Flowers in the Dustbin:
Aaron Swartz and the Cowardly Present.

by Philippa Bateman


When there's no future, how can there be sin?
We're the flowers in the dustbin
We're the poison in your human machine
We're the future, your future

(God Save the Queen, The Sex Pistols)

26-year-old Aaron Swartz committed suicide on January 11, 2013.

Aaron Swartz, if you don’t know, was a brilliant computer programmer, precocious technologist, humanitarian and dedicated activist who, among many other notable achievements in 2008 wrote the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto which called for the liberation of information locked up by corporations and publishers; he argued that it should be available for free, online, and for all.

In 2009, he was charged by US federal prosecutors for illegally downloading, using the MIT network, millions of academic articles from the online archive JSTOR. He was indicted and faced as many as 35 years in prison and $1million in fines but JSTOR were not pressing charges. His father, a consultant to MIT’s Media Lab, issued a family statement that said his son “was killed by the government, and MIT betrayed all its basic principles.” There was outrage, and not only among the online and academic community (a petition with 50,000 signatures has been submitted to the White House demanding the removal of the prosecutors Ortiz and Heymann).

Aaron Swartz wasn’t interested in money and was disturbed by having power over anyone – he hated being waited on in cafes and on planes, and when he landed a big corporate job, having sold Reddit to Condé Nast, he fled, appalled by the rules and rigidities.(Read Larissa Mcfarquar’s profile in the New Yorker for the complex dimensions of his psyche and story.

Forget knee jerk judgments about the suicidal act being a dumb thing to do, or unnecessary—at this stage, it’s not my point. It is shocking but not hard to believe that Swartz would kill himself because he could see no way out. He took the world seriously and his place in it. Personal issues and institutional betrayals aside, he was a clever, independently minded, sensitive and fragile individual who had much to offer but he was not equipped with a messianic ego or the kind of resilience people talk flippantly and cluelessly about – having never been personally challenged, as someone like Swartz was. He was tortured by the reality that he would never be able to work in public service once a felon; moreover, that as a young person, and not from wealth who was not good at asking for help, he worried that he wouldn’t be able to raise the money to defend himself against the aggressive legal prosecution mounted against him. Was there another way? Possibly, but it didn’t lie with the law or government and that’s a problem.

People not acquainted with lawyers and the law can be frightened by it, or don’t have the money to use it, and those who are not intimidated, can afford it and use it, know that. The law is supposed to protect the rights of citizens, as democratically elected governments are supposed to represent the interests of the less strong against the vested interests of the mighty but that’s not always what happens.

It is galling to observe that the US Attorney General’s Office came after Swartz like a bat out of hell but has failed to indict any Wall Street executive for their involvement in the 2008 financial meltdown. It points not to a crisis of values but also a failure to understand where the brightest future might lie – not in the hands of Wall Street bankers.

Nor it is germane to demand that the holy trinity of law, institutions and finance do some soul-searching as that would assume there is a soul to search. Gifted and extraordinary people who give of themselves and their talents make a difference—brave ones too who take on the bigger issues that affect us all in ways that we mostly take for granted, and galvanize people and governments to make laws and give us structures within which we can prosper, fairly, and develop beyond the primitive need to survive and compete.

Aaron Swartz was a young person interested in making the world a better place. For that, he should have been supported not threatened with extinction. He wasn’t driven to invent or sell consumer products, maximize profits for investment banks, corporations and shareholders, or sell the contents of the earth to create the pollution we don’t want. Whether you agree with his ideas or not, he had a significant a contribution to make; he should have been working for the White House, thinking, challenging, working perhaps with unlike minds without threat and problem solving — not punished for doing on a bigger scale what tens of millions of teenagers do most days when they want a song or a TV program or an academic article and don’t want to pay for it.

There is an impasse between the old way and the new way. We’ve hit a wall.

Jaron Lanier, in his wonderful book, You are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto wrote insightfully and critically about the Web 2.0 world we inhabit and its dangers: mediocrity, juvenilia, isolation, empty-headedness, and my persistent grouch: musicians, journalists, writers, intellectuals, photographers, filmmakers and artists not being paid for their work. (Lawyers, teachers, doctors are next).

Swartz was a believer in open access and I am, up to a point, but I am not a believer in creators work downloaded and accessed for free for the practical and simple reason that if they are not being paid for their work, there will be no new or original work. There is the persistent cry against corporations and profits but even in the most criticized of old school media, there is a tradition that is worth not getting rid of and that’s being paid for work one does. There has to be another way, a new way that embraces open-ness and freedom of information and restores income to those who work. We in the creative industries joke that work was something you were paid for but that is beginning to appear as endangered as the right to rebel and question the powers that be.

Google is a corporation that makes almost all that has gone before, look dinky by comparison (when we fall for the idea that the world is in the cloud why wouldn’t Google park its arse on the throne); We ‘share’ within the fenced-in neighborhoods of Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest, Linked-in, and Twitter but trade our personal data and content for the privilege (as I am doing right now); we dutifully accept the ‘suggestions’ made to us when choosing books, music, TV or articles that rely on nothing more than algorithm based on past buying habits. And we wonder why culturally, nostalgia and the archive, elbow out innovation and originality.

Music, Newspapers, Magazines, Television and Movies were slow to catch on to the inevitability of digital convenience and an audience raised on free content, and for their sins took a serious battering to their bottom line and their relevance however as much as we don’t want to admit it, they continue to be, although in a more impoverished versions of themselves, where the big issues about our world and lives are shared collectively.

We need common ground to tell stories that make sense of what we do or we’re just bleeting into a black hole with ‘friends’ just like us. If ever there was an argument for the importance of news and the continuation of newspapers (be they virtual or material), it’s so people are able to talk to each other about the dirty, real, complex and important issues that impact our lives - stuff like justice, the environment, food, labor, employment, human rights, education… You get where I’m going.

How we engage with each other and operate in the Digital Age becomes more more complicated by the day but there is a pile up of evidence that points to a profound fault-line in the illusory power of the web as a game changer. Alec Liu, writing in Motherlode, in the aftermath of Swartz’s suicide, about the failings of the Second Great Tech Boom, makes the point that we have never been so interconnected and so lonely.

I would add to that, and so complicit in our powerlessness. The fragmentation of audiences combined with the ease of access and that hoary old human need to connect is seductive but not wholly satisfying in the new world order.

Other than being able to access information easily which continues to feel like a gift (and it is because it’s free), the connection is largely superficial – it’s about marketing a thing or oneself. It appears that the real work is being done somewhere else and out of sight. And, when it’s harder to see how power is working and you’re a willing participant in it, does challenge even come into it?

Those who do challenge, pay a high price. To wit: the suicide of Aaron Swartz, the cruel incarceration of intelligence analyst Bradley Manning and the static saga of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.

What’s next?

Postscript: Since I wrote this in 2013 there has been a documentary made, The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz by Brian Knappenberger which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2014. Take a look.

In January 2017, President Obama commuted all but four months of Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning's 35 year long sentence for a leak that revealed America's diplomatic and military activities.

Photo: by Philippa Bateman

(Published originally by Perch, March 2013)