Aaron Swartz

I read that information pioneer Aaron Swartz has took his own life last week at the age of 26. Swartz helped develop RSS at the age of 14 and founded Reddit among other things. His website is still open if you want to read from the source. To me he stands no less significant in information and computing science than any working at Bletchley Park during the second world war. Certainly, his story is far more relevant in high-school classrooms than what is currently in ‘the text’ book.

I highly recommend reading the summary on Arts Technica about how this tragedy came about.

In the fall of 2010, Swartz engaged in a bit of Guerilla Open Access himself, logging onto MIT’s network to scrape millions of academic papers from the JSTOR database. When MIT administrators booted his laptop off the Wi-Fi network, he entered an MIT network closet and plugged his laptop directly into the campus network.

The stunt got the attention of federal prosecutors, who arrested him and charged him with multiple counts of computer hacking, wire fraud, and other crimes. The feds ratcheted up the charges further in September. If convicted on all charges he could have spent more than 50 years in prison.

It is amazing to think that plugging a computer into a network and downloading documents could warrant a 50 year jail-sentence – especially in what is clearly an on-going political protest in what I understand is the worlds largest democracy.

David Winer wrote about Swartz in February 2001.

“It’s not just bit smarts, he marshals power very well and is persistent. Eventually you come around to his way of thinking, or he comes around to yours. These are the essential ingredients in good technology. We’re looking for the right answer, not to be proven right, or to prove the other guy wrong.”

His story feels familiar in the meme of innovative individuals. Dropping out of Stamford, forming companies,  seeing and reacting to new patterns in the flow of information. But unlike so many that we see as ‘innovators’ and ‘geniuses’ Swartz stands out as someone who not only made some of the most influential technologies of our time – but highlights how ruthless states, organisations and institutions are willing to be on behalf of minority interests.

We are not quite at the point where individuals are required to have a cyborg-conversion, so that your entire physical and mental being has a MAC address – but we are getting dangerously close to so many cyber-punk fictions.

As Lessig writes “Somehow, we need to get beyond the “I’m right so I’m right to nuke you” ethics that dominates our time.”

This story about information is chillingly close to recent comments by Wikileaks founder Julian Assange – himself no stranger to the law.

The people who control the interception of the internet and, to some degree also, physically control the big data warehouses and the international fiber-optic lines. We all think of the internet as some kind of Platonic Realm where we can throw out ideas and communications and web pages and books and they exist somewhere out there. Actually, they exist on web servers in New York or Nairobi or Beijing, and information comes to us through satellite connections or through fiber-optic cables.

So whoever physically controls this controls the realm of our ideas and communications. And whoever is able to sit on those communications channels, can intercept entire nations, and that’s the new game in town, as far as state spying is concerned – intercepting entire nations, not individuals.”

There is a lot more to information – than information.