pinpointed a particular kind of bullying in his renowned essay, Misinterpreting Copyright: A Series of Errors. To the point, “publishers call people who copy ‘pirates,’ a smear term designed to equate sharing information with your neighbour with attacking a ship,” Stallman wrote. “This rhetoric directly rejects the constitutional basis for copyright, but presents itself as representing the unquestioned tradition of the American legal system.”

Publishers’ sales are thus equated with public concerns.  Increasingly extended copyright provisions today perform similar functions, channelling George Orwell to invert common understandings with Orwellian talk designed to confuse people, enclose common (shared or potentially shared) social spaces, thwart innovations, stultify ideas and limit collective creativity.

These are bullying practices and policies that put profits over people.

Another example includes the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which Stallman argues, “was designed to bring back copy protection (which computer users detest) by making it a crime to break copy protection, or even publish information about how to break it.”

“This law ought to be called the ‘Domination by Media Corporations Act,'” Stallman said, “because it effectively offers publishers the chance to write their own copyright law.”

In a 2003 Florida Law Review transcription Lessig took a similar position. He describes how an owner of a $1300 Sony AIBO dog tinkered with his pup to teach it to dance jazz. So strong was this man’s love for jazz (or techno-dogs dancing) and his impulse to share that he posted an explanation of how to do the hack on his website.  As a result Sony sent him a letter saying, “Your site contains information providing the means to circumvent AIBO ware’s copy protection protocol constituting a violation of the anti-circumvention provisions of a law called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.”

In effect, the DMCA takes the concept of bullying to new domains.  It prohibits the “fair use” of works that even draconian copyright restrictions would permit.  Not only does DMCA unfairly threaten “fair use” provisions, but it potentially threatens the public’s inalienable rights to see many robot dogs dance.

That is the sort of bullying and injustice we cannot stand.

If this is the kind of digital revolution we are being sold, then I’m not buying it. As the famous Lithuanian political activist Emma Goldman reportedly once proclaimed, “A revolution without dancing is not a revolution worth having.”

But like over-reaching copyright law, SOPA and DMCA all show, the bullying trajectory is the “revolutionary” path that has thus far prevailed.

And in a monopoly-finance casino capitalist society such as ours, bullies abound.  You find them embodied in the likes of Wall Street financiers who crashed the (admittedly crises prone, highly unequal and outmoded) economy, took billions from the public in bailouts and then rewarded themselves lavishly with bonuses while working people suffered, lost money and in some cases had their homes foreclosed.

The bully bankster brigade at Goldman Sachs  exemplifies this profits-over-people bully ethos.  In addition to being “too-big-too-fail,” the investment bank is also “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money,” Rolling Stone reporter Matt Taibbi wrote in a scathing rebuke of financial thievery.

Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein personifies the process.  Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) called him the “face of class warfare,” after Blankfein stressed the need to “lower people’s expectations” apropos of essential social services provisions like Social Security (which contributes not a penny to the deficit, by the way). To be fair, Blankein has had to lower his own expectations too.

The Toronto Star reported on Dec. 21, 2006 that lovable Lloyd broke the record for the biggest bonus paid to a Wall Street executive when he got $53.4 million from Goldman.  Contrast that with a recent story from the Wall Street Journal claiming that the chief executive is on track to receive a $21 million payday — a paltry sum compared to years past.

Perhaps times are changing in some ways for the better. However serious efforts to concentrate wealth, control information and privatize knowledge to give a privileged few unchecked power undoubtedly persist.

Preeminent journalist, SIUC honorary doctorate holder, owner to the rights of my heart and my unequivocal unrequited love, Amy Goodman, explained in a column for the online news publication Truthdig that many people in Spain have also suffered from bullying austerity policies wrought by the same global crisis of bully capitalism.  Goodman told the story of Amaia Engana who lived in a suburb of Bilbao in Spain’s Basque territory.  Engana faced the harship of homeforeclosure.  She did not want to have her home taken from her so she took her own life,  Goodman reported.

But bullying trends and cruel consequences are not divinely ordained.  In another recent Truthdig article Goodman suggested, “Now the work of movements begins.”

Indeed, Dr. Goodman, my love. As the late Swartz asserted, “we can fight back.” And we have, with considerable success.

The M-15 movement in Spain inveighs against austerity and related direct-action initiatives have thwarted home foreclosures there.  The Occupy Wall Street movement in the US sought to take back the public domain, implement horizontal forms of social organization, practice direct democracy, protest bully banksterism help keep people from being evicted from their homes when they couldn’t pay mortgages and in sum prefigure another (more just) world.

Thanks to activists like Aaron Swartz bills to encroach upon Internet freedoms like SOPA were defeated, keeping doors to that better world open.

In one of his final acts of civil disobedience Swartz used the database at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to download electronic academic articles from the JSTOR corporation’s journal repository with the aim of making them available to everybody — that is, to the public who largely subsidizes the research at MIT and at innumerable other universities throughout the US through their taxpayer dollars.

Swartz was ultimately prevented from releasing the documents.  JSTOR did not try to press charges.  The company acted sensibly in this case, but the same cannot be said for MIT.  Swartz’s family believes the university administration made decisions that contributed to Swartz’s death.

It would not be the first time that a university administration acted in a bullying manner, in accord with business principles.  Anti-democratic decision-making and hierarchical structures at many universities support the bully ethic.  It is what enables gross disparities in pay reflected by a highly skewed pyramid with administrators and board members at the top with their usually very high salaries, often disenfranchised professors in the middle and exploited graduate assistants on the bottom alongside  students who owe $26,000 in debt upon degree completion (that’s the approximate average debt for students in the US after graduation).

Yet just like privatization of the public domain gets protested, so too does covert privatization schemes like skyrocketing costs of tuition and student fees in conjunction with indebtedness that further monopolizes knowledge and opportunities for meaningful work.

With the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and legacy fresh in our minds, one of Dr. King’s quotes rings loud and true: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Still, in a bit of ironic bullying, a video that showed clips of King’s copyrighted “I Have a Dream” speech created to protest copyright law was removed from the web on Friday 18th January 2013 by Vimeo, presumably for copyright violations, the Washington Post reported. In a public appearance Swartz’s girlfriend recounted how she would often urge him to take a break from all-consuming social activism to do something that would make him happy.  She said he replied that he didn’t want to be happy; he wanted to change the world.

Swartz and King did their part.  We have to do ours.  So long as we keep bending that universal arc toward justice, engaging in acts of civil disobedience to preserve and enhance freedoms and equality (in the physical and virtual spheres) like some of those sketched out above — bullies be damned! — something tells me Swartz and King would be happy.



One Comment Add yours

  1. Gary Bratchford says:

    Great piece James!
    I am due to present a paper at Carbondale Univeristy in october at the “Envisioning Peace, Performing Justice: Art, Activism, and Cultural Politics in the History of Peacemaking” conference. I hope to see you there maybe?

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