On the morning of January 11th, 2013, the Internet entrepreneur and political activist Aaron Swartz was found dead in his apartment in Brooklyn, New York. Soon after the news reached the Internet, manifestos and hackathons were organized to celebrate Aaron’s political and technical work. In a matter of weeks, parallel events were organized across the United States, finding solidarity with Internet technologists and activists abroad. This collective effervescence elaborated on a narrative to evaluate the present, help to frame the past and project the future in relation to Aaron’s accomplishments and indictment for computer crime.
One year after Aaron’s passing, Brian Knappenberger‘s documentary “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz” was screened at the Sundance Festival and publicly released this past June. As far as the narrative goes, the spectator is offered a reconstruction of Aaron’s life with key elements for debate regarding legal overreach in his case. Knappenberger’s work was very careful in attending to the details. Despite the familiarity of most of us with the succession of events, there is much to be gained from the documentary if its depiction of Aaron’s trajectory is to be interpreted vis-à-vis broader, transnational battles on the grounds of intellectual property enforcement and expansion.
Knappenberger’s film documents Aaron’s early interest in computers and his intellectual voracity and acuity, his precocious contribution to the specification of RSS (when he was only 13) and to advance research on semantic web for the W3C; his technical contributions for bootstrapping Creative Commons; his college years and his millions made with Reddit; his radical turn to public issues after campaigning against SOPA and PIPA; and, finally, his tragic passing after his indictment for “digital trespassing” (among several other counts) when he was caught using the MIT network to download articles in bulk from JSTOR. As his close friends, partner, and his family members suggest in various passages of the film, it was extremely taxing and painful for him to have to deal with the prosecution. To riff off Artaud‘s expression, there is plenty of evidence in the documentary which suggests Aaron was “suicided by society”, that is, unintentionally led to commit suicide by state prosecutors.
If there was anything to be further explored in the film it would have been to give more space to the political effervescence following the event, which, IMHO, would definitely lead to a more hopeful closing. Aaron’s mobilizing power was substantially increased as he became a powerful symbol to organize projects to further the digital commons. When the sad news first struck Internet and hacker communities, I was in the midst of my fieldwork in the Bay Area. I remember being assaulted by a feeling of painful emptiness. I shared the grievances online as I read them and I realized I was hardly alone in my emotional response, which was, at once, intersubjective, internetworked, and intercorporeal. At the time, I happened to be re-reading Ricouer’s “Time and Narrative” when I came across a thoughtful passage: “how can one speak of human life […] if we cannot have access to the temporal dramas of existence outside stories told about them by others and by ourselves?” (Ricouer 1984, p. 74). This question became my guise ever since as I experienced the event of Aaron’s trajectory being collectively narrated. For those of us on the ground, it reorganized the experience of time for political activism in, at least, three (simultaneous) movements. First, a retrospective of his accomplishments as a reorganization of our collective memory – the attempt to make the web even more interconnected, the uphill battle against IP barons to create, foster, and expand an alternative digital commons; second, the turn of our attention towards the present and the undeniable fact of the privilege of access some of us possess in US-based educational institutions; and, third, our new projections for what to seek based on what was recollected as important milestones for the Internet as infrastructure and vibrant publics.
The stories of what flourished right after Aaron’s passing are still waiting to be told. I have vivid memories of some activities that took place in the Bay Area. At the Internet Archive headquarters, the Earth’s flag was half mast for Aaron’s memorial service. From young tech enthusiasts from local hackerspaces to big names in the Bay Area tech world, Creative Commons and Electronic Frontier Foundation activists, librarians, early tech pioneers, various friends and would-be friends were present. The general tone was of deep grievance. Discourses on our present-day injustices in the relation to guarded access privileges were inflamed and yet deeply mournful. After hearing those who worked side-by-side with Aaron, the mic was open to the public and a huge line was formed with those who wanted to put on record that they have been in intent and practice just like Aaron. If there was something that was definitely shared at the occasion, it was a sense that we were Aaron Swartz as much as in other contexts such as the experiences of Carlo Giuliani, Brad Will, and Chelsea Manning.
During a two-day hackathon at Noisebridge hackerspace also in San Francisco, Aaron’s life was narrated in various ways. People discussed his political motivations, his technical achievements, and what could be done to further the causes he stood for. They talked about evaluations of the state of current struggles on the politico-institutional and non-institutional levels. Close friends espoused his political allegiances and diverged in defining his political positioning as Keynesian or libertarian-socialist (as in the European anarchist tradition). For one thing, they agreed upon: Aaron was not same after reading (the political) Chomsky. He was also said to be an adept of weak AI. Various Internet projects were discussed, applications were written to advance Aaron’s unfinished projects, and two tech entrepreneurs came in and worked quietly at the “dirty shop” to, at the end of the day, present to the hackathon participants a prototype of a book scanner. I proposed an Internet watchdog campaign to gather information on NSF-sponsored projects funded after 2011 under the new guideline for data sharing to evaluate what strategies have been applied if any.
If Aaron’s spirit is to live on, we must respond to his call in our daily practices to create and foster alternatives to the ongoing intellectual enclosures. Brian Knappenberger’s documentary is an important addition to our Open Access archives. For the very few of us in the walled gardens of knowledge production, Aaron’s call in his manifesto is a wake-up for perceiving our privilege and taking responsibility. It is time (or, rather, the time has already passed) for us to end monopolistic arrangements for the management of what we write, peer-review, circulate, and access in and out of academia. It is, after all, a matter of being realistic to demand the impossible: the reinvention of our technological present.