Vale Aaron Swartz

The death of Aaron Swartz marks the end of an era — an era that had been slowly fading away until his passing gave it a terrible, sudden finality.

We rarely speak of that era now, because it is still so fresh in the memory of some us, while others don’t remember it at all. It was an exciting time to be alive: the Internet was connecting everyone, everywhere, for the first time. Antiquated browsers like mosaic were giving way to newer software which made the impossible possible: people could look at pictures over the Internet. Text was still king, usenet was still thriving, but the possibilities seemed limitless. If you have a technical question, you could find the answer online, without asking anyone about it. Wikipedia was a place where massive flamewars raged across talk pages, carefully crafted entries were replaced by the word ‘boobies’, and a random passerby might start a page on France because nobody had written anything about that yet. People were ambivalent about the introduction of the .com domain and what it might mean for the web. There were rumors that Steve Jobs might return to Apple. No one understood Netflix’s business model — they’d give you three CDs you could keep as long as you wanted, but they still charged you every month? Friends asked each other whether Amazon actually sent the books you ordered or if the site was just a giant scam. How did you know that they wouldn’t just use you credit card once they had it? Cell phones were shrinking in size and some, it was rumored, had a special mechanism to send messages to one another, a protocol somewhere between email and IRC. ‘Doing research on the Internet’ meant being familiar with the subject hierarchy at Yahoo. If you wanted an email address, you installed sendmail on the computer in your office and give yourself your own email address — your university didn’t offer it. Today, if you ask the Internet a question there is one right answer, fifteen wrong answers, and seven mediocre answers hidden behind ads and mandatory email registration. It was a simpler, more ambitious era.

Back then, people were putting information on the Internet in case anyone was curious. The blogosphere was small, your site had to be rebuilt every time you posted an entry, and people read and talked about each other’s posts. Unkempt, acronym’d heroes like ESR and RMS became famous not just for their software, but for analyzing society as if it were software. No one was sure whether this was the end or the beginning of capitalism, but we knew that the old guard was out to stop us. There was an endless amount of low-hanging fruit to be plucked, an infinite number of ways to make the world a better place. All that was needed was elbow grease.

Aaron Swartz was literally the poster boy for this movement. He was the kid who was smarter than he had any right to be leading a cultural movement full of people who had been kids smarted than they had any right to be. He wrote vulnerable, naive, scandalously unwise blog posts at a time when people regularly blogged their breakups and hookups because they figured no one would find the blog, or be able to identify the author if they did. He was brilliant but uncredentialed, the ultimate triumph of substance over hierarchical authority. Today, the word ‘geek’ means “I play video games when its not football season”. Today it is difficult to imagine the original, Aaron Swartz meaning of the term — obese, deeply unkempt men desperate to meet girls but scarily incompetent at face to face interaction, people who refused to trim their mustache no matter how far it extended over their lip. These were the people who, somehow and for some reason, were going to change the world.

I wanted to be one of those people but never was — I was an extrovert who specialized in typos, the two things that disbarred you from membership in the coding crowd. I never met Aaron Swartz or, frankly, followed his career that closely. Leaking PDFs from JSTOR didn’t seem to me like necessarily the right thing to do — and certainly not the smartest. The prosecution and suicide of Aaron Swartz shows us just how far we’ve come from the era when a teenager could design RSS. It reminds us that there are real, serious stakes to our fight to make the world a better place by making information free. And it underscores the fact that those who want to stop us are brutal, greedy, and stupid. May his memory be a blessing.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

11 thoughts on “Vale Aaron Swartz

  1. A beautiful elegy. But what shall we do? Mourn and get on with our lives? Is anything else possible?

  2. @Rex:
    “Today, the word ‘geek’ means “I play video games when its not football season”. Today it is difficult to imagine the original, Aaron Swartz meaning of the term — obese, deeply unkempt men desperate to meet girls but scarily incompetent at face to face interaction, people who refused to trim their mustache no matter how far it extended over their lip…

    I wanted to be one of those people but never was…

    The prosecution and suicide of Aaron Swartz shows us just how far we’ve come from the era when a teenager could design RSS. It reminds us that there are real, serious stakes to our fight to make the world a better place by making information free. And it underscores the fact that those who want to stop us are brutal, greedy, and stupid.”

    Given why I post pseudonymously, I am far from unsympathetic to Aaron Swartz’s suicide and the government intimidation tactics which led to it. And yet when I read tributes like yours it is even more upsetting, as I and people like me are reminded that people like you are not simply mourning him for the person he was and the life he lived, his accomplishments and the deep commitment he showed to open access, but you are mourning him be cause be is white and male, a white male like you.

    Your elegy is a reminder of the race/gender conditions and limits of and for sympathy, empathy (ironic given your previous Nazi post on anthropological empathy), and grievability, and the race/gender conditions of and for sufferings intelligibility and the politics of sentimentality: from Rebecca Wanzo’s The Suffering Will Not Be Televised to Judith Butler’s writings on grievability.

    Your wistful reminisces are about the Internet as white and male public space.

    It is all a reminder of Jason Antrosio’s Fame of Sharing post over at Living Anthropologically, querying (among other things) why so many (white) anthropologists care so much and so deeply and blog so much about academic precarity and open access, but have precious little to say about AAA’s ‘anthropology as white public space issues’–though this too is about ‘open access’ and academic precarity. But if one can only care about issues personally affecting one and identify with those seen as versions of one’s self because of dysconscious racism/sexism, then I guess this is to be expected.

    And lastly, interesting the asymmetry of ‘men’ v. ‘girls’, ‘men’ wanting to get ‘girls in your definition of geek. Yeah, reminds me of that T-shirt which says “I’ll be post feminist in the post-patriarchy”.

    Your elegy has been truly apoplexy-inducing, especially in light of the censoring on this site of the DDR or Receivership post. It is bust too easy to write about the big bad government and greedy corporations as the forces of evil, but it is not a truly intellectually-honest anthropological critique of power and the agents of silencing and intimidation. Especially in light of the conversation in response to Ryan’s “Stop the Silence” post, on how universities silence dissent. MIT was happy to see the government go ahead with its prosecution if Swartz, after all; and did not make clear it wanted the charges dropped, as as J-Stor did. Plenty of academic values about academic hierarchies and disciplining those who challenge them are also part of this very sad story. And to the extent that this is the case, a larger conversation about silencing in and by universities is also worth having.

    My deepest sympathies to Adam Swartz’s friends and family. Truly.

    But if ‘we’ are going to fight for open access, let’s stop pretending that uncritically reproducing white/male online public space is not also an ‘open access’ issue.

  3. Yes, stop mourning: act. Stop obsessing about tenure, publish your best work open-access. Donate. Stop even debating interminably about OA. Do something concrete with your own capital (scholastic, labor or financial).

  4. “Discuss white privilege” Wow, such ramblings. No connections. How can you assume that he “mourns” because they share a “white male” connection? Quite a large assumption without any explanation. How do you claim the internet is white male space? I thought the early days of perceived anonymity made it available to everyone? Or are you stereotyping all early users as white kids with parents that could afford to buy computers in the past? Please clarify if you want to be understood.

  5. Actually, Dusty, not ‘ramblings’ at all. You need to read more carefully. Especially since I started by excerpting the specific lines from Rex’s post with which I was taking issue due to their implicit race/explicit gender assumptions. Read more carefully.

  6. Also, Dusty, doesn’t seem like you actually read the Jason Antrosio post on Fame of Sharing, or it should be pretty clear why I was referring to Internet (as) white male public space. Read carefully next time, please.

  7. If Dusty’s question about the anonymity of the Internet supposedly meaning it is not also white male-dominated space is sincerely asked, it could be the genesis for an interesting conversation. There should be enough media anthropologists out there capable of addressing this assumption and why it problematic, naive at best.

    But the real question is if Dusty’s question was sincerely asked. Especially since I was pretty clear to list the sources for the connections and claims I was making such that my comment was clearly not disconnected ramblings, or based on stereotyping white kids (goog joke, though!):
    Was Dusty’s question sincerely asked, was it trolling?:
    “And what trolls do is engage in behaviors that are gendered male, raced as white, and marked by privilege.”
    http://ethnographymatters.net/2013/01/08/ethnography-and-the-troll-space-workarounds-discipline-jumping-and-ethical-pitfalls-1-of-3/

    Given that this is one of the most prominent anthropology blogs, what is going on with Dusty’s questions/response? Or to put it differently, maybe it is worth thinking more seriously about what constitutes an anthropological critique, and the necessity to debunk the very fallacious idea that everything people do they do because of motivations they are explicitly consciously aware of. So yes, Dusty, start with this question, because it directly relates to the question you have posed about why I have raised the issue of Rex’s white male identifications and the sympathies they produce. Then please read Catherine Lutz’s book Unnatural Sentiments for a nice discussion of how emotions are an index of social relation(s) and orient us to and away from things.

    How’s that for clarity, Dusty? Hope it clears up why I directly referred to Rebecca Wanzo’s work on the politics of sentimentality, and Judith Butler’s on grid ability.

    And not to be snarky to a non-troll, Dusty, but always good to at least check out the authors a person references in their comment, before you decide and public announce that you don’t understand what they’ve written and are thus labeling the comment ‘ramblings’.

  8. Grid ability should read ‘grievability’. Bad autocorrect.

    Also, should have written ‘good joke’, not goog joke. Wouldn’t want autocorrect typos to result in ‘ramblings’ confusion.

  9. And for the specific Rex post on empathy to which I was referring: http://savageminds.org/2012/04/03/empathy-or-seeing-from-within/

    Rex, if you make a point of making it clear tat you do not have respect for some people because of race/gender, and do not extend the empathy that you counsel others to have, it should not be surprising if your comment stream encourages trolling practices intended to reinforce white male privilege, or silence those who legitimately raise it as an issue in direct relation to what you have written.

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