A few weeks ago, I went to see a documentary that dealt with themes that I considered largely foreign to me: coding, hacktivism, and, perhaps most broadly, The Internet as an entity that can be conceptualized as well as politicized (and not just roamed around upon until some pesky coffee shop time limit brings everything to a screeching halt).
The film was called “The Internet’s Own Boy,” directed by Brian Knappenberger. It follows the dually inspiring and heartbreaking story of Aaron Swartz, who tragically took his life amidst a federal investigation involving the mass downloading of academic articles from JSTOR.
If you’re in academia like me, that last part probably piqued your attention.
An investigation surrounding the massive downloading of papers from JSTOR?
That incredulity is not unfounded, as even JSTOR declined to file civil charges against Swartz as the federal case dragged on despite its clear punitive overreach. The government, in contrast, seemingly sought to make an example out of Aaron, who had co-authored the “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto” and led political protests against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), thereby garnering a growing audience for his message of freedom of information.
Let’s back up. The incident goes something like this: realizing that private companies such as JSTOR control a large chunk of our collective intellectual archive and charge its users to access said collection while those who carried out the research profit nothing, Swartz allegedly set up a computer in a utility closet at MIT and left it there to download articles from the company’s database for several days. According to Slate.com, the number of downloads eventually totaled 4.8 million, so, hey, maybe something you wrote was in there!
After a few days, the download caught the attention of MIT. Once security footage allegedly captured Swartz accessing the closet and presumably the offending computer along with it, he was hit with a series of charges, beginning with breaking and entering and recklessly damaging a protected computer and ending with fraud.
When I found out that “recklessly damaging a protected computer” was an actual crime, I rushed home to make sure my Macbook was alright.
According to the film, what exactly Swartz planned to do with this giant collection of papers once the download finished remains unclear, and formed a crucial part of the showdown between the internet activist and the federal government. While no one interviewed for the documentary was certain, they had some strong theories based on his past use of massive collections of data:
He probably intended to make the articles more widely available, freeing the research from JSTOR’s subscription-only setup, given his public criticisms of the company and the wider privatization of academic material. Perhaps he also intended to run some type of large-scale analysis on the collection of papers as he had done in the past when researching a direct link between lobbyist dollars and legal rulings in favor of the companies for which they advocated.
Crunching on $15 popcorn in the theater, this second possibility got my attention again.
He was using digital tools to find correlations and patterns in a large body of texts that would be otherwise indiscernible to the human eye?
That doesn’t sound like a crime, nor does it sound like “internet activism.”
For those of us plucking away at clumsily tagging Shakespeare plays and sonnets with one hand while spilling coffee all over everything with the other, it sounds an awful lot like something else: that ever-so-hot, hot, hot, super-sexy academic frontier.
The federal government attempted to portray Swartz as a malicious hacker, but,
Was he a budding digital humanist?
Throughout the documentary, family members, colleagues, former lovers, and close friends attempt to shed light on Aaron’s ingenuity and passion for ideas. The point wasn’t so much that he was incredibly gifted (he created an early version of Wikipedia as a child, for example), but that he saw beyond the rote technique and questioned the bigger picture.
Not content to use his technical skills to make a fortune, Swartz turned against corporate interests and used his technological vision and skill to interrogate them instead. As his father points out at one moment during the film, the crux of the conflict boiled down to altruism: he was using his talents not to make money, but to make the world a better place.
The movie asks us to balk at the fact that bettering the world became a criminal act as a shortsighted government butted heads with a visionary. Former girlfriend and technology journalist Quinn Norton recounts warning her interrogators during a questioning for the case that they would soon realize that they had fallen on the wrong side of history.
Naming Swartz’s exact vision, nevertheless, seems always just out of the film’s reach.
Swartz himself probably came the closest, labeling himself an “applied sociologist.”
What shall we call an effort to better access and analyze the cultural record? What name do we give the inquisitive eye not just to numbers and formulas and codes but to the lived outcomes of those equations, the expressions of lived experience that fill in the character box once it has been scripted?
Because Swartz was a coder and got his start as an innovator of The Internet, perhaps we’ve all overlooked another realm at play here:
I myself have always called it “humanist.”
Oh, the humanities.
In addition to the basic violations of democratic process one might trace in the case of Aaron Swartz, evident in the details of his passionate efforts to actually do something with his technical prowess, we might also balk at our own inability to further define the “do something.”
If Aaron was met with legal action for his unflinching desire to access information and better understand it (and, as a result, the institutionally organized world from which it emerged), we find ourselves at a crossroads between the fight to make information public and accessible and another ongoing, uphill battle with short-sightedness.
And maybe we should just call it blindness. The technology-for-innovation’s sake, and innovation-for-capital’s sake mindset has become a venture so disconnected from its contents (those expressions of humanity that emerge every so often, irksome though they are), that what merits a federal investigation in one arena might pass as a spicy dissertation proposal in another (if we tacked on some sternly-phrased advisor marginalia about minding copyright laws).
We are funding the ongoing creation of a giant, increasingly elaborate container without any care as to what we might put in it when, if ever, we look up from the cogs and bops and gadgets (admittedly I lack the proper lexicon here).
When I read “XML Introduction for Beginners Who Will Understand Very Little of This Explanation Despite Their Best Efforts,” and consider a foray into a digital humanities project, I don’t worry about the government getting mad at me, because apparently it can’t even conceptualize my discipline at all, let alone notice all of its advances and potential.
Even arriving completely late to the internet activism scene, and learning about Aaron only through stories from his closest friends and family, I still found myself excited to be in the presence of the memory of a visionary intellect.
However crushing and disheartening it is to learn of the tragic ending of Aaron’s story, the artistic effort to represent that story, and the collective narration of those closest to him, makes forward movement possible as we continue to make decisions about how to further construct our digital world.
What we can learn from Aaron’s story, in addition to the political injustices, is that the digital need not, and must not, advance without a mind to the human experience it serves.