Remembering Aaron Swartz, Taking Up the Fight

I encountered the Aaron Swartz memorial the other day that helps ‘liberate’ a randomly selected article from JSTOR, as an act of civil disobedience, to commemorate both the legacy that Swartz leaves behind, but also the high-profile witch-hunt case which was a crucial factor in him taking his own life. Much has been said about Swartz and much more will have to be said about him, and about his work, to make sure that the good that men do does not get interred with their bones. And there are people more articulate, closer to him in personal and professional capacities who will do a better job at making sure we have an archive of memories to fill up the ‘Aaron sized-hole’ that his untimely death has introduced into our lives.

So instead of attempting to write a eulogy I am ill-equipped for, I want to mark the tragic loss of Aaron Swartz by talking about causes and everyday politics. And I might have to do it through a mode of collective self-flagellation because it is a point that needs to be driven home. I am sure that almost everybody would agree that the ideals that Swartz held were unimpeachable, even though they might not always agree with his tactics. There would be a general consensus that in our rapidly growing information societies free knowledge leads to better, stronger, and more equitable societies. In fact, there is a whole generation of younger users who are so used to having unlimited and unrestricted access to digital information that they often get frustrated and infuriated when they encounter media cartels and Intellectual Property Regimes that insist on locking up knowledge — especially publicly funded academic resources — behind paywalls.

We have all grumbled, at different points, about the essay we wanted to teach in class, the book we needed for a research paper, the movie we wanted to remix, or the song we wanted to sample, locked up behind (often) unaffordable access systems. We recognise that in the building of this gated knowledge landscape, we are creating uneven, corrupt and corrupting hierarchies of information control and access. And yet, when it comes to actually responding to these questions of closed intellectual property, restricted information access and media monopolies exerted by information cartels, we generally have a comfortable sense of distance. These are other peoples’ problems. These are battles somebody else will fight.

Even within academia, where we have been the most active in questioning and contesting the notions of power and knowledge, there is also the highest complicity in creating these monstrous behemoths that we feed regularly with research that is more often than not, publicly funded. In our quest for tenures, careers and popularity, we have voluntarily given up our rights to private and closed access journals that in return give us the symbolic capital to gain power in the system. In the 1980s, when the Subaltern school was writing against colonial legacies and cultural imperialism, Homi Bhabha had described this condition of granted agency and borrowed power as mimicry. In his own hyphenated way, he had suggested that the new subaltern, who is often seen as engaged in critically responding to the colonial masters and their legacies, only exists in a structure of mimicry — where he emptily gestures towards the problems of colonial inheritance, without any power to actually overthrow or challenge it. Within South Asian feminisms, Kumkum Sangari has described this status of granted agency within patriarchy — a condition that gives us a sense of power and a space of negotiation, as long as we uphold the very structure that oppresses us in the name of our empowerment.

It is time to realise that within academia, and the social sciences and arts based academia in particular, we have now perfected the art of mimicry. Where we pull our pens instead of our swords and talk (often indecipherably) about conditions of power and geographies of inequality and the need to do something about it. We attend conferences where proceedings go into closed access journals, and publish books with publishing houses that charge us and our students exorbitant sums of money to access the knowledge in those books. We publish not to be heard but to be cited, not to create open publics but closed communities of interlocked interests. And we feel smug about being politically committed, separating the conditions of our knowledge production from the content of our knowledge, as if the two have nothing to do with each other.

In other sectors that I dabble with but am not such a rank (and hence equally complicit) insider, I see similar distances. This alienation of our intellectual work from its political content is just one of the separations we make. The other separation is between our discursive communities and everyday practice. So embedded is our description, explanation and analysis of the world, in languages inaccessible to any but the privileged few who are trained to understand it. The advice we give our students — follow the grandmother rule: write clearly so that your grandmother will be able to understand it — is a standard we rarely practice in our academic writing.

These are symptoms I see in other sectors that are also committed to political questioning and change, working towards building better worlds and societies. Specialised lawyers fight their battles in closed court-rooms and write in obscure law journals which are not accessible or intelligible to the common public. Activists often get bogged down into appropriating the same language to be taken seriously. Advocates of causes fear over-simplification of the complex issues, keeping the everyday person outside of these battles around information and knowledge. We have built gated politics where the threshold of investment and engagement is so high, that the only response to that is detachment.

This brings me back to talking about Swartz and his dream of liberating information from the clutches of exploitative information houses. Swartz’s crime was not that he broke the law — I wonder if the public prosecutor has never pirated material online; statistics would suggest otherwise — but that he didn’t find allies in spaces which profess political commitment but then mimic it in their content rather than in practice. It is not surprising that even when JSTOR, the affected party, refused to push for criminal or civil charges, the University where the ‘crime’ occurred and the federal authorities decided to pursue him as a felon. Many people have wondered about why a well-loved and popular cult figure like Swartz would feel so lonely as to take this drastic step to end his life, and we now have to take responsibility that this separation of what he believed as the central tenet to life is something that his natural allies have separated out from their work.

Swartz is a folk-hero and he shall live as an icon for the groups working around internet freedom and information openness. But maybe it is time to stop waiting for another martyr to the cause. Maybe it is time to recognise that these battles around knowledge and information are not specialised fights to be played out in sombre tones by zealots on opposite sides. These are human wars, and they affect not only our everyday sense of who we are and the societies we live in, but also who we want to become and the worlds we want to create for future generations to inherit. Swartz  embodies a whole generation of digital natives who fail to understand why the ethically wrong and morally reprehensible practice of protected intellectual property, that goes against the very grain of building information societies, continues to find silent supporters rather than vocal protestors. The grief and sense of loss we have with Swartz’s passing is not easy to remedy. But Swartz will also be a moniker that every digital native will have to wear, as they traverse a treacherous terrain, persecuted by IP watchdogs and punished for what seems to be a natural order of things in their information worlds.

There is a lot of growing commentary with people expressing anger, shock, and sadness for the 26 year old man who died fighting a battle that we did not even become an audience to. And that commentary is necessary because we need to cope with the fact that we live in a world where somebody who believed in the most beautiful idea of a world that has free knowledge was persecuted to an early death. But at some point, we also need to stop talking and realise that we don’t have to come to arms for a moment only once-every-heroic-death. That the last disservice we will do to this everyday battle against intellectual property regime is to wait for the next icon to be trapped in this Greek tragedy structure of being punished for doing what he felt was right. It is time to start thinking of these questions of knowledge and information in our everyday life, negotiate with them beyond the narratives of convenience, and hope that there will be no more need to produce martyrs for a cause that is not just about books and music, but about being human.

Banner image credit: Maria Jesus V