Aaron Swartz: the last hacker?

Book Review: The boy who could change the world: the writings of Aaron Swartz (Jed Bickman, editor). The New Press, 2015)

There is a mystique surrounding the young hacker that turns society upside down by his knowledge of technology. Aaron Swartz was seen to incarnate the hacker ideal’s blend of youthful naivety, savvy idealism and aptitude.

A self-educated computer prodigy, Swartz as a teenager befriends important minds such as the lawyer and political activist Lawrence Lessig and Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web. He was involved in developing the RSS web feed format, the Creative Commons organization, and the Reddit social news site. By selling his part of the latter company in 2006, Swartz obtains the money to become one of the most prolific radical public-interest activists.

In January 2011 Swartz was arrested by the MIT police on breaking-and-entering charges, in connection with his systematic downloading of academic journal articles from behind the paywall of the JSTOR database. It was a badly planned action ending in tragedy.

Charged by the US federal government with multiple felonies of wired and computer fraud, he faced a possible 35 years prison sentence and up to one million dollars in fines. Pressured by the psychological and financial strain of his legal defence, Aaron Swartz hanged himself on January 11, 2013 in his Brooklyn apartment. He was then 26 years old, and had previously considered suicide when suffering of boredom and ulcerative colitis.

Through his death Swartz became a folk hero for the hacker community, “the internet’s own boy” that chose sticking to the freedom of the internet before the Silicon Valley money.

Unfortunately, The boy who could change the world does not give us this backstory. The book is a collection of posts from his blog, with some essays and interviews interspersed. Swartz’s luminary acquaintances such as his mentor Lessig, author Cory Doctorow and filmmaker Astra Taylor write introductions to the sections.

The book presents the texts out of chronological order. Ranging from web posts written at the age of 14 to lectures given close to the time of his death, this makes it difficult to understand Swartz’s developments.

Organizations intrigued him. How should campaigns and reforms be effectuated for efficiency?

The range of topics is too vast. The main sections are free culture, various aspects of computer technology, politics and activism, his criticism of mainstream media and of the educational system. The fragmentation is difficult to read and follow, perhaps mimicking in part Swartz’s mind at times. He was a polymath, but left some issues behind. Towards the end of his life progressive political philosophy interested him more than computer programming and copyright activism.

Organizations intrigued him. How should campaigns and reforms be effectuated for efficiency? Technology does not solve problems on its own, people decide what purposes technology should be used for. Transparency is not enough, collaboration must be enabled by a “bottom up” approach.

His left-wing political views sees intellectual property and copyright as a deprivation by creating an artificial scarcity of information, which has a connection with his admiration for economist John Maynard Keynes’ policy of government simply printing more money to get out of a recession. Noam Chomsky’s views on mainstream media and the elite seem to have made a major impact on Swartz.

At the age of 19, Swartz writes about what legacy he would like to leave. The real question, he ascertains, is not the effect of one’s work, but what things would be like if no action had been taken.

The boy who could change the world shows that internet policy is changing. This is visible in a long text about the campaign to block the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). He writes about the difficulties of the activists to gain traction in Congress, while not touching upon what constituted the turning point. It was Google entering the fray, bringing decisive resources and political clout to the anti-SOPA side. Could Swartz’s actions make a change in this new environment?

The reader gets to know Aaron Swartz thoughts, but loses sight of him as a phenomenon. His thoughts are certainly passionate, sometimes surprisingly insightful and the result of an inquisitive mind. But also obviously springing from a youthful mind, with a streak of inexperience and impatience.

The hacker ideal will likely live on, but the story of Aaron Swartz would gain from reflecting more of his legacy’s shades of grey.