The Idealist

Aaron Swartz and the Rise of Free Culture on the Internet

Justin Peters, 2016, Beaverton Murray Scholls Library, 302.231 PET

Aaron Swartz tangled with Big Copyright's stranglehold on academic productivity, and lost.

Tax dollars support research that is copyrighted and sequestered away from the public that pays for it. While 99% of the public and way too many academics don't care, this cripples creativity and ultimately the economic system that depends on that creativity. My own creativity suffers; while I can access a portion of the academic literature through the generousity of local universities, much more of the specialized literature is accessable in only a few places, often at university libraries like Princeton and Harvard that exclude outsiders (and are expensive to get to). Powerful interests pay lobbyists and politicians to maintain and extend this exclusion.

For my own research, I will rarely cite a firewalled article when an open reference is available. Rewriting the closed references for publically accessable channels might be construed by some as plagiarism - I construe closed access authorship as failed authorship, and authors and institutions who write for closed publication as practically unpublished; in time, I hope tenure and professional recognition will be withheld from those who hide their work behind paywalls.

Practically speaking, we will not have open publication without open access internet venues (cheap in 2017, more expensive as internet vandals become more capable and destructive) and more shared resources for composition, editing, peer review, and later revision. Wikipedia is an excellent tool for all the above; a global peer-controlled wiki for academic work could replace the entire edifice of closed paywall journals.

Instead of violating copyright laws and creating expensive trouble for JSTOR, I wish Aaron Swartz had devoted his prodigeous talents to creating and improving open access venues, and recruiting academics to contribute to them and elevate them to the prime channels for academic communication. Developing systems to automate the process of turning first-draft prose into polished and readable academic literature, and methods to train and financially compensate tens of thousands of out-of-work English majors to help craft readable prose.

The Creative Commons licenses are a legally creative victory for public access. If greedy pigs want to lock away their work for 100, 200, 500 years, let them. Bury them in an avalanche of higher quality and more accessable work, produced and polished by a vastly larger hoard of part-time authors, actors, musicians. While a professional author or performer devotes long hours to perfecting their craft, I hypothesize that with the right tools, forms of automated remix and selection, teams of part-time half-competents can outperform the professionals in the production of participatory culture.

Turning a patent into a product and a profit requires years of fundraising, design, experimentation, production scaling, employee training, and marketing. All this must fit into a 20 year patent term, from first filing to public domain. The production of a novel or a musical recording can occur in secret, under non-disclosure for years; from first disclosure (and first revenues soon after), an artist gets a life+50 year term, while corporations producing movies and other large works get a 75 year term. This seems way out of proportion for earning compensation, and more likely a means of controlling and censoring public discourse and participation, stifling often-more-eloquent-and-entertaining competition from the past.

So, what are we going to do about it? What could Aaron Swartz have done about it?

Whatever Swartz actually thought, the book describes an undisciplined, impulsive youngster unable to do the sometimes boring and frustrating work of completing the projects he starts, who does not accept responsibility for the consequences of his actions. Whether the copyright laws are just or not (they aren't), the consequences of violating them are dire, and Swartz must have known that. One man can stop a tank in Tianamen Square in front of photographers, but thousands of others have been crushed by tanks. The political process that deploys those tanks remains, fueled by the indifference of a public trained to passively accept the outcome and lazily ignore the alternatives. Fortunately, at least a few are awakened by one-man protests.

Arguing with (or violently opposing) the powerful may boost the ego of a wannabee revolutionary; enabling independence and voluntary participation in thousands of others is how a slave society evolves into a free society.

If Aaron Swartz had not hung himself (vain to the end; why not pills, or merely walking across the Canadian border? What a SHITTY way to leave his lover, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman) he would be in prison now. Thousands would be clamoring for his release, every day in confinement adding to his legend and embarassing his foes. Jail worked for Gandhi (and Hitler).

Okay, maybe I'm in no position to judge. I may be wrong about the creative potential of millions of "ordinary" people; perhaps authors and artists truly are a rare breed, a scarce commodity. That does not mean they are public property, even if we are injudicious enough to let them dominate our culture and our minds. The "ordinary" people can become more extraordinary with better tools, and perhaps with the very best open source tools, they can outperform any extraordinary minority. In a Hollywood fantasy, Nazi supersniper Fredrick Zoller can kill 250 US soldiers, but in real life, an army of free men can (and did) vanquish a Master Race.

About Justin Peter's book. It begins with a copyright page like many others, with all rights reserved. The first third is about the beginnings and growth of copyright in England and the US, seemingly to compare copyright's champion Noah Webster with Aaron Swartz, both geeky idealists. Another 50 pages of open source movement history. Peters writes in a condescending and snarky way about all of his protagonists; is he attempting to elevate himself above them, or is he demonstrating that great things are done by non-ordinary people? If the latter is his goal, he didn't do a good job, and if the former, well, lets see more adept language and careful research next time, less padding. Maybe even some suggested solutions.

I hope Cory Doctorow (or another friend of Aaron) writes a novel about what Aaron could have been, had he chosen life and toughed his way through the Bad Thing.

Book notes:

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IdealistSwartz (last edited 2017-03-28 22:18:07 by KeithLofstrom)