The news of Aaron Swartz’s death came to me early this morning, appropriately enough, in an email list devoted to an esoteric topic.
I didn’t know Aaron personally, though there is but one degree of separation, and that not a distant one. One feels the wings of Samael, that ancient and distinguished and terrible servant of God, rustling the air about one’s head.
I had been vaguely aware of Aaron’s doings over the years, and greatly approved, of course. Anybody opposed to intellectual-property Fascism is a friend of mine.
I’ve made my living for the last forty years, almost, doing Stupid Computer Tricks. These eager cocky young guys, each quite certain that he’s the smartest guy in the room — gotta love ‘em. I was one of ‘em, years ago, in a small way, though I never really was the smartest guy in the room, and never even believed I was. Or not for more than a minute or two, anyway.
But they go different ways, these smart young guys. Some of ‘em become apparatchiks for Google or Apple or, God help us, Microsoft or Oracle. Others take the path Aaron took, and decide to fight the lords of copyright and their sedulous gofers in the Enforcement Sector.
Those who knew him — I wish I had — say that Aaron was also familiar with the Black Dog: that horrible gloom that settles over some of us from time to time and sucks all the joy out of lives that ought to be full of joy.
Some accounts of his death emphasize this side of the story. Others wonder whether it might have had something to do with the fact that he was facing a long ordeal in the courts, and maybe decades in prison at the end of it, because he ‘stole’ a bunch of mostly dull journal articles from a thing called JSTOR.
JSTOR. Slowly I turned. Step by step, inch by inch…
Aaron couldn’t have taken on a better target. JSTOR owns the online rights to back issues of a lot of academic journals. Now as we all know, most of what gets printed in academic journals is horseshit. Say 99%. But there’s gold in the other 1%, and those of us who take an interest in some arcane question — mensural notation in the fifteenth century, let’s say — are always pressing our noses against JSTOR’s paywall.
So for us, Aaron was a Robin Hood. A very benign one. We were the poor, for whose sake he was robbing from the rich. Though ‘robbery’ is really not quite right. That is, after all, the language of ‘intellectual property’, an oxymoron if ever there was one.
Nobody could claim that anybody’s livelihood was threatened by opening up JSTOR. There was no downside, really, apart from impairing somebody’s arbitrary sense of proprietorship and control.
But they came down on him like a ton of bricks. MIT (on whose premises he conducted this magnificent stunt) and even JSTOR itself decided to back off, finally: talk about bad publicity. But the mockingly-named US Justice Department wouldn’t let go. Hey, give ‘em an inch…
Aaron was undoubtedly a smart guy, and this side of the story has been much emphasized by many of his eulogists: O what a waste! Consider what great things he might have done!
That doesn’t cut much ice with me. There are plenty of smart guys — mute inglorious Miltons who spend their lives writing brilliant Python code for some awful corporation.
What I will miss is his defiant bloody-mindedness. He’s exhibit A, at the moment, for my long-held belief that The Kids Are Alright.