The Boy Who Could Change the World
“One of the minor puzzles of American life is what question to ask people at parties and suchly to get to know them,” a nineteen-year-old Aaron Swartz wrote in 2006.
“‘How ya doin’?’ is of course mere formality, only the most troubled would answer honestly for anything but the positive. […] ‘What do you do?’ is somewhat offensive.” Aaron walks through various other options—“Where are you from?” “What’s your major?” “What book have you read recently?”—and articulates why each one fails to start a worthwhile discussion. And then he offers his own hack:
I propose instead that one ask “What have you been thinking about lately?” First, the question is extremely open-ended. The answer could be a book, a movie, a relationship, a class, a job, a hobby, etc. Even better, it will be whichever of these is most interesting at the moment. Second, it sends the message that thinking, and thinking about thinking, is a fundamental human activity, and thus encourages it.
Like a lot of Aaron’s ideas, what makes his conversation-starter useful is that it brings out the best in others.
Aaron was a programmer, activist, entrepreneur, community builder, and a dear friend of EFF. In 2013, while being unfairly prosecuted under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, he took his own life.
Many of Aaron’s writings have now been elegantly collected in The Boy Who Could Change the World: The Writings of Aaron Swartz. The book is a joy to read—partially because his ideas and the way he wrote about them were so compelling, but also because you get to see his thinking develop and change from his teenage years into adulthood. And he thought about a lot—everything from copyright law to privacy to political tactics to music.
Today, on the third anniversary of his death, let’s take a moment to celebrate Aaron’s life by reflecting on a few of his words.
“It’s the Outsiders Who Provide Nearly All of the Content”
Throughout the book—and throughout Aaron’s Life—there’s a strong theme: technology shouldn’t just be for techies. Tech can, and should, benefit everyone. He played key roles in the development of Creative Commons, RSS, and RDF, all technologies that are inherently about making information accessible to more people.
In the book are several blog posts documenting Aaron’s unsuccessful 2006 run for the Wikimedia board of directors. He shares what was a minority opinion among the Wikimedia community at the time: that it’s outsiders, not loyal Wikipedians, that make the most important contributions to the free encyclopedia (Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales had frequently argued the opposite).
Aaron explains how he tested Wales’ assertion—counting not the total number of edits each user had made to an article, but who’d made the most substantive contributions to the current version of that article. He found that the largest contributions were made not by Wikipedia insiders, but by subject matter experts who didn’t live and breathe Wikipedia.
When you put it all together, the story becomes clear: an outsider makes one edit to add a chunk of information, then insiders make several edits tweaking and reformatting it. In addition, insiders rack up thousands of edits doing things like changing the name of a category across the entire site — the kind of thing only insiders deeply care about. As a result, insiders account for the vast majority of the edits. But it’s the outsiders who provide nearly all of the content.
And when you think about it, this makes perfect sense. Writing an encyclopedia is hard. To do anywhere near a decent job, you have to know a great deal of information about an incredibly wide variety of subjects. Writing so much text is difficult, but doing all the background research seems impossible.
On the other hand, everyone has a bunch of obscure things that, for one reason or another, they’ve come to know well. So they share them, clicking the edit link and adding a paragraph or two to Wikipedia. At the same time, a small number of people have become particularly involved in Wikipedia itself, learning its policies and special syntax, and spending their time tweaking the contributions of everybody else.
In subsequent posts, Aaron asked how Wikipedia could be optimized to bring in more expert contributors, rather than targeting its community-building efforts at a smaller, dedicated core of Wikipedians.
Those same concerns about tech designed for insiders come up elsewhere too. In his post “Release Late, Release Rarely,” Aaron questions the “release early, release often” dogma popular among coders:
Releasing means showing it to the world. There’s nothing wrong with showing it to friends or experts or even random people in a coffee shop. The friends will give you the emotional support you would have gotten from actual users, without the stress. The experts will point out most of the errors the world would have found, without the insults. And random people will not only give you most of the complaints the public would, they’ll also tell you why the public gave up even before bothering to complain.
This is why “release early, release often” works in “open source”: you’re releasing to a community of insiders. Programmers know what it’s like to write programs and they don’t mind using things that are unpolished. They can see what you’re going to do next and maybe help you get there.
The public isn’t like that. Don’t treat them like they are.
“Just Giving People Information Isn’t Enough”
In some ways, that firm belief that information should benefit everyone cost Aaron his life. When he committed suicide, he was facing severe penalties for accessing millions of articles via MIT’s computer network without “authorization.”
The book includes the 2008 Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, while noting that Aaron’s role in writing it—and the degree to which it reflected his views—is the subject of some controversy.
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.
That is too high 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.
"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.
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.
It’s also clear, though, that Aaron didn’t see access to information as only an end in itself. Aaron championed open government through his project watchdog.net, but even at the time that he launched it, he knew that transparency alone wouldn’t build a more just society:
But just giving people information isn’t enough; unless you give them an opportunity to do something about it, it will just make them more apathetic. So the second part of the site is building tools to let people take action: write or call your representative, send a note to local papers, post a story about something interesting you’ve found, generate a scorecard for the next election.
Ultimately, Aaron discovered that the most powerful way that we can use technology to fight corruption isn’t primarily about transparency, it’s about collaboration—the same kind of open collaboration he’d championed at Wikipedia.
Putting databases online isn’t a silver bullet, as nice as the word transparency may sound. But it was easy to delude myself. All I had to do was keep putting things online and someone somewhere would find a use for them. After all, that’s what technologists do, right? The World Wide Web wasn’t designed for publishing the news—it was designed as a neutral platform that could support anything from scientific publications to pornography.
Politics doesn’t work like that. Perhaps at some point putting things on the front page of the New York Times guaranteed that they would be fixed, but that day is long past. The pipeline of leak to investigation to revelation to report to reform has broken down. Technologists can’t depend on journalists to use their stuff; journalists can’t depend on political activists to fix the problems they uncover. Change doesn’t come from thousands of people, all going their separate ways. Change requires bringing people together to work on a common goal. That’s hard for technologists to do by themselves.
But if they do take that as their goal, they can apply all their talent and ingenuity to the problem. They can measure their success by the number of lives that have been improved by the changes they fought for, rather than the number of people who have visited their website. They can learn which technologies actually make a difference and which ones are merely indulgences. And they can iterate, improve, and scale.
“The Enemies of the Freedom to Connect Have Not Yet Disappeared”
Aaron’s deftness at collaborating with others to effect change became obvious to a lot of us through his work in the campaign to defeat SOPA, a bill promoted by Hollywood that would have created a “blacklist” of censored websites. The Boy who Could Change the World features a transcript of Aaron’s now-famous talk, where he explains how he, EFF, and other Internet activists took a bill that was almost universally supported in Congress and turned it into a bill that no lawmaker wanted to touch.
And it will happen again. Sure, it will have yet another name, and maybe a different excuse, and probably do its damage in a different way. But make no mistake: The enemies of the freedom to connect have not disappeared. The fire in those politicians’ eyes hasn’t been put out. There are a lot of people, a lot of powerful people, who want to clamp down the Internet. And to be honest, there aren’t a whole lot who have a vested interest in protecting it from all of that. Even some of the biggest companies, some of the biggest Internet companies, to put it frankly, would benefit from a world in which their little competitors could get censored. We can’t let that happen.
“A work like this can only ever be a picture of a life incomplete,” Lawrence Lessig laments in his introduction to the book.
Few of us will ever come close to the influence this boy had. He was never on The Colbert Report or The Daily Show; NBC Nightly News never once covered the thoughts of Aaron Swartz. Yet his influence weaved itself through the lives of an incredible number of very different souls.
Three years after his death, it can still be difficult to articulate Aaron’s legacy. He worked on so many technologies that we use every day. He inspired so many people to fight for free software, free culture, open government, and more. But the fights he fought haven’t been won yet.
At the age of 19, Aaron wrote about what he saw as his own legacy. He tells the story of an academic who’d encouraged him to get into a certain field because it was “hot.” “Presumably Darwin and Newton didn’t begin their investigations because they thought the field was ‘hot,’” Aaron laughs.
Ultimately, he says, the way to leave a real legacy isn’t by following what’s popular, but by forging new paths that people haven’t thought of yet. “Naturally, doing things like changing the university are much harder than simply becoming yet another professor. But for those who genuinely care about their legacies, it doesn’t seem like there’s much choice.”
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