As a computer programmer, Swartz changed the internet forever and fiercely fought against the privatization of knowledge. The federal government persecuted him for it until his death by suicide in 2013.
BY MAXIMILLIAN ALVAREZ JANUARY 11, 2023 (therealnews.com)
Photo of programmer and activist Aaron Swartz outside in Cambridge, Massachusetts, taken on Aug. 31, 2007. Photo by Wendy Maeda/The Boston Globe via Getty Images.
Jan. 11, 2023 marks the tenth anniversary of the death of Aaron Swartz. Swartz had a prolific career as a computer programmer: At the age of 12 he created The Info Network, a user-generated encyclopedia widely credited as a precursor to Wikipedia. Swartz’s later work would transform the internet as we know it. He helped co-found Reddit, developed the RSS web feed format, and helped lay the technical foundations of Creative Commons, “a global nonprofit organization that enables sharing and reuse of creativity and knowledge through the provision of free legal tools.” In 2011, Swartz was arrested and indicted on federal charges after downloading a large number of academic articles from the website JSTOR through the MIT network. A year later, prosecutors added an additional nine felony counts against Swartz, ultimately threatening him with a million dollars in fines and up to 35 years in prison. Swartz was found dead in his Brooklyn apartment from suicide on Jan. 11, 2013. TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez speaks with the co-hosts of the Srsly Wrong podcast, Shawn Vulliez and Aaron Moritz, about the life and legacy of Aaron Swartz.
Pre-Production: James Daley
Post-Production: Jules Taylor
Maximillian Alvarez: Welcome, everyone, to The Real News Network podcast. My name is Maximilian Alvarez, I’m the editor-in-chief here at The Real News, and it’s so great to have you all with us. The Real News is an independent, viewer supported, nonprofit media network. We don’t do ads and we don’t take corporate cash, which is why we need each one of you to support our work so we can keep covering the voices and issues you care about most. So please take a moment and click on the link in the show notes or head on over to therealnews.com/support and become a monthly sustainer of our work. And a huge shout out to all of our members who already contribute.
Jan. 11, 2023 marks the 10 year anniversary of the death of Aaron Swartz. Swartz was a prolific computer programmer, an activist, a prodigy. By the time he was just 12 years old, Swartz created The Info Network, a user generated encyclopedia that is widely credited as a precursor to Wikipedia. When he was in his teens, he was involved in the founding of the website Reddit. He helped develop the RSS web feed format, and the technical architecture for Creative Commons, a global nonprofit organization that enables sharing and reuse of creativity and knowledge through the provision of free legal tools. Throughout his life, Swartz remained a fierce opponent to the enclosure of knowledge for the sake of profit and control. He was a generation-defining advocate for the democratization of information and access to that information, and for the not yet fulfilled promise of the digital age to bring humanity closer than we’ve ever been to realizing that goal.
And like so many other whistleblowers and advocates fighting for the public to know what the public has an inalienable right to know, from Chelsea Manning, Daniel Hale, and Reality Winner, to Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, Aaron Swartz was persecuted by our government and vilified by many in the media, all for the crime of downloading too many academic journal articles from the website JSTOR, including many that were in the public domain, from a building on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Refusing to accept a guilty plea bargain, Aaron faced trumped-up charges by an Obama-led Department of Justice looking to make an example out of him. In July of 2011, he was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, and recklessly damaging a protected computer. Then in September the following year, federal prosecutors filed a superseding indictment, adding nine additional felony counts, increasing his potential prison time if convicted. And then on Jan. 11, 2013, Aaron was found dead in his Brooklyn apartment after taking his own life.
As the great writer, activist, and friend of Swartz, Cory Doctorow wrote in a blog post the day after Swartz’s death, “Aaron snuck into MIT and planted a laptop in a utility closet, used it to download a lot of journal articles, many in the public domain, and then snuck in and retrieved it. This sort of thing is pretty par for the course around MIT. And though Aaron wasn’t an MIT student, he was a fixture in the Cambridge hacker scene, and associated with Harvard, and generally part of the gang. And Aaron hadn’t done anything with the articles yet, so it seemed likely that it would all just fizzle out.
“Instead, they threw the book at him. Even though MIT and JSTOR, the journal publisher, backed down, the prosecution kept on. I heard lots of theories. The feds who tried unsuccessfully to nail Swartz for the PACER RECAP stunt had a serious hate-on for him. The feds were chasing down all the Cambridge hackers who had any connection to Chelsea Manning in the hopes of turning one of them, and other less credible theories. Aaron had an unbeatable combination of political insight, technical skill, and intelligence about people and issues. I think he could have revolutionized American and worldwide politics. His legacy may still yet do so.”
Now, I never had the chance to know Aaron personally, but as someone who works in digital media, I’m reminded every single day about the debt that we all owe to Aaron. About how much worse things would be if we weren’t fortunate enough to have him with us for 26 years, however short they were. And I’m reminded of the duty we all have to carry on his fight.
To commemorate the anniversary of Swartz’s death, I recorded a special conversation for The Real News podcast with Shawn Vulliez and Aaron Moritz, the brilliant hosts of the SRSLY Wrong podcast, and co-creators of the animated series, Papa & Boy on Means TV. Frankly, we didn’t know if it would be right or appropriate to have Aaron, Shawn, and I try to recount Aaron Swartz’s life and to go through beat-by-beat the federal government’s persecution of Swartz. And if you are looking for that kind of breakdown, I would highly encourage you to check out the documentary which is titled The Internet’s Own Boy, which in characteristic Swartzian fashion, is freely available to watch online.
In this conversation, though, Aaron, Shawn, and I reflect on Swartz’s impact on our own lives and on the world we live in today, and we examine the Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto, which was written in 2008, and bears Swartz’s name on the byline. And we hope that this conversation will at least be a worthwhile tribute to Aaron Swartz and the movement that he helped grow. So as always, I want to thank all of you for listening, and thank you for caring. And without further ado, here’s my conversation with Aaron and Shawn from the SRSLY Wrong podcast.
Shawn Vulliez: Hey, I’m Shawn Vulliez, one of the hosts of SRSLY Wrong,
Aaron Moritz: And I’m Aaron Moritz. And yeah, thanks for having us on the show, Max.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, it is really, really great to have you guys on The Real News Network. I’ve been a big, big fan of your work for a number of years. And to anyone listening, if you don’t already listen to the SRSLY Wrong podcast, then frankly I envy you, because you have a real feast before you. Seasons and seasons worth of incredible podcasting that Aaron and Shawn have done. I’ve been fortunate enough to be a guest on their show a couple of times. And I think it was through listening to you guys that a lot of the stuff that we’re going to be talking about today, your show, more than most others I can think of, has really gotten those juices flowing and percolating in my head over the years. And I know that it’s not only an intimate aim of your work that syncs up with everything that Aaron Swartz stood for, everything that the Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto is about, but that you yourselves also have your own histories with this movement, as it were, this Open Access, open information movement.
I wanted to maybe start there, before we dig into the manifesto itself, and ask if we could go around the table and just… I suppose to honor Aaron on the 10 year anniversary of his tragic death, if we could say a little bit about how our lives and political and intellectual paths have intersected with Aaron’s and the movement that he was a part of, and use that as an occasion to help set the table for listeners who may not have known a whole lot about Aaron until now and what he stood for.
Aaron Moritz: Yeah, I feel like the Open Access movement and the online activism of the late 2000 early 2010 area was one of the things that really got me interested in politics in the first place. Partially just being a teenager and pirating things that I couldn’t afford and feeling like it was wrong for information not to be able to be free, even in the sense of art I was trying to consume as a kid without a lot of money. But then the side of it coming from Wikipedia and access to information and knowledge and the connections to access to information online, to information freedom and the ability of people to think for themselves and learn for themselves without gatekeepers in the way of it was really always inspiring to me.
And reading back about Aaron’s story during the run up to this, it really struck me how many different things I use all the time he contributed to, like Creative Commons music we use on the show all the time. We also pay for licenses to music, but Creative Commons stuff, especially early on, was something we used a lot. And also anyone who listens to any podcasts is using RSS all the time. When you submit your podcast to iTunes or Spotify or whatever, it’s input your RSS feed, and each episode comes out through RSS. So I feel like so much of what we do every day, especially us hosting a podcast, is related to Aaron and his work. And the values expressed in the manifesto have always been very dear to me.
Shawn Vulliez: When I first got involved in politics, when I ascended from being a teenager who didn’t care about politics and thought that politics was a realm of assholes in suits, that was sort of an intractable place of the assholes in suits playing games together in ways that were meaningful to them but meaningless to me, when I had the transition to becoming a teenager who read Noam Chomsky and started being like, oh, holy shit, the news is lying to me, one of the things that was a paradigm shift for me where I became interested in radical politics was the thought of a paradigm shift around the way we conceive of the internet, rooted in that same kind of stuff around the abundance of experiencing web piracy as I grew up as someone without any money to spend, and just feeling like it was this incredible… There was a paradigm shift, there was a twist on what was going on.
We were told that copying is stealing, that listening to music is illegal unless you pay for it. But then at the same time, everyone was doing it, and it was completely around you all the time. People giving each other burned CDs and stuff like that. And there was this discontinuity there that the information liberation movement, the open access movement, it flicked a switch in my head of, holy shit, the internet could be like a library. The internet already is a library, except it’s just illegal to contribute to, it’s illegal to take out books from it. Swartz makes this argument really well in an essay he wrote when he was, I think, 17 in 2004, of just making the basic point that copying isn’t theft. When you steal something, there’s one less thing where you stole it from. But copying is distinct because just because you’re listening to the music doesn’t mean someone else can’t listen to it. And it’s absurd to talk about lost potential sales as a legally enforceable thing.
And he gives this great example in one of the interviews he gave of… If we’re going to be criminally liable for any lost potential sale, then the list would never end of things that stop sales from happening, and that could include brick and mortar libraries, it could include used bookstores, but it could also include a friend of yours coming over and you spend the afternoon talking to them and going to see a movie. And it’s like, do you owe James Cameron now? He lost a potential ticket sale because you got really enraptured in a conversation with your friend. So when I look at the trajectory of Aaron Swartz, and there’s all of these ideas that he talks about at different times, and they resonate with me at different times in my political development, but really my key starting point was the piracy question, the information question, the exact things that he’s most famous for is how I became interested in serious politics for the first time.
And another sense of kinship I feel with him is that he was… As a prodigy and internet kid, he’s going online at 14, interacting with adults in spaces where he got to be treated seriously as an adult, and that was part of his development, part of his story. And that resonates so deeply with me, with my experience of being a kid on the internet and the space that the internet gave me to step into the shoes of adulthood, to take the world seriously and be taken seriously. I’ve got a really deep affinity for Aaron Swartz, and knowing his story, there’s so many connections that it’s too many to list.
Maximillian Alvarez: And I mentioned that listening to your guys’ show over the years was one of the ways that… I guess one of those vectors through which I connected late to Aaron Swartz and the Open Access movement, and I think it caught my ear when, God, I think, yeah, it must have been in Michigan still, listening to the show, and I heard Shawn talk about his time in the Pirate Party in Canada. And I wondered, Shawn, if you could just say a little bit about that for folks listening who may not be familiar with it.
Shawn Vulliez: So the Pirate Party is a political party movement. There’s pirate parties in a number of countries around the world, some that they’ve been elected in include Germany, Iceland, in the European Union, started in Sweden, I think, in 2006. And when I became interested in information liberation politics and the piracy question, it turned out that the Pirate Party of Canada had just recently registered to run candidates for election in Canada. And I got involved as one of my early political organizing experiences. And because of, I don’t know… There’s a little bit of a… When you’re talking about stuff you did when you’re a kid, it’s hard to… When you’re talking about stuff that you did when you were a young person, the boundaries between what you’re proud of and what you’re a little embarrassed of kind of blur a bit. But I was elected leader of the Pirate Party when I was 21. I was the youngest party leader in Canada.
I wish I could go back in time and tell myself the things that I know now that could have helped me be a much more effective advocate. But our whole thing was drawing attention to the issue of piracy, access to information, open information in government, giving people access to information that affects their lives, information that affects the way they conceive of government. And that was something I was involved on and off with for a handful of years, maybe four or five. And yeah, definitely really formative political experiences there, and I learned a lot doing that.
I think I knew who Aaron Swartz was. I wasn’t super keeping up to date with him. I didn’t know him super well at that time. But the whole sphere, the whole milieu of ideas is so clearly influenced by him, and he’s so clearly influenced by information liberation spaces. That experience is part of why I feel such a deep affinity for Aaron Swartz, because he also kind of walked this line between… There’s both the anarchistic side to his politics, like the Guerrilla Open Access, the smash and grab, anarchistic, let the scientific papers free to the world, open the doors, WikiLeaks kind of stuff.
But then there’s also… He was very pragmatic, political, he was involved in the formation of progressive super PACs, and he talked about the importance of making tiny tweaks to laws, tiny amendments that could make big impacts. And he had both those sides within him. And that really connects with the way that I think of the Pirate Party, is both having these very radical, reframing, outlandish things, but then also pragmatic step-by-step scientific tactics to achieve that end at the same time. But yeah, I think the Pirate Party’s still elected in Iceland with a handful of people, and they’re kicking ass as far as I know.
Maximillian Alvarez: Pirate Party going strong. It was so fascinating to hear more about that, because I feel like I missed the boat, at least in terms of being part of that movement, being really, I think, aware of and invested in that movement beyond a surface level. I guess folks who listen to The Real News know my story. I grew up quite conservative in Southern California. There weren’t too many occasions for me to, I suppose, just bump into folks who were members of the Pirate Party and folks who were, like y’all, really developing a political consciousness as part of your engagement with this movement, or at least with the people and ideas that were involved in it. I feel like I’ve learned a lot about that after the fact, and I feel this nostalgia for a time that I didn’t even get to experience as a member of that movement, or as someone who was thinking really critically about these things when Aaron was still alive, and I regret that.
But in another sense, I think there’s something heartening to the fact that there’s still so many ways that I can see my own interaction with the very things that Aaron was interacting with and prompted a lot of the same thoughts and questions that they prompted in him. I think about the fact that, first of all, I didn’t actually know that Aaron Swartz and I were born in the same year, 1986, and it got me thinking about… There was a viral tweet that went around recently because the famous American broadcaster Barbara Walters just passed away on Dec. 30. And the person, this tweet, rightly pointed out that in actual fact, Martin Luther King Jr., Anne Frank, and Barbara Walters were all born in the same year: 1929. But we just have such a hard time grasping those timelines together because Anne Frank and MLK just feel so far in the past, and for that reason, they feel more locked in time, they feel older. But in fact, if they lived in different circumstances, they would’ve been alive as long as Barbara Walters had.
So I’ve been thinking about those parallel timelines of Aaron and I being born in the same year, being in that very particular space that the three of us are all into some degree, of being in that millennial generation that spent a crucial formative decade of our youth in the analog world, and then we’re the first real generation to be sucked into the transition to the digital world. And I think that there’s something peculiar, there is something that makes our generation unique in that sense, and it’s written into the experiences that are common among us. And this is what I meant when I said that even though I wasn’t thinking the same way way that Aaron Swartz was, like you guys mentioned, I still remember my folks coming home with those bulk packs of burnable discs, because the idea that you could download and mix your own CDs, not as arduous as making a mix tape à la High Fidelity and all that stuff.
There was something just so catalytic from that. Everyone was doing it. Everyone was excited by it. It really introduced people to a lot of different kinds of music and ways of remixing that music, so on and so forth. And then at the same time, I think we all ran up against the same sort of begrudging frustrations as the backlash inevitably came and the tightening of copyright, the pursuit of “piracy” online, the receding of that open access back into what felt like a familiar form, what felt like the digital version of going into a Tower Records. And once again feeling like, well, I have enough money for one of these albums, if that. So I would say that that was a thought that has been really rattling around in my brain while I’ve been preparing for this conversation.
But the other thing I’ll say, and then I’ll shut up, is I think that one of the aspects of Aaron Swartz’s life and work and the movement that he was a part of that really started to sink in for me over the past decade is the way that our sense of self and our sense of individual agency is conditioned by the digital environment in ways that many of us don’t ever see. And that was one of Aaron’s big things. Once you learn to see the sort of structures and rules and institutions and code, all these things that condition us to believe that reality is meant to look a certain way and that it is permanently supposed to look that way, naturally supposed to look that way, once you see the cracks in that ideological artifice, there’s really no going back.
And I think that the epiphany that I had when I first left the United States to study abroad, overseas, it was my first time ever being across the Atlantic. I was very nervous. I was very scared. We did not have the money to be taking trips to Europe when I was a kid. So it was a very new experience to me. And I remember just wanting to walk around everywhere that I was, whether it was Paris or Bristol, England, and stuff like that. And I did. And it was great to walk around and explore these places that I’d never been before. And then I realized that I started to walk the same streets while I was there. I started to beat a path, as it were, and then I would keep taking that path.
That was the sort of metaphor for how we navigate the digital realm that I think Aaron was really trying to get us to understand, is that there’s so much about the digital era and the technologies that we all take for granted now, whether they be our smartphones, our smart TVs, our computers, our web browsers, our social media apps, so on and so forth. It really does give you the feeling, the illusion of individual agency. Like the internet is open for you to navigate and find yourself in whatever corridors you choose to go down, the infinity of all human knowledge is at your fingertips, so on and so forth. And yet, we all go to the same five websites. We walk a similar beaten path. And there are algorithms and a myriad other digital functions and forms of conditioning that set us in these paths that make us still believe that we’re free, but act as if we are not.
In the same way that I think being in a place and thinking, man, I could walk all over this town and find something new, and yet I don’t. I just keep taking the same bus to work and I take the same route back. It’s like I need the fiction of the access that I’m never going to take advantage of to keep me in place. But what I think Aaron and the Open Access movement really pointed out was like, actually, you don’t have as open access as you think of. You think the rest of the city is there for you to walk, but you never actually go down this alleyway. And if you did, you would find that your path was barred.
Shawn Vulliez: We were sold this vision of a liberatory internet, and what’s happened over time, including in the time since Aaron’s passing, on one hand, we have this sort of vision of this open, ultimately accessible internet where everything is at your fingertips, where it’s a participatory world and everyone’s finally empowered. That really is part of the story of the internet. There is incredible potential in the internet. But the Open Access movement is looking to actually actualize those potentialities.
For example, there’s stuff in the public domain that no one’s able to access online, so people don’t have easy access to it. And by definition it’s public domain. It belongs to everyone. It should be something that people have access to. So then you have things like archive.org steps in there to be the change, as it were, and try to create a space for the public domain to be made public. But without that political intervention, without the political intervention of Aaron Swartz and other activists, we have an internet that’s increasingly closed off, increasingly monopolized, increasingly run for profit with paywall after paywall after paywall that takes the complete liberatory potential of the internet and instead turns it into a shopping mall.
Aaron Moritz: Yeah. One of the things I really loved about that early period you were describing, and too, I remember bugging my parents to get me a CD burner because the idea was so wild to me that I could just put any songs I wanted on my own CD and just make it, that shift you were describing, I think I was 13 at the time, is very palpable to me. But one of the things I really loved about the early internet culture, and one of the ways Shawn and I met initially, actually, was because I was making these little video essays on YouTube, and wasn’t really thinking of it as something that would make me money.
So I was using all these copyrighted images, copyrighted footage from TV shows and movies and copyrighted music and feeling like, oh, all these things that have inspired me from the world around me, I can just mix them all together into these little videos I’m making and create something new with them. You can still kind of do that, but there’s a good chance your video will get taken down. It’ll definitely get demonetized and ads put up on it at the very least, but there’s a good chance it would just be taken off the website completely for using copyrighted stuff. So there’s been this real limiting in how you can remix and reuse creative works online. It’s felt like a decrease in the available freedom between now and 10 years ago when I was doing those YouTube videos.
Shawn Vulliez: Yeah. There was a feeling you could just do anything back then in the Napster days. And still, the sites exist. And actually, I think in some ways the Open Access movement has had some of the biggest successes in the last 10 years. Things like Sci-Hub, Z-Lib, rest in peace LibGen, there’s a number of online libraries that have just been completely awesome, completely in the spirit of this stuff. But at the same time, there is this sort of closing in, these walled gardens, the Netflixes, the Spotifys, the things that use the copyright system in all the right ways. And unlike you, nasty, dirty pirates, we’ll give artists one penny for every 10 million downloads they get because we’re not thieves like you dirty, dirty pirates. There’s definitely been a shift over time, and talking about the era of CD burners really makes me nostalgic. I wish I could share that feeling with some younger people who maybe never had that era.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah. I mean, I’m feeling quite nostalgic about it too, for more reasons than one. I think that, obviously, it was still a moment where it felt legitimately open, what the future of the internet was going to be, and what the future was going to be with the internet in it. And I don’t know, I just don’t feel that anymore. I feel like, again, the forces of control and formalization and surveillance and profit extraction and the enclosure of knowledge, the domination of certain tech giants, whether they be Google or Facebook or something like that, it feels like as we have progressed down that historical path, my sense of the open potentiality of the future in the digital era feels way less exhilarating, feels way less open, as it were.
And I don’t know, I may be wrong, but that is certainly a distinctively different feeling that I have now compared to the one that I had in, say, the late ’90s and early ’00s, just as an average millennial user of this newfangled thing called the internet. But by way of getting us to the manifesto itself, we’ll round out by doing a bit of a close reading of that. But I think maybe to make the metaphor a bit stronger, maybe if I can try to salvage this a bit, do you guys remember the movie with Jim Carrey, The Truman Show?
Aaron Moritz: Yeah. Yeah, I love that.
Shawn Vulliez: Absolutely. Great film.
Maximillian Alvarez: We should do an episode about that someday, because I really liked that movie and I don’t think I realized how much I liked it when I first watched it. But I think that’s a perfect example. One of the creepiest things about that movie, I guess for anyone who hasn’t seen it, it’s this kind of psychological satire movie where Jim Carrey is the first human being to be essentially owned by a corporation. And this god-like director, producer, decides to build an entire world to make a show out of this man Truman, this boy Truman’s life. And so everything in his life is filmed, everyone but him is an actor. Everything is filmed in this giant indoor microcosm where Truman lives his life. And it’s not until, I don’t know, his late 20s, early 30s where he starts to realize that something’s wrong and starts to yearn to escape.
But what always struck me as a kid watching that and as an adolescent watching that was like, man, he went that long in his life without realizing that something was off. That’s what I’m talking about. Because you can create this sort of world that is, in fact, very enclosed like the world in The Truman Show is. But if you are able to maintain the fiction of openness, if you are able to keep the viability of the dream of exploring someday, or someone else could explore if they wanted to, even if I’m not doing that now, even if I’m just going through the same routine, that’s all you need to maintain that system. And that’s what happens in The Truman Show. And that’s what I think the sort of dissolution, the gradual fading away of the techno utopianism of Web 1.0. It started to become clear to me as like, okay, maybe when we talk about the internet as opening all of human knowledge to us and putting it at our fingertips, is that knowledge actually accessible? What do we do with it? Who has access to it?
And that’s where, I think, we really get into the meat and potatoes of Aaron Swartz and the Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto. We’re going to link to it in the show notes for this episode, but I’m sure many folks are familiar with the kind of contents of this manifesto. Or if you’re not, you’re going to at least be familiar with the target of the manifesto. And this is the last thing I’ll say by way of prefacing my connection to Swartz and the manifesto is like, this is something anyone who’s ever spent time on a university campus has experienced. Because you go there and through your library access, you now have access to these vast archives that have aggregated all academic journals, academic monographs. One of the great digitization projects was Google Books going to libraries and scanning a billion of them. And yet whenever anyone searches for it, you can only see one or two pages of that book. So you know it’s there, but who gets to actually see it?
And that’s how it feels when you go trying to do academic research is like, you begin to realize how weird it is that all of this knowledge that has been produced, not just recently but in human history, but if you’re talking about recent scholarship, the vast bulk of it, which has been subsidized by public funds for public universities, is now captured and enclosed by for-profit academic journals hidden behind these aggregator archives like JSTOR that are only accessible to people who are paying a lifetime’s worth of debt in the form of tuition to get access to. There’s something fundamentally fucked up about that. And that is, in fact, what Aaron Swartz felt. That is why, at MIT, he downloaded so many files from the JSTOR archives, and that inevitably led to the tragic circumstances and string of events that ultimately led the US government to try to make an example out of him and drive him to take his own life.
But it can just seem both so incredibly huge when you think about what he was fighting for. And it can also seem just incredibly… Not mundane, but when people hear it, it’s like, wait, Aaron Swartz died because of JSTOR? How the fuck did that happen? These are academic journals. There does seem to still be some, I think, cognitive dissonance for people in wrapping their heads around why this was such a commitment for Aaron and for other folks who were part of that movement, and also why the government saw such a threat in what he and others were doing in relationship to JSTOR.
So with that in mind, we’re going to take a page from the SRSLY Wrong podcast – Which again, everyone should listen to. Aaron and Shawn not only do great analysis and interviews, but they do incredibly fun and well-produced skits and dramatic readings. So I thought, why don’t we actually read this manifesto? Because it’s short enough for us to read it, really put people in the mind frame of Aaron Swartz and the co-authors that also helped produce this. Aaron’s name is the one that is on the byline of this manifesto, but others contributed to it. And it was, in fact, because Aaron’s name was on the manifesto that the federal government felt justified in saying that they knew exactly what Aaron intended to do with all the files that he downloaded from JSTOR from the MIT library. And so with that in mind, Aaron, Shawn, and I are going to do a dramatic reading of this manifest for you guys.
Shawn Vulliez: “Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations. Want to read the papers featuring the most famous results of the sciences? You’ll need to send enormous amounts to publishers like Reed Elsevier.”
Maximillian Alvarez: “There are those struggling to change this. The Open Access movement has fought valiantly to ensure that scientists do not sign their copyrights away but instead ensure their work is published on the Internet, under terms that allow anyone to access it. But even under the best scenarios, their work will only apply to things published in the future. Everything up until now will have been lost.”
Aaron Moritz: “That is too high of a price to pay. Forcing academics to pay money to read the work of their colleagues? Scanning entire libraries, but only allowing the folks at Google to read them? Providing scientific articles to those at elite universities in the first world, but not to children in the Global South? It’s outrageous and unacceptable.”
Shawn Vulliez: “‘I agree,’ many say, ‘but what can we do? The companies hold the copyrights, they make enormous amounts of money by charging for access, and it’s perfectly legal – There’s nothing we can do to stop them.’ But there is something we can, something that’s already being done: we can fight back.”
Maximillian Alvarez: “Those with access to these resources – Students, librarians, scientists – You have been given a privilege. You get to feed at this banquet of knowledge while the rest of the world is locked out. But you need not – Indeed, morally, you cannot – Keep this privilege for yourselves. You have a duty to share it with the world. And you have: trading passwords with colleagues, filling download requests for friends.”
Aaron Moritz: “Meanwhile, those who have been locked out are not standing idly by. You have been sneaking through holes and climbing over fences, liberating the information locked up by publishers and sharing them with your friends.”
Shawn Vulliez: “But all of this action goes on in the dark, hidden underground. It’s called stealing or piracy, as if sharing a wealth of knowledge were the moral equivalent of plundering a ship and murdering its crew. But sharing isn’t immoral – It’s a moral imperative. Only those blinded by greed would refuse to let a friend make a copy.”
Maximillian Alvarez: “Large corporations, of course, are blinded by greed. The laws under which they operate require it – Their shareholders would revolt at anything less. And the politicians they have bought off back them, passing laws giving them the exclusive power to decide who can make copies.”
Aaron Moritz: “There is no justice in following unjust laws. It’s time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture.”
Shawn Vulliez: “We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies, and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that is out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerrilla Open Access.”
Maximillian Alvarez: “With enough of us, around the world, we’ll not just send a strong message opposing the privatization of knowledge – We’ll make it a thing of the past. Will you join us?”
Shawn Vulliez: Aaron Schwartz is right about information, and history has only proven him more right. The Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto is like 110% right. The only critique I have is that he didn’t read Marcus Rediker on pirates. They didn’t actually plunder and kill crews historically. But that’s a really minor point. The whole thing is on fucking point and more relevant than ever. It gets more relevant with every passing year. It’s absolutely knockout true. And when I think about the shape of my political development and the access to illicit streams of information, illegal online libraries which I used to access books that I wanted to read, I wouldn’t be the person I am today if it weren’t for the civil disobedience of people who break those copyrights.
And so I owe a debt. I owe a lifetime development. I am who I am today because of this civil disobedience. I wouldn’t be the person I am without it. And it’s something I get really passionate about because there are people… It talks about, okay, people at Google can read whatever book they want, and then there are people at universities in the developing world who can’t access whatever they want. Their schools don’t have the subscriptions to the publishers. We’re talking about a legacy of information that goes back to the enlightenment. Hundreds of years of scientific articles, hundreds of years of studies and information that can help people to better understand the world, to create their own experiments, to participate in public science, to participate in public technology, to develop the world in a better direction through shared knowledge. It’s being shut down for profit, for a small group of people who don’t even create the knowledge, that have no reasonable claim to the knowledge, because it’s an enormous industry.
And out of all the things in the world, why is the government trying to make an example of the person who stands up to this, of all things? We’re talking about someone who’s involved in a variety of political actions. We’re talking about a political milieu, which has a variety of political actions, some more legal than others. But for some reason, Aaron Swartz downloading articles from JSTOR, he gets the book thrown at him. They charge him with things that are unreasonable. There’s no argument to say that he’s committing two counts of wire fraud. There’s no argument to say that he is violating computer espionage laws. Even if you look at this article and what it says, what this manifesto says, and you take it at its word that this is his exact motivation for doing what he’s doing. He’s talking about breaking copyright law. He’s talking about violating the terms of service of JSTOR. Okay, fair enough. Civil disobedience. He violated the terms of JSTOR. Well, maybe there should be a proportionate response to that and he can serve time or he can be criminally punished however, proportionally to what he’s actually done. And then there can be a public discussion in public politically. We can talk about the values of it. That’s how civil disobedience works.
But instead, the secret police of the United States surveilled him, creating 1500 pages of documents about his movement, about his politics, about his connections. They opened up his computers. They looked at all of his private communications, including with his lover, and they threatened and humiliated him with it to the point where it compounded with invisible disabilities he had been struggling with his whole life: autoimmune issues and depression. And he tragically took his own life. Because they wanted to use him as an example because he was arguing, politically, something correct, that people hundreds of years from now are going to read aloud and say, he was right. He’s talking about the future of politics. He’s talking about the future of information society.
And he was made a martyr for it. And it’s absolutely disgusting. The government killed him. That’s what his dad said, and his dad is right. The government killed him because these ideas about information are too true for the secret police’s mind. The literal secret police fucking tracked him. They threatened him. They opened up all his communications. They charged him with things that were totally disproportionate to what he was doing, and they hounded him into suicide because of these ideas.
And it’s not because these ideas are so ineffectual, they’re so irrelevant. It’s because these ideas are the most impactful, most relevant ideas of our political generation. Things that deserve to be shouted from the rooftops, that everyone should actively participate in, that everyone should actively underline and integrate as core of their politics. And I don’t care what other political trajectories you come on, what you’re interested in, integrate this into your politics. This is the politics of the digital age. Aaron Swartz was right. He was fucking right. You read his other political blogs, he’s right about most stuff he says. He’s a very right guy. And it is extremely, extremely tragic that we haven’t had 10 years of his work behind us. The last 10 years missing out on Aaron Schwartz.
That’s part of the reason why we don’t have the utopianism of the internet anymore. People have this sense the internet is not a utopian place anymore, it’s because they fucking killed the Aaron Swartz. Political leaders who are prosecuted and chased down and humiliated because of their impact shape the trajectory of how people think about the internet. And this is a little bit of a tangent, but I think another reason why the utopianism of the internet has faded over the last however many years is because of Bitcoin taking all the energy out of the room, both literally and figuratively. Bitcoin became this sort of utopian project of the internet, even though it fundamentally never made sense and it was a money-making grift. And that’s part of the reason why we don’t see the internet as a utopian place anymore. I think the loss of Aaron Schwartz is another part of that reason. And what we need, I think, is to integrate these into our politics actively, and to make sure that we facilitate and help grow and develop the next generation of truth tellers. The next generation of people like Aaron Swartz who can see through the bullshit of society and have moral clarity on issues that are dominated by rapacious profit seeking.
And the way that we do that is by valuing the voices of youth. Aaron Swartz became who he was because he was a youth on the internet. On the internet, no one knows you’re a dog. He was taken seriously. He deserved to be taken seriously. As we de-anonymize the internet, we risk losing that. If we devalue the voices of young people, we risk losing that. We need their clarity. We need their voices. We need to work together. We need to integrate this as not just part of our politics, but core to our politics. That information belongs to everyone. The legacy of human knowledge belongs to everyone. It doesn’t belong to a small group of publishers and Aaron Swartz was right.
Maximillian Alvarez: Man, preach, brother. I think that was beautifully put. And honestly, this is another reason why I thought having you both on, granted, I was being a little bit selfish because, as I aforementioned, there are parts of this story, Aaron’s story, the movement that he was a part of, the movement that he was an integral part of that, that I still feel like an outsider looking in about. But I think that actually, I mentioned, dear Real News listeners, that I have been on Aaron and Sean’s show SRSLY Wrong before. The first time that we collaborated was for a big crossover episode between SRSLY Wrong and my show, Working People, on the Winnipeg General strike of 1919, to date the largest strike in Canada’s history. And we did a deep dive into the history of that. We did some fun skits. But we recorded for a long time really trying to unpack the ins and outs of that historic strike that happened over a century ago in Winnipeg.
And one of the things that I recall us talking about in the beginning of that episode was the fact that, just in doing the research about the Winnipeg General strike, there is about… I’m trying to recall, because I feel like this archival discovery was made around the 1980s, if I recall correctly. So there were over 50 years in 20th century history where essentially no one knew how involved this infamous collection of the local bourgeoisie in Winnipeg at the time. They called themselves…
Shawn Vulliez: It’s like the Council of 100 or something like that?
Maximillian Alvarez: They called themselves the Citizens Committee of 1000. And it truly was a handful of mustache twirling, top hat wearing rich people essentially meeting in secret and talking about how they were going to conspire to crush the strike. Even going beyond the bounds of the law, or even forcing the government to essentially deputize this local bourgeoisie to exceed the limits of legal recourse, and to, essentially, take control of the local governance for the explicit purpose of squashing this general workers’ strike.
And it was in the trials that were held after the strike was over that a judge, essentially, granted the request from the members of the Citizens Committee of 1000 to have their records permanently sealed. And the judge granted that request. And so again, entire books of history were written about the Winnipeg General Strike, documentaries were made about the Winnipeg General Strike, with no access to those communications of the people who were most integrally involved in breaking the strike. And it wasn’t until a random sociologist just happened to be in a certain archive and got access to those files that suddenly the history of this momentous event in Canadian history and labor history in general became a lot clearer.
And we talked about how fucked up it was that what the judge essentially did that day, what the ruling class serving establishments that we entrust with maintaining and upholding the order of our society for ostensibly just and righteous reasons. What this judge did was deny the people their ability to know their own history and just how sinister that is.
And now magnify that by truly incalculable amounts, because that is what Aaron Swartz saw in the system that we’re talking about. That’s what we read in the Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto, is that you have this incredible wealth of human knowledge, not just recent scholarship that’s been produced since the Internet’s been around, but everything before that that has been digitized, all of that has been made accessible in that it can be accessed, but then that access is dramatically cut and dramatically cinched. Rebecca Gibbon and Cory Doctorow, I had the honor of interviewing them here in Baltimore a couple months ago about their incredible new book, Choke Point Capitalism. But that’s the image I think of.
And in fact, they talk a lot about academic publishing as an example of choke point capitalism, because all that knowledge is there. And again, a lot of it has either already been produced for the public domain or it has been publicly subsidized in some way. And there are people who have devoted their entire lives to researching these things, writing these papers. And then at the very point that they’re ready to share it with the world, they’re supposed to just give up all rights to it, hand them over to bloodsucking institutions like Taylor and Francis Academic Publishers, who then just choke point that thing. They grip it like a hand squeezing the neck, because they are not producing any value, they’re not producing the research.
They are literally just at the choke point where the producers of that knowledge and the people who want to access it meet. They are just the vampiric middlemen squeezing as much value out of something that they offer no value to. And that is a crime, especially when you think about the example I just gave, how consequential this is in that documentary I mentioned in the introduction, which everyone should go read for a fuller accounting of Aaron’s life and the trial and all of that. It’s called The Internet’s Own Boy. And thank you to Sean for actually reminding me about that documentary.
But I just mentioned Cory Doctorow. Cory has a great example at the end of that documentary where he says, there was a kid here in Baltimore who ended up basically making the discovery that would allow us to detect pancreatic cancer sooner, because he had access to the medical journals, that he was able to fart around and look around through and eventually hit on an idea that saved countless lives. We can’t predict what the effects of opening that access would be. But what we do know is we live in a world of very curtailed access, and that limits the capacities of what we as people can do and what we as people can even know about ourselves and our own history. And I believe that is as much of a crime as Aaron said it was.
Shawn Vulliez: It is a question of what type of society do we want to live in? Do we want to live in a society where people waste their lives doing drudgery and toil, things that they would never be interested in doing if it weren’t necessary to make their living? Or do we want to live in a society where people are actively involved? Everyone is actively involved in the curation and re-curation of information, the interpretation of our shared history, the interpretation of science.
Another great example of an every man layman contributing greatly to progress of our understanding of our history and science is there’s this recent example from the UK where there was a guy who works in furniture, he works at… I can’t remember his specific job. He works in the furniture industry, and he took it on himself to try to understand the meaning of Neanderthal cave paintings, and determined that these little dots that they were drawing near the animals on these famous cave paintings actually represented lunar cycles or reproductive cycles of the animals.
And he passed that on to experts in the field who took him seriously, even though he’s a layman. Because of his access to information, he was able to formulate this hypothesis, pass it on to people in the field who thankfully took him seriously, and then were able to prove that he was correct. And there’s numerous examples of everyday people participating in history, participating in science, and by giving the basis of the hypothesis is the information, the shared information, it’s usually funded publicly. There’s all these different various reasons to argue that these things are public knowledge or should be public knowledge. And then from having access to that information, they’re able to contribute greatly.
And you just think about the scale of an entire planet full of people, full of thinking minds. I’m also reminded of the Stephen J. Gould quote about, I don’t care about the weight of Einstein’s brain, only that there’s similar brain powers and sweatshops and factories, et cetera. When you’re talking about, there’s brilliant, brilliant people all over the world who have no access to the legacy of human scientific knowledge. So we’re missing out on all of the things that they would have to contribute if they had the basis to form their own hypotheses, the basis to participate in their own things.
So on one hand, going on SciHub and being able to look up something I want without having to bother one of my friends with institutional access to get them to download it for me, that’s incredible. But what it also represents in the world stage, if we can step out of where we are in the world and look at the overall context, we’ve got a world where the vast majority of knowledge is paywalled and held off to people who are essentially a global financial elite, people who go to the biggest universities in the world. And there are billions of people who have things to contribute that are locked out.
And so I think the question is, the information question is really fundamental and it’s a question of what type of society do we want to live in? How do we want to value and encourage people to participate actively in the co-development of knowledge, which is where all knowledge comes from, all knowledge advancement comes from. So the more people that we can bring into the system of thinking through these things together and having access to the information that’s required to make sense of it all, the potential for social, scientific, technological progress that’s unlocked for that, that is incredible. And that still remains to be the libratory potentiality of the internet, which is still with us. The flame is still lit, they’re still numerous information clearing houses on the internet where you can find illicit libraries. And I think if we ever lost them, it would be a profound tragedy. It’s hard to overstate what a profound tragedy that would be. When you’re talking about shutting out billions of people from human scientific knowledge, historical knowledge and so on.
Aaron Moritz: I also just want to tie the open access of information to the open access of resources in general. We’re talking a lot about how much people could contribute if not for being held back by these vampiric corporations who insert themselves as middlemen in the access to human knowledge and in the realm of human knowledge, and with the internet, their role in this situation is more clear than any other part of the human endeavor of having a society where we interact and take care of one another. Because you can copy things for almost free, technically, and you have to invent these paywalls to put up in between things.
Whereas with physical items, it works a little bit differently, but a lot of the principles are the same where you have people spending their days working to produce useful items for people, whether that’s food, shelter, clothing, healthcare, et cetera. And then you have these corporate boards and corporations, profit seeking entities that insert themselves as middlemen, taking the profit from the sales of these items that they didn’t produce themselves, that they paid workers to produce for them, inserting themselves as the people who get the vast majority of the benefit while limiting the access to these vital things that we all need, our physical needs through this process of corporate profit seeking. And having access to information for all people would greatly accelerate the amount of progress and the amount of good ideas and innovation that we could have as a species. Providing everybody with all of the basic things that they need to live would do the same thing on a much greater scale.
I’m just thinking about the history of it and when I first got into piracy and information, open access and seeing those kinds of things, I didn’t identify as a socialist or a communist or anything like that. But I think over time seeing the same principles applying, the same ways in which the output of human creativity and human labor was being instrumentalized for the benefit of a very small amount of people led me directly from this type of political awareness about open access to information to thinking about open access of the entire common heritage of human people. That all human resources, all of the planet’s resources should be commonly held property used for the benefit of all people and not just for the benefit of a small group of people. And also the ways that they’re erecting these artificial barriers in the information space have started to move into the real world space of physical objects as well.
With so many things now having computer chips in them, you have things like ventilators or tractors or these really physical mechanical objects that are being locked behind DRM codes where your machine is perfectly fine, but you don’t have the intellectual property rights to run your ventilator. So sorry, we can’t repair this one. We don’t have the rights to do it. They’re bringing these artificial barriers into the real world to be able to monetize even more and to limit access to things people need for their own profit even more. So, even if you see the information access thing as not the biggest deal compared to some of those more vital human needs, the two issues are really deeply interlinked, and becoming more interlinked as the digital is making its way into so much of the analog world.
Shawn Vulliez: Another great example of that interlinkedness. I think a lot of the absurdities of intellectual property are more apparent for the reasons that Aaron mentioned, but it’s also a lot of these absurdities apply to private property, full stop. And an example of one of these overlaps is we were recently researching the history of libraries and the history of the written word for an upcoming episode of our show. And one of the things that I found in research about ancient libraries when reading about the origin of libraries is that the premiere ancient library experts in the world don’t have access to all the information that humans as a whole have on ancient libraries. Because there was this treasure hunting, there was this phase of history where there was this big boom of treasure hunting. So untrained people who didn’t know anything about history were doing all these, basically, I guess tasteless… I’m trying to think of the best term for it.
These just like scoop and grab all the historic artifacts you can. Put them away in archives, sell them to rich guys. There was like this gold rush boom for historic artifacts. And so people as a whole, in private containers owned mostly by the rich, we have huge amounts of our human legacy. These are fundamental questions. Where did writing come from is a question that we haven’t fully answered. What were the reasons for early libraries? Why did the leaders of the ancient world value libraries so much? What was the philosophy behind that? These are questions that we don’t have full answers to because private treasure hunters did tasteless expeditions to smash and grab as much as they could and sell it to the rich, and they’re sitting un-analyzed in archives as investment commodities right now. So that is another example of this intersection between information, private property, intellectual property, and our shared legacy as a species.
These are fundamental questions. I would love nothing more than to know more than humanity does about ancient libraries. For my research, I reached the limit. It’s like, this is what we know, this is what the best experts in ancient libraries in the world don’t know. And it’s because we don’t have all the documents. We don’t have all the surviving clay tablet records. Things have been removed from their context, where if all these objects had been together at the same time, using our expertise brains from all of our studying, we could figure out how they relate to each other. But that was all taken away by, again, the rapacious search of profit and a tasteless exploitation of our common heritage.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, I think that’s beautifully put. The example that I always think of is all the Maya codices that were deliberately destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors because they were viewed as un-Christian, savage tech, savage knowledge, just like vast, vast stores of knowledge from people in Mesoamerica that had been accrued over centuries just suddenly smashed. And the only reason we know about them is because this famous, or infamous, I believe he was a bishop from Spain, basically wrote his own version of them and preserved some form of them. But so much of what we know about our past is contingent on things like that, like you both were just saying. We either know a shockingly small amount about our own past because the records and the people have been destroyed for greed, for conquest and domination, or just unfortunate historical accidents like a library burning down.
But I mention that just by way of kind of rounding us out, because I know I got to let you guys go, but I think that’s a really important point to note, both connecting us to the legacy of Aaron Schwartz and also thinking about what that legacy looks like for all of us who are fighting the good fight wherever we are, however we can, in the year of our lord 2023, as we continue down the gullet of what I think is shaping up to be a pretty horrifying century. There is so much absurdity that results from the efforts to preserve those mechanisms for protecting private property, for prioritizing the needs of profit seeking, rent seeking enterprises.
In a past life, I was a media historian. That was the through line of my academic work. And I remember reading about the cluster fuck it caused when Xerox technology was made widely available, because publishers were freaking out about people being able to copy their books and pass them on to people. Or there’s always been concerns about the “secondary market” of used books, because once that initial sale is made, any revenue that comes in isn’t going to the publishers. And so I would encourage folks, I’m not going to go through it all here, but I would encourage folks to look at examples that, read up on that, because then you’ll start to see how the things we take for granted, the systems we take for granted, the protocols we take for granted, the laws we take for granted, how actually so many of them are founded in an absurd fucking premise, and have actually produced absurd fucking results because it’s an unnatural jerry rigging of the potential of technologies.
It’s a jerry rigging of the law to defend the indefensible, to create systems of capture and control that benefit these otherwise pointless and useless and vampiric entities like the ones that are retaining all the copyrights to academic publications. We have created these ghastly, absurd systems to support these ghastly, absurd premises of denying people access to information that is part of the public domain. All the ways that, like you said, Aaron, these middlemen insert themselves and extract value, but do nothing other than limit access. And I think there’s something really important there that I wanted for us to end on, because obviously the absurdity… There’s perhaps no more absurd conclusion to what we’re talking about than humanity essentially destroying itself and our shared civilization, and even endangering our potential continued existence on this planet for many of the same reasons.
For many of the same reasons that we have built entire economies around the notion of people as consumers who all have to have their personal copy of the same product instead of sharing one of those things between 10 people, or sharing in general. We have built up such a Frankenstein’s monster of consumer culture, of an economy to the point that we have produced our way to destroying the ecosystem that we all depend on. And that’s why I thought of you guys when I was rereading the Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto, because I know that that library socialism, the concept of library socialism as a different way of approaching this kind of thing is fundamental to what you all do on the show SRSLY Wrong. And I thought of you when I read this one sentence from the Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto where Aaron writes, “Sharing isn’t immoral – It’s a moral imperative.” I wanted to, by way of rounding us out, ask you guys what that sentence means to you.
Shawn Vulliez: I mean, at a basic level, all human sociality, all human progress, everything that’s worth anything in life is predicated on people sharing with each other, people not locking things down, but being open and social. And inhuman systems that would tell us that having a friend over to listen to music together is immoral unless both of you buy the CD, that’s the level of absurdity we’re talking about with these intellectual property extremists. It’s inhuman, it’s bizarre, it’s robotic. And it’s fundamentally contrary to, I think, the things that make us human, the things that caused humans to develop into the species that we are over time. It’s absolutely correct and another great example of Aaron Swartz being completely fucking right. Sharing is a moral imperative. It’s not immoral to share information, it’s not immoral to share experiences. It’s important. It’s what makes the world work, it’s what makes everything good in the world work.
Aaron Moritz: Yeah. And I think, possibly going far beyond what Aaron meant when he said that in this context of information, information freedom, like you were saying, our determination as a society right now to never share things, that everybody should buy a new bicycle, everyone should own their own lawnmower, everybody should have their own everything. And then when you’re done with it, you should throw it out and someone else should buy a new one, has led to a situation where we are burning through the resources of the planet at a rate that is unsustainable. And we’re not integrating our human society with the natural imperatives of the ecosystem under which we exist.
And sharing is a key way that we can change that, that we can produce less, get more use out of it, provide more positive experiences, more ability to access the things that they need to everyone while producing fewer things, and therefore acting in a more ecologically sustainable way. The power of sharing, again, is really obvious online, where it takes a few cents of data and half a second of processing speed to copy a file, to copy an academic paper or a book. And you can see how absurd it is to prevent people from doing that. But the fact that we have the entire social system set up, not to maybe prevent people from sharing physical items, but certainly not to facilitate it on an institutional level, has had massive consequences for the planet and for our society.
Maximillian Alvarez: And as a final postscript to that, I think that there’s also something really important in the line from the manifesto that says, “There is no justice in following unjust laws.” Because I really wanted to underline what you both said about that during this incredible conversation – And I thank you guys so much for giving me so much of your time to talk about this. But that’s the other, I think, real essential lesson that all of us have to sit with. Thinking about Aaron, his death, and what lies ahead for all of us is that Aaron, like everyone that I imagine has had similar versions of the conversation that we’re having now, or similar thoughts to the ones we’re expressing now, has realized that there is, again, a fundamentally abhorrent absurdity at the center of laws that are designed to prohibit sharing, laws that are designed to restrict people’s access to information and knowledge.
And laws that, again, are there, that are the sort of prosthetic outgrowths of the absurd system, that are there to serve the absurd function of protecting that system. Even if it comes at the expense of us knowing our own history, even if it comes at the expense of our ability to create life saving vaccines or conduct medical research because we have access to the research that’s been done previously. Going from that and the Kafkaesque absurdity that Aaron Swartz died for to the Kafkaesque absurdity of grocery store workers getting arrested if they take home any of the food that’s expired and is going to be thrown out anyway. You look at that and you just see, oh no, the law says this has to be wasted because it can’t be recouped for a profit, therefore no one gets it.
Or, we’re in the midst of a pretty much global housing crisis right now, and yet Wall Street has turned housing into a financial instrument to the point that there are innumerable apartment buildings, condo complexes, and even houses lying empty because they’re worth more to their investors and owners in that position than they are serving their actual function, which is to house people. So I just want to leave people with that thought, as we again confront the reality of the climate crisis, as we continue to head into what has already been a pretty terrifying century and I’m sure has a lot of other things in store for us.
I think we all have an imperative, as Aaron himself would say, to question the absurdities and the arbitrariness of these sorts of laws, these sorts of systems that are ultimately designed to protect property and profit at all of our collective expense. And it was very baffling to me reviewing all of this to think, how can we live in a country that is just constantly, almost by a desperate existential need, we are constantly reminding ourselves of the righteousness of the police and the criminal justice system and all that it’s meant to uphold and protect. And yet there’s so many examples like the tragic death of Aaron Swartz, where you’re just like, this system was designed to impose and enforce the law, even if the law itself is incredibly unjust.
And I feel like everyone can look at Aaron Swartz and see that and be like, the government killed this man for a reason that was fundamentally absurd and abhorrent, but was still defined as illegal. And I think that I’m not going to get us in trouble here and say, everyone go out and do crime. But again, it’s a truly Kafkaesque story, and I think it’s incumbent upon all of us to carry on that fight by not just accepting the immorality and the unchangeability of these unjust and absurd systems that are designed to enclose rather than open, to control rather than liberate. That, I think, is a really important way that all of us can carry on Aaron Swartz’s fight.
So Aaron, Shawn, co-hosts of the SRSLY Wrong podcast and co-creators of the animated series Papa & Boy, which you can watch on Means TV. Shout out to our friends over there at Means TV. Aaron, Shawn, any other final words or plugs that you’ve got for the good Real News listeners before I let you go?
Shawn Vulliez: Yeah, there’s something I want to say about the story of Aaron Swartz, and I’ve been reflecting on it for a little while, and I have two takeaway lessons that I think are really important, and a request to people listening. And the first lesson is that Aaron Swartz shows the incredible power of one person dedicating themself to doing things. He shows that any of us can do what we set out to do, and we can have a profound impact in the world, a more profound impact than we’d ever imagine, and we don’t even notice our impact while we’re doing it. I don’t think that Aaron Swartz had a full idea of how impactful he was, unfortunately. And I think that’s a really key lesson, is that if we’re bold enough to step up to the plate and participate, we can shape the future of our society. And Aaron Swartz shows that.
The second lesson is that you, all of us, everyone here, everyone listening, is worth more to all of us alive than dead. Fuck martyrdom. Aaron Swartz dying did nothing for information freedom. The things that Aaron Swartz did when he was alive contributed to information freedom, and we’d all be so much better off if we had 10 more years of Aaron Swartz contributing to our culture and helping move us along, and being an intellectual leader, and being someone who contributes through code and through discourse and through writing. Fuck martyrdom. You’re worth more alive than dead.
And my plea is to activists. There’s a lot of things that distract us as activists: interpersonal drama, fighting over micro-celebrities’ mistakes, re-litigating the historical disputes that are so far removed from our everyday experience. And it’s tempting and it’s fun and it’s so tempting as an activist to get caught up on disputes and sectarianism and arguing about the political policies of some country in some obscure year and stuff.
But my plea is to take Aaron Swartz seriously, to take these ideas of information openness seriously, and to integrate them in your politics as fundamental. There’s no politics which is more contemporary than this. There’s no politics which is more egalitarian than this, which is more liberatory than this. And it doesn’t need to overwrite the other things you care about, but I hope that someone listening to this thinks about this very deeply and helps all of us by becoming more of a relative expert on this issue and contributing, using their time and energy to contribute to all of us understanding this better. So that’s my sincere, deep request, if you’re listening. And the two lessons are, you can do anything you want, and you’re worth a lot more to me alive than dead. So thank you for bearing with me through that.
Aaron Moritz: Yeah, I just want to say thanks for having us on. I agree with Shawn.
Shawn Vulliez: I agree with Aaron. Thanks for having us on.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, Aaron, Shawn, again, thank you both so much for sharing so much of your time and brilliance and insight with us on The Real News Network podcast. I really appreciate it. To everyone listening, you should definitely go check out Aaron and Shawn’s Show, the SRSLY Wrong podcast, spelled S-R-S-L-Y W-R-O-N-G. We will link to it in the show notes. And also definitely go check out their animated series on Means TV, Papa & Boy.
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