Jan 20, 2013

 The Open Conversation 

of the Internet

-- the Tragedy of Aaron Swartz

For days now, I have been haunted by the story behind the suicide of Aaron Swartz, who killed himself a week ago Friday in his Brooklyn apartment, pushed to the wall by a savage attack on his character, not to mention his finances and a possible long-term future in jail, by the U.S. Attorney’s office for downloading documents at MIT’s research library.   I think his life – and tragic young death  – has something to do with innovative thinking in this culture.  And it therefore has something to do with the cutting-edge arts that is a topic of this blog. 

And it has to do with the future of our internet, which should also be a topic of this blog.  

Software innovator, multi-disciplinary genius, maverick thinker and American activist, Aaron Swartz was one of those rare human beings who had a life calling apparently before he was even a man – as a young teen.  I won’t rehearse his technological accomplishments; they are well reviewed and known.  But his principle interest in life – from all I have read and watched on an internet whose freedom he helped to save when our corporation-hugging Congress nearly passed the so-called “anti-piracy” act that would have killed much of our internet freedom – has been, was, to help humanity from its own savage thickets. 

His main focus in life was to keep us talking freely – to keep the sharing of real information and interactive technology alive.  

I have read and listened to the stories and accounts of his deeds and supposed “crimes.”  And it seems this beautiful young man who died at 26 only wanted us all – he was thinking globally -- to read as widely as possible,  to be free to ask questions and to think thoughts as large as Swartz’s own mind.

I write this caged in a French apartment in the beautiful but politically conservative southern region of the Alpes Maritimes, where one would think full or partial nudity on its beaches in the summer time is an indication of a freer version of civil rights.  It is not.  I am “caged,” by choice -- because it is pouring droves of rain from the mountains to the coastlines as far as the Goggle Maps can see.  There is no driving out of this torrent in an ancient Renault car so old it itself leaks inside in the rain.  So we wait indoors for the usual golden-azure suns to come back to this winter Mediterranean climate. 

But I only wish the politics here were as golden as its usual sun.  Petty, corrupt – the politicians are driven by local mafias and the filling of the coffers of local politicians.  But don’t they have newspapers, you might say?  Don’t they report the corruption from time to time?  Frankly, no.  The local papers especially only exist to support the tourist industry, like a squad of money-cheerleaders.  I’ve even seen them change bad weather reports at the height of the beach season.   Don’t they have the internet, you might ask?  Again, if you are lucky enough to get a good signal – the national company France Orange is not noted for its wifi consistency – the French at least in this part of the world are about 10 years behind in the intelligent use of the ULR. 

Is there any relationship between the availability of discussion and information and the elements of political conservatism and the racism I have noted outside my dripping rainy door? 

I think there is.  I think societies with open discussion -- one facilitated by a healthy internet -- have to progress to the next step.  They have to progress to allow “otherness” to wane in favor of an expanded notion of subjectivity in the context of collectivity.   Racism here -- in one major example of an anti-progressive social impetus in this region in and around the city of Nice -- is pretty much the norm among the white French, obviously with many exceptions.  The white French live side by side with more recent Arab and/or African immigrant populations from formerly French colonies.  Yet African-French typically live in their own districts – I’ve even seen them on separatist beaches in the summer time, reminiscent of American’s Jim Crow period.  This separatism is not “legal” or “official” as it once was in the American south but is in fact enforced by social and political ostracism and isolation by the power structure in this region.  The southern white French are actually ridding some of their neighborhoods of the local Arabs through various means, some legal, some not.  (American cities do this through gentrification.)  This racism seems intensified to me in recent years, or at least as I have observed it.

So here among usually ravenously beautiful skies and open seacoasts and villages that go back to Roman and Greek (and Lugurian) cultures, contemporary money and power -- as usual -- writes history.  And "history" as a setting, along with an unusual scenic beauty that is nature's gift to the south of France, is used for the attraction of money, which comes from the more affluent (and usually white) tourists.    No one who profits from this tourist-driven economy here wants to confront ideas.  People might start to think.  

Watching Amy Goodman’s "Democracy Now" on the Aaron Swartz story – a link sent to me by poet James Sherry – and today watching the memorial service for Aaron at historic Cooper Union’s Great Hall in New York leaves me wondering at the efficacy of either historical settings or our global privileges.  Even those of us who "get around," and who make contact with multiple and various cultures, find blocks that prevent us from opening ourselves to others.  Aaron seemed at root to be a young man wishing to destroy those blocks.  He seemed to wish that we of the global economy have open conversations.  Did he know how dangerous those open conversations can be, and who gains by keeping the conversations closed?

Did this idealistic person know who and what he was up against?   

Swartz was most concerned about our ability to open ourselves to ourselves -- and saw the internet as a great opportunity for human sharing, of ideas and knowledge.   He was concerned,  as I have heard and read,  for the rural woman in India and her future ability to use new software to grow a small business that will lead her family out of poverty.   Technology in the global world is not a luxury but a necessity.  He recognized that fact.  And he was concerned about the ability of millions around the world who cannot pay Jstor’s hefty “use” fees, who do not have access to academic libraries to read or review articles written by the academic intellectual powerhouses of the now globally connected world.  These are articles today largely written by people like my friends and colleagues – and myself – people who have jobs as university professors at research institutions.  We write and publish, as well as teach.  We publish normally without any kind of authorial payment for these "academic" works.

We write from a love of knowledge and discovery that eventually, over time, produces them.  We write, also, because it is our university job to do so.  It is hard work, I can say from experience, to create even one academically sound article.  It can take years, actually -- and a lot of midnight oil.  Our time for this is partially, sometimes, not always, modestly compensated for by our higher-education institutions that give us salaries in the form of, say, a course release from teaching one semester.  Research funding varies.  Some researchers are not helped or compensated at all.  Research in the Humanities, these days, is considered a privilege to do -- we are rarely if ever adequately compensated for our effort and time. 

The connecting link to my weaving of these issues and stories:  intellectual thought -- and access, access, access.

Openness.  To others.   The sharing of information and ideas in a global community that must do this -- or perish.

I have heard that Jstor, which is the on-line storage for academic articles, is non-profit.  Then – why the usage fees by Jstor to libraries around the world?  These fees are not nothing.  They are not affordable for most regular folks.  And most of us cannot afford to purchase  a single article on line, say,  at $35 a pop.  Why such fees when academic authors never charge for their labor?  How much did it cost the academic journal in the first place to publish the article -- say, if it was originally a paper journal?   Journals, too, are usually funded by academic institutions, many if not most of which are in turn funded by the public.  How can Jstor continue to "pass on" such expense that, in fact, was largely publically funded to begin with?   They are certainly not paying writer costs (or royalties).  These do not exist for academic articles, at least in the Humanities.  As an academic as well as a poet, I do not understand how my intellectual articles can be “locked up” – or “caged” – by corporate profit-making deals when I myself never received an ounce of payment for them.   (Nor did I ask for payment.  That was never the goal or the point.)

What comes from the public should return to the public.  This is how Aaron Swartz viewed this situation.  As he argued in his activist speeches and in writing, research now hidden in academic libraries and unavailable to general readers without academic paid-for privileges inherently belongs to the public -- and the world.  So how in the world – how in our world– did Jstor or any university (like MIT)  “get possession” of our collective work and keep it captive?

Possession is nine-tenths of the law, my husband used to like to say when telling the story of how he acquired the lease on his New York apartment.   That story goes like this:   he was running a restaurant in the 1970’s in our current apartment building, on the ground floor.  A man died upstairs.  He and his partner “broke in” and “took possession.”  Eventually, he got a lease.   

So what does it mean to "take possession" of someone’s intellectual property?  Did someone break in?Or did someone simply steal it?  This hypothetical person was not Aaron Swartz.  This is property that, in fact, was concocted and brewed -- most often at taxpayer’s and an author's own expense so that the public world and culture itself could prosper.  It’s a beautiful thing – that we still have this academic work out there.  Unfortunately it’s being restricted now in a different (but perhaps related) way:  because in a few years -- since so many universities like my own, CUNY,  are scarcely hiring full-time professors -- we probably won’t have very much of this research and writing in scholarly journals any more.  Certainly not in the Humanities, if this trend continues.   Adjuncts teaching most of our university classes as part-time faculty -- who have 4,5,6, 7 classes to teach every week at extremely low wages – do not have the time to write, to think, to publish what might be important cutting-edge and labor-intensive work.  Yes, there is a lot of junk out there spewed by the academic journals and presses.  But if there is one gem in every 10, or even 20 or 30 articles published, that gem is worth it.  That "gem" just might revolutionize our thinking about ourselves, our sciences, our art forms.  Doesn’t that make the entire enterprise of academic publishing and access to such work worth thinking about and protecting? 

Is there any connection to the restriction of intellectual materials through lack of access in the current times and the failure to replenish shrinking university faculties?  I think there is.  (I’ll bet Aaron would have gotten that connection, too.)

Back to the specific tragedy of Aaron's death  – and the tragedy his suicide outlines in horrific relief:  who gets to read what intellectuals and scientists write and research?  Who has the access not only to that “information,” but ideas crucial to our intellectual-cultural survival?  What happened to the idea Ben Franklin posited of “the public library”?  Why are we moving the other way?  And why is it that the corporate structure has taken over yet another arm and leg of our social infrastructure:  our very capacity to read, learn and think -- and exchange ideas?

Swartz was trying to change what has been happening to knowledge and information – and perhaps intellectual life itself -- in the corporate-driven age.  The internet was both his vehicle and metaphor.

His fundamental “crime”,  to rehearse again this part of the tragic story, was to download a huge number of Jstor files at MIT and leave his computer doing this in a utility closet.  From the stories I’ve listened to and read, especially a chief witness who was about to testify at his scheduled April federal criminal trial and featured on "Democracy Now,"  Swartz did nothing wrong.   MIT’s system was so open – a historical policy of access, I’ve heard? –  that Swartz did not have to lie or steal or do any thing actually illegal.  And yet MIT allowed the U.S. Attorney in its Massachusetts district throw the book at Swartz when he downloaded an excessive number of articles (a number that was never restricted officially by MIT to begin with), and try to convict him as an illegal hacker and felon.  Because he would not sign off to 6 months in jail and acknowledge himself for the rest of his still-young life as such a criminal felon – because maybe he actually wasn’t one, he was a young idealist, for heaven's sake -- the U.S. Attorney used all its considerable (tax-payer supported) apparatus to hound this young man – literally to death.

Shouldn’t young Aaron, the activist, have taken his hits and just ridden along with the mud-slinging going on through the trial?  Of course one wishes he had done so.  Yet,  anyone who’s been through even the smallest legal matter – in my case,  a tiny little federal Civil Rights lawsuit for gender discrimination at my publically owned institution, eventually settled in my favor after a lot of melodrama and upset  – can testify what it is like to be the David against the Goliath.  And slingshots don’t work when you’re the little one against, say, an institution that gets free legal services from New York State or any public agency.  Those folks representing state or federal legal offices need have little accountability.  They spend the resources; the tax coffers are forced to refill them.  One has to see these offices in action to believe how this works.  There is no consequence -- like running out of money -- to encourage the dropping of a shaky case.  The system has become counter-intuitive.  

These legal Goliaths become monsters that have no incentive to play the game fairly, to be reasonable, balanced,  humane.   One could only wish -- again -- that Aaron’s case could have gotten much wider publicity before he chose to take his life in desperation and despair.  Perhaps MIT would have requested that the Attorney General drop all charges.

What did provoke the U.S. Attorney’s office in Massachusetts to go after Aaron Swartz like the serial felon he was not, or would never be?   And why didn't MIT refuse to press charges when Swartz returned his downloaded documents – gained by seemingly legal means -- at Jstor’s request?  Jstor refused to press charges, to its considerable credit. 

One legal-technology expert likened Swartz’s so-called “crime” to inconsiderately borrowing too many books.  I know that inconsiderate type.  Been one myself.  One simply pays the library fine. 

I think Swartz having his hand slapped would have been “fine” enough.  Not the threat of most of his youth in prison!

I did not know him.  But I wish I had.  I weep for his parents, his siblings, his partner, his incredibly idealistic and brilliant friends who’ve been on and over our internet waves these last several days articulating this story and the serious issues it raises for all of our intellectual lives and the future of culture in the internet age – all the while much of the mainstream media ignores or underplays what is essentially a tale of betrayal and complicity.  How hard must we make it for our young and most brilliant – to me, he was still a boy, younger than my own -- to simply be who they must be:  the best of us  -- as human beings?
-- LH