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Or, Why “Printing Out The Internet”
Does Not Honour Aaron Swartz*
by JEROEN NIEUWLAND
My body is so crap at staying true
(singer-songwriter David Thomas Broughton)
Aaron Swartz knew and experienced the difficulty of staying true to one’s body; he suffered from suicidal depression, extreme social anxieties, and ulcerative colitis (a serious type of inflammatory bowel disease). He is also routinely described as a genius, prodigy, hero; three very laden and oft-overused, or misused words. However, for Aaron Swartz they ring true, but in the strict sense of their literal, etymological meanings, not – to paraphrase from Glenn Greenwald’s article “The inspiring heroism of Aaron Swartz” – “to whitewash his life or beatify him upon death.”
Aaron lived with great love, courage, passion; created and developed fundamental parts of today’s internet; fought to defend ideals of open access, availability of intellectual property and cultural heritage; thought ecologically, in terms of open connectivity between different spheres of people and environment. Perhaps he was too true (to the world outside), or not true enough (to his own body); either way, in the end, which should never already have been the end, his body broke. He leaves us with the injunction to try as hard as we can to stay true; even though few of us will meet the standards Aaron set for himself.
“You literally ought to be asking yourself all the time what is the most important thing in the world I could be working on right now, and if you are not working on that why aren’t you?” is how Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, Aaron’s partner, describes him. Says another friend, “I’ve heard a lot of people talk about Aaron’s impossibly high standards and youthful enthusiasm and naïve brilliance […]. I can’t help but think that the whole point of people like Aaron is to show us how low and base and hidebound our expectations are.”
Some examples of his precociousness; at 13 he helped developed RSS (a web feed service), around the same time he helped Larry Lessig develop Creative Commons (personalized, flexible Copyright), later he co-created Reddit, was the driving force behind DemandProgress, the successful anti-SOPA campaign), and already at 13, he was introduced to Tim Berners-Lee, who upon Aaron’s death wrote, “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.”
Aaron was also a hacker, activist, and fiercely independent body. Aaron’s activism, singular mind, and unpredictable, yet highly specific and effective actions and campaigns, were probably part of the reason why the FBI seemed to want to make an example of him. They went after him hard when he was caught plugging his laptop directly into server at the MIT campus and downloading 3 million documents from the academic database JSTOR. Initial charges were for 35, then 50 years; but later plea bargains were offered for 6 months and even as low as 2 months. Much discussion has been had online and elsewhere about these charges, whether or not this was a case of prosecutorial overreach, and whether or not the over-zealous prosecution (another young hacker in an unrelated case led by the same prosecutor, also committed suicide), is what directly or indirectly led Aaron to take his own life, hanging himself on January 11, 2013. Those discussions are only tangentially related to the questions I want to ask; namely, what does it mean to stay true? To one’s own body; and to someone after death? What I want to say, is that this is impossible to say, until after the fact. What I want to suggest, is that Kenneth Goldsmith’s dedication of his project to “Printing Out The Internet” (POTI), is certainly one way not to be true to Aaron Swartz; not to honour the true memory of Aaron Swartz.
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