17 January 2013
Politicizing Aaron Swartz
From: Eugen Leitl <eugen[at]leitl.org> [Edit Address Book]
To: cypherpunks[at]al-qaeda.net, info[at]postbiota.org, tt[at]postbiota.org
Subject: [liberationtech] Who killed Aaron Swartz?
Date: Jan 17, 2013 4:20 AM
----- Forwarded message from Shava Nerad <shava23[at]gmail.com> -----
From: Shava Nerad <shava23[at]gmail.com>
Date: Wed, 16 Jan 2013 17:02:32 -0500
Subject: [liberationtech] Who killed Aaron Swartz?
Aaron's parents have implicated the prosecutors and MIT in Aaron's death,
and I don't mean to disrespect them in this, but I'd like to speculate a
little more on all of this, because I've been plagued a bit by this for days.
It churns my stomach to think that part of what went into Aaron's thoughts
on his death might be a media calculation -- he was so good with that sort
of thing -- that his work would benefit better from his death than from his
life at this point in time.
And that really does make me feel ill, literally. That part of that decision
might have been coldly rational, not entirely out of depression, but actually
looking at the media map of his work, how the feds were going to work to
discredit him and the movement, and where the tipping point might have been
-- not knowing exactly what the spin the feds might have had to control the
media circus at their end.
But think about the parallels on say, Tarek Mehanna
who was convicted for "material support" to terrorism for translating web
pages from Arabic to English, 17.5 years of hard time, felony terrorism charges.
I have no doubt that the charges against Aaron could be made to stick, much
to the harm to hacker culture and so on.
I can simulate that in my head. Can y'all? Aaron thinking about the harm
done to the cause he cares about if this comes to court vs. if he martyrs
I am in a very very dark mood myself. Not in any danger of suicide -- thanks
if any are concerned -- but in the mood to organize and teach and take these
people down a few pegs before more young people fall. We need to get out
of our desk chairs a bit more, don't you think? Just a bit? And show that
we are not so laughably easy targets, or we will be taken down like this,
one by one, unless we can show that we can work the system in a way that
And I'm afraid that does not mean filing internet petitions to have people
removed from office. It means working social capital within the system, working
with groups that have that kind of social capital already (some of our groups
in DC have those "ins" like EFF, or even Tor when I was there; not so much
now, CDT perhaps, some of the larger foundations have good connections).
It means playing politics.
It means doing the righteous good nonprofit side of lobbying that doesn't
pay off Congress but really does educate them and petition them for redress
of grievances -- work I've done on behalf of digital divide interests, and
hardly anyone does any more -- you don't even hear the word "lobbyist" used
that way any more although it's the original definition of the word.
And all of these things can be done *facilitated* by technology but by GOD
they have to be done face to face and they need money and they require bodies
willing to take risks and get out from behind the keyboard and to do those
ikky things like deal with politicians and compromises and ikky people your
friends think have "germs" and aren't part of the cool kids.
And when you go to parties, people will think you are too sincere about your
work, make too little money, and are obviously making bad decisions, and
are probably a little paranoid about life because you are dealing with all
these things that involve stuff they'd just rather not hear about.
(Which is, by the way, very much like what military people feel like among
civilians, who they also believe they are in the business of protecting.)
We are in the business of watching the watchers. Of safeguarding justice
and liberties. That is what I believe. And although some of you are academics,
and study this from offices where you write reports on some of us, some of
us are hybrids or activists, and we are on the line, and likely to have shorter
less pleasant lives. It makes for an interesting little social dynamic here.
Titularly, I am supposed to be pleasant about this, because often enough,
activists are petitioning the people reading this list who are not activists
for support, places to publish, or grants or recommendations. But mostly
these days I am retired, so I get to be a bit of the crone goddess of this
list. It's a bit like having tenure in a way.
It can seem very frustrating to those of us in the field to see so many so
totally risk averse, where "support" means nothing more than to publish a
blog article, signing an ineffective petition, or symbolically rsvp YES to
an event with no intent to attend, or send a few dollars to MoveOn when MoveOn
does very little except continue MoveOn's work of continuing MoveOn's work
of continuing MoveOn's work.
But when it comes to attending a meeting, taking an action that would disrupt
a routine or risk a blot on an otherwise spotless permanent record, leaving
a comfort zone or even a living room, or working with strangers on a project
where the suffering-fools-gladly nerves might be a bit abraded -- idealism
goes quickly into the crapper.
Most people want to *think* of themselves as idealists and in favor of social
change. And if someone like Anonymous tells them "Push this button on this
HUD and you can change the world!" they will, without question (which scares
the crap out of me). But if they have to actually work to deal with unfamiliar
things and unfamiliar people and more evident risks to change the world,
they quickly withdrawal, because it is outside their comfort zones.
And unless we can solve that with liberation technologies -- as apparently
Anonymous has, through sheer coyote duplicity -- we can't solve problems
such as those that led to Aaron's suicide, or solve those that we are faced
with to prevent the next one, or to continue his work effectively.
Because this is an asymmetrical war, and the liberation technologies we have
do not stack up to the arsenal of government, and never have. We will always
have to supplement them with people power on the ground, with politics, with
human organizing. I can't see the way around that. And online means are only
seducing people away from effective engagement in the real world at this
point. Morosov and Putnam have us by the short hairs and we have yet to answer
Who killed Aaron Swartz? Maybe in a way it was all of us, too. Because all
of us contribute to the environment where -- if I'm right and he might have
calculated his media impact -- the government could credibly destroy his
work and the movement around it in the popular press around his trial, and
he knew that none of us could counter it or save him.
I can teach people to be clever and full of tricks -- but I can teach, what,
fifteen, thirty at a time at most? How deep? How long? Teaching people skills
has never been well adapted to automation; ymmv. I could teach a couple in
depth as shadows, padawans. Most of us are not even doing that (I'm not,
now -- I don't even have funding for me, much less for me and staff or teaching).
So where do we go with this? Where have intellectuals ever gone with this?
Isn't this, dare I say, a perennial problem?
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