What Funders Can Learn From Aaron Swartz’s Life – and Death

by Sarah Armour-Jones

Aaron Swartz

The palpable anguish over Aaron Swartz’s death by suicide has elicited a torrent of tributes and reflections from within the tech, hacker, and participatory democracy communities that Aaron was part of. The grief at what the world has lost, and what we will never know we have lost, is intense, as is the anger at the archaic laws that allowed him to be persecuted, and prosecuted, so fervently.

Tim Berners-Lee @timberners_lee

Aaron dead. World wanderers, we have lost a wise elder. Hackers for right, we are one down. Parents all, we have lost a child. Let us weep.

While many of the most respected thinkers and doers in this brave new world of tech for good and social change often bristled at Aaron’s approaches, or perhaps youthful, intense idealism, no one argues the facts – that Aaron Swartz was a truly brilliant mind with extraordinary technological skills coupled with a deep need to shake the foundations of our government and culture to their cores, and make them better.

His insistence on thinking big is beautifully summed up in a note to Micah Sifry, criticizing the government transparency movement for not going far enough:

My core argument is that the problem with our government is not specific misdeeds but systemic corruption. Thus pointing out problems with specific Congresspeople — whether through wiki pages, pop-up windows, or campaign finance data — is going to be ineffective, perhaps even counterproductive, because every time you whack at a corruption scandal over here, a dozen more will pop up over there, and interested people will burn out from the impossibility of the task. 

Structural fixes are needed to solve the system problem; fixes like Clean Elections, more independent media, and a more democratic citizenry.

This doesn’t mean that forcing him to stop is a bad thing — if you have to spend resources on individualized projects like this, it’s better than not spending them at all. But why constrain yourself in this way? Why not harness the power of the Internet to work on the larger-scale problems?

Think bigger,
– Aaron

While some, like Lawrence Lesig and danah boyd knew him well enough to question his actions at MIT (though not ever his intent), they have both come out strongly, as they should, against the unrelentingly ambitious prosecutor and legal system that ultimately caused Aaron to make the choice he did. Using Aaron as an example and hopping up charges that in no way fit his “crime”, threatening up to 30 years in prison and enormous fines, caused this literally unbelievably talented and good person to take his life. That is the real crime here.

His family’s statement sums it up:

Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles. 

Today, we grieve for the extraordinary and irreplaceable man that we have lost. 

So what can the funder community take from this tragedy?

Trying to understand hacktivist culture is a start, and the goals of this new generation of democratic activists. As danah boyd noted in her recent post about Aaron:

And one of the reasons why so many hackers and geeks spent yesterday raging against the machine is because so many people in power have been unable to see past the particular acts and understand the intentions and activism. So much public effort has been put into controlling and harmonizing geek resistance, squashing the rebellion, and punishing whoever authorities can get their hands on. But most geeks operate in gray zones, making it hard for them to be pinned down and charged. It’s in this context that Aaron’s stunt gave federal agents enough evidence to bring him to trial to use him as an example. They used their power to silence him and publicly condemn him even before the trial even began.

Hackers don’t fit into neat boxes that foundations crave. Nor do they produce neat outputs and fit into neat evaluations. They are the tinkerers, the next generation of explorers and rebels – but these rebels have a cause and it’s noble. For all the foundations that support good governance, civic participation, voter disenfranchisement, campaign finance, and government transparency, hackers like Aaron are pushing at the boundaries of this work, asking funders, and all of us, to imagine more change and do more to make that change happen.

This is a messy space, and obviously Aaron’s actions at MIT would make institutional funders very uncomfortable (to put it mildly). But the ethos of change – real and structural – is one that many of the biggest foundations claim to support (and fund).

Funders must seek to understand and recognize brilliant minds like Aaron – the kinds of people who will help usher in this next evolution of our culture and governance.

And they should at least try to engage them on their own terms. In a fascinating coming-of-age blog posting from 2005 concerning his escapades with friends and colleagues associated with the activist collective Downhill Battle, Swartz critiques the stiff and stale approach of too many academic and philanthropic gatherings (though there are exceptions, like the Mozilla Foundation, which works specifically for open access principles). Here’s his take on one such meeting:

One problem is that such events have rather unclear goals, like “fostering discussion”. One can certainly have a conversation — two, maybe even three or four, people talking to each other — and one can have many such conversations. But one cannot have conversations involving groups of twenty or thirty people, especially when the topic is boring and the people are prone to speeches. It’s just doesn’t work. The only useful part, as the participants will readily attest, is the conversations in the hallways.

And so, I’m in something of a bind, since I want to get invited to such meetings but I don’t really like them. So I can’t really talk about them much on my blog. Nor can I tell the organizer what I really think about them, although they always ask. And worst of all, I sort of tune out during the actual meeting-part conversations which makes me shy about speaking up lest I betray this fact, which in turn makes the organizer regret inviting me. ‘I invited this Aaron kid because I thought he was a genius,’ they say to themselves, ‘but he didn’t say a word!’ (As a last ditch attempt to justify flying me out they try to pressure me into saying something but I’m not very cooperative.) It’s all so sad.

More concretely, funders can and should support open Internet and cultural projects, like Creative Commons (which Aaron helped create, before he could shave) and Participatory Culture Foundation, as well as more specific policy changes – relating to our ever more restricting copyright laws and Internet regulations (the laws that ultimately enabled Aaron to be charged with such misdeeds).

The future (open or closed), our democracy (flourishing or corrupted), and our culture (diverse or sanitized), all hinge on how we embrace, use and codify our Interconnected networks, like the Internet. If Aaron teaches us nothing else, it’s that big changes must happen, and brilliant minds who work outside the lines of traditional culture will help usher in these changes. Foundations pushing for social change should support the Aaron Swartzes of the world, their peers, and their work.

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