I tend to be a late adopter when it comes to new technology. It took me way too long to make the shift from vinyl to CDs and later – much later than most DJs- from CDs to DJ software and programmers for mixing music. When it comes to news and media consumption well, I’ve only recently discovered the joys of RSS. Those joys coupled with a new Chromebook effectively spawned this blog. And man am I excited about blogging now. (Like it’s something new, right?) I suspect my recent and rather unintentional stumble into a digital identity and the excitement I get from maintaining an online presence has something to do with an idea that I began to explore in my last post. I don’t mean to get all Tom-Friedman-the-world-is-flat on you, but how can I look at the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, and the Obama campaign’s use of information technology and not think that the cybergeeks of the world have – whether intentional or not – made for some pretty unstable footing for the powers that be? (Yes, I know that the Obama administration is one of the powers that be.) How can I not think that information technology can play as great a role in ensuring and expanding civil liberties as it does to impinge on them? And how can I help but feel empowered, however slightly, now that I’ve caught up with the rest of you and discovered a social media platform that’s actually meant for sorting out my thoughts, dialoging, and gettin’ shit done when the time calls for it – even if I am yelling into the abyss? I know, I know, slacktivist and all that or – even worse – it’s just a new form of control yielding an even more one-dimensional society. Could be that social media really just lulls us further into complacency and inaction as I’m sure a number of my conspiracy theorizing friends would tell me. But I don’t know. I’m of the mindset that technological advancement is not inherently biased toward one class or another. Though I suppose that’s only in a vacuum. In reality, where the conditions of freedom and liberty are molded and formed by countless external variables, it’s the bias of social and economic policy alongside the make up of our institutions that determine the role that technology will play. So that’s the question, does social media in our current social arrangement expand or inhibit civil liberty? Which brings me to Aaron Swartz.
As a teenager Aaron was part of the working group that developed rich site summary also known as real simple syndication – ya know, that thing that I just discovered called RSS. He built Infogami which merged with Reddit, of which he became part owner. He built the architecture for Open Library. He co-founded Demand Progress which helped stop the corporate sponsored bill euphemistically called the Stop Online Piracy Act. And he killed himself last Friday. Though his struggle with depression was well documented in his blog, those closest to him say an overzealous District Attorney and prosecution bear at least some responsibility. Swartz was on trial for his alleged attempt to download and digitally distribute not a small amount of scholarly papers only accessible to the public via the fee based JSTOR. It should also be noted that Swartz is alleged to have broken into an MIT data closet where he downloaded millions of these articles directly to his laptop. Take the time to read Glenn Greenwald on this.
I’m not going to deny that I’m a bit of a Johnny-come-lately to Aaron’s story. The truth is, I didn’t even know his name until this past Monday. But his life and his actions crystalize an idea that I’ve been trying to get at for a while now, and yes, I’m going back to guns. The open source movement that Swartz played such a vital role in forming is truly revolutionary. He believed that information – not guns, not high capacity magazines, and certainly not your AR-15 – engenders liberty. He believed that the current arrangement of social media and our social institutions was not one in which technology was unbiased – that in it, information would be mined as a resource just as our healthcare has been and that it would simply bring more money and more power to those who already had plenty to spare. It was his life’s mission to change that. He held the truly revolutionary idea that everyone should have the right to access any and all information. And when I think about it, yeah, that does sound dangerous. But so does the second amendement.