Okay, so maybe you’ve heard about it, and maybe you haven’t.
And maybe you don’t care.
But like the rockstars of yore, it appears we’ve entered a new trend. Shooting stars in the Age of Information, who go out young. And a government absolutely determined to shut this down.
From my perspective, this is yet again, being framed as a “brilliant” young geek (some say gimp too), who took his own life by HANGING HIMSELF. Perhaps the most uncertain way to go out, if not the most grotesque. And not even used in most states anymore (except maybe Texas, but that doesn’t count because on this issue alone the state is still clearly in a Neanderthal state of mind), simply because it is so grotesque if not efficient.
You see it’s not so easy to hang yourself, although it makes for one hell of a creepy symbol.
If this kid was as bright as he was supposed to be (co-writer of RSS, co-founder of REDDIT, founder one of those “bothersome” non-profits that stopped, momentarily, the ever present creep of legislation that is in fact worrisome to all who care about free information if not access to education and information if not IP in a world where “knowledge workers” are the most prized (and paid most of all). And are usually overpriviliged white boys with a trust fund, with a well placed mentor or ten, or managed through either/or predilection to gain access to a whole bunch of money or digital information (or both).
When a female black hacker gets the same kind of press (no matter what she does), or even a geezer like my dad (who hacked both NATO and Barclays Bank way back when hacking by middle aged Jews briefly made the news and was seen as alternatively, depending on which month you read Scientific American “brilliant” or “criminal.” Way back in the early eighties.)
So I’m used to these kinds of stories. It’s not that I’m not sympathetic, but I’ve seen it before.
And it’s not that I am not concerned about the legislation Swartz managed to derail (briefly, apparently, given Obama’s recent resigning (Ugh) AGAIN of FISA). It’s that Swartz is the all too familiar stereotype. For those with any curiosity at all, those draconian, and downright scary as all git out pieces of legislation were known as SOPA and PIPA in IT geek speak. Click through to explanations about both, and you’ll understand at least the basics of what all this fracus was about.
For good or for bad.
I thought about a place called Blechley Park. In another war, long ago. And a country called England. Blechley Park was spook central during WWII, the center of British and then British and American “intelligence.” If not the home of the most famous hacking/encryption stunt if not secret EVER in any war, the creation of the so-called “Enigma” Machine. An early computer that was used to crack German and “enemy” communications.
The reason I know about it, it because this is the war my dad fought in and was also used for his skills that were remarkably close, even at that age, to the person I thought of next. And the Brits love to tell stories of their glorious past. The Enigma Machine was perhaps, their last big blaze of glory. A glory which was quickly snuffed out, both in the implications of what it held in store for what they were supposedly fighting for (and against) if not their subsequent actions against the man who pioneered the way.
You see when I heard the news of Swartz’s death, I immediately thought of the Enigma Machine. And more importantly, its creator. And what happened to him.
His name was Alan Turing. The offspring of a high ranking diplomat in the Indian Civil Service, who was later a product of the “Oxbridge Set.” And thus considered qualified of being in such a crucial part of Britain’s defense during the war. Who not only created the machine that won the war, but who took his own life (or so some people still want to claim) not many years after what should have been a career insuring triumph.
Turing, after a brief spin at wartime celebrity (even awarded an OBE before the age of 40) was, literally less than a decade later after saving the UK from German bombs, raids, and ultimately turned the war if such credit could ever be given to one man or invention, was then convicted of homosexuality. In England, this was still a crime (if not considered a “mental illness”). Turing admitted guilt in a situation that could have been lifted straight from an E. M. Forster drama (another British writer, also gay, who faced Britain’s anti-homosexual “official stance” even as it is a right of passage in the schools of the all male, British upper class) and wrote in one of his novels about a case very much like Turings – that of a gent who fell from “society” because of his sexuality, and was betrayed by a working class lad, either paid to be bait or paid to “confess.” The novel, later turned into a movie, was called Maurice, and was considered so controversial when he wrote it that it wasn’t published until the 1970′s (post humously).
In Turing’s case, faced with a year in prison, or another, far worse route, Turing took the worse route on the grounds that everyone knew he couldn’t “sin” again. And wouldn’t hinder, or so he thought, going back to work at what he was good at after it was all over.
In other words, he underwent treatment of female hormones (also known as chemical castration), suffered all the side effects, including growing breasts to avoid going to jail, found he could no longer be hired by the national security state even after “doing his time,” and was found dead as a doornail after also committing “suicide” (by ingesting large qualities of cyanide) and found famously next to a half eaten apple that wasn’t ever tested for poison. And that Steve Jobs always denied was the inspiration for the famous “Apple” logo.
Turing took his life about a year after his sentence was over. . .And a realization, suddenly, that he was essentially dead. Or the national security state wanted that to be the case. No matter that he couldn’t ever bugger other men again. The speculation always was that he was set up (his family in that case denied he was depressed and the public records show he had plans and even reservations for the near future.) Perhaps we’ll never know. Perhaps we don’t really care.
We are a nation who revels in national amnesia. Forget Monday Night Football. Forgetting our past is actually the ongoing, transcendent national passtime.
The English at least, never forgot. Gordon Brown, when Prime Minister, very famously (and conveniently) post humously forgave Turing and apologized to existing family after a petition went out from those who knew him or studied his work, to forgive him. Sometime around what would have been his 100th birthday.
America, which never learned this particular lesson, if they ever learned it at all, not to mention is famous for amnesia for its past (those who forget history are doomed to repeat it) seem hell bent in the days after Obama’s election even in 2008, to go down in history as the folks who took out hackers everwhere. One way or another. And made massive changes to things that are mentioned only on the fringes of all the moving RIPS for Swartz and all the outraged editorials on full blown attacks on Constitutional Rights since at least the year 2000.
The latest RIP goes out in our New World Disorder, to Aaron Swartz (notice they only mention the boys), or for those who hadn’t heard the news, another “genius”", white boy, computer whiz kid (white, male, 26),who was found dead in his apartment in Brooklyn last Friday.
The whole geek world is mourning.
At least those hip and tech savvy enough to know what he did. Or teach him. Or know him. All of the above usually take money. What’s new about this story?
The rest of America, right now ( the majority) couldn’t care less. Even if they use what Swartz invented, designed and did.
That’s because they are functionally if not IT, if not literally illiterate because our society has been dumbed down so much, because things changed fast over the last decade, including the pace of IT, public schools have been sacrificed for bonuses on Wall Street, and the national security state of George Bush has only been increased by his successor.
And of course the war has also been waged almost solely online, which just by the demographics of the digital divide, has as much chance of changing things (because for the most part those who really knew who he were are aging Boomers who underestimate (as usual) that this “Vietnam” is going to be waged on our own streets (if not courtrooms), but nurtured him along, and maybe Gen X if not definitely middle class to the 1%ers of Gen Y who grew up thinking cell phones and laptops, and the internet and social media were all the new “norm.”
Guess what? They are right. And that’s part of the problem.
You see they’ll grieve Aaron Swartz, if not write peons to him. And then they’ll see where the boundaries are (because to really understand this, you have to be of a certain demographic, which is overwhelmingly white, male, and upper class, and seeks to have a professional future.) And they’ll stop short because they don’t want that to happen to them.
And that is the saddest part of the story.
This, if accidental, or caused by stress on a kid by an “overzealous” prosecutor, or was a deliberate attempt at taking out a kid before he got to trial or even really suicide, doesn’t matter.
What does is what is going to happen next.
You see while what you might read about the kid who just bought it in Brooklyn leaves out some key facts.
1. The Internet has already started to be “regulated” in that sales tax can be charged on goods bought on it (a lost battle long, long ago, in say oh, the early naughts). If not civil rights law that requires websites and companies who run them to actually be subjected to civil rights. According to international human rights law (which the US is doing its best to ignore, forget, claim it doesn’t apply, or breaks with impunity) lack of access to the internet and all that is online, is also a violation not only of civil rights, but human rights. So this is kind of murky territory for those who don’t know the ropes.
2. This was inevitable. As soon as Darpanet went viral, and Steve Jobs figured out in his now famous basement that the telephone frequency that dialed into other computers was in the same range as the human voice (that’s a techie thing).
3. Swarttz knew his future was uncertain if not ours in no uncertain ways. Even if he got off at trial for the crime of what legitimately is being called “the electronic equivalent of checking out too many books from the library”, Swartz’s Reddit was under attack and he couldn’t help but know it.
Hell I KNEW something was going wrong when a story in the Huffpost announced early last fall, that REDDIT was going to be Obama’s first priority for receiving articles and blog posts in a sign he was “listening” to the public (the ones who know about Reddit anyway, and also read rags (online or off) where this tidbit was announced.
And then what happened? First Reddit suffered a major “outage” that was, to my knowledge, never reported on. And what made it weird at the time was that it was right before an important campaign event. And also that Reddit, like Wikileaks, was using Amazon’s “cloud.”
Not to mention the bright red warning that suddenly popped up, claiming the site had decided, despite Obama’s plea for a pipeline of public feedback and comment from the social bookmarking site specifically BY NAME, did not accept any POLITICALLY related stories. At all. For about two months before the election.
So, yes, I am sorry to see another “brick in the wall” fall.
No, I’m not terribly surprised.
And frankly, given what’s at stake here, what I don’t get is why the opposition hasn’t understood why the government is so determined to do whatever it wants, whenever it wants.
Because too much knowledge is “dangerous.” To the status quo, to those who are now in power. To those who want to change the way we operate as a nation and a planet.
Dangerous to the way things are. Dangerous enough to thwart its positions.
The Internet, which technically belongs to the people whose taxpayer dollars built it, is now considered “private domain.” As are the public domain research papers Swartz seeked to “liberate.”
And that is the issue at heart, even if never expressed that way. What I’ve seen so far are laments about the ever encroaching “encroachment” of civil rights – usually the First Amendment.
What I haven’t heard or seen, perhaps because the defense is being guided by a previous generation, or one that doesn’t really understand the still standing law, is that what is actually going on here is larger than privacy. Larger than due process. Larger than government “bullying.”
It is in fact, a government war on its own citizens. It’s even paid for by us.
You see, your citizenship, as an American, is based on an “implied contractual” relationship with the state. A place where property rights (including IP), contractual rights (including IP) and civil rights (including IP) all come together.
And any perceived “violation” of the same, which in this case is literally deliberately “throwing the book” at a kid for one reason or another, will not be effectively countered unless people wise up and recognize this for what it is.
It is in its very essence, a war financed by the people on the people.
And that is the scariest thing of all.
A fact Aaron Swartz recognized.
And perhaps will be found, long after the fact, just like Turing, to have gone to another place before the real storm hits.
The ones who might remember him long after his demise, just like in Turing’s case, may ultimately conclude that this was the act of a man who knew he’d been handed a death sentence. And who-ever carried out the final act of violence, may have spared a kid who was in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and stood up for things that were worth fighting for, a life much worse that the brief time he had as a “success” here on Planet Earth. It’s a terrible thing to die in one’s lifetime. And that’s what Swartz and Turing, and a few others who have served their country’s ideals have later faced.
It’s an old, and very sad story.
And one not limited to high tech geekery or online virtual petitions.
Our history is littered with the brave who stood up for our rights, only to get mown down in a mass of legal mumbo jumbo, collective amesia, or fright, or just because it’s yesterday’s news and we have tomorrow to face. It wasn’t us. Moving on. Note to future self. Don’t hack research you paid for behind a paywall designed to profit not even the professors who engaged in the same. But only to create an income that satisfies shareholders and maintains a stranglehold on information. Even if you have a guest pass.
But unlike many of his followers, Swartz had the insight to know that his fateful “bite of the apple” was just as deadly for him, personally, as it was for Turing, and a more famous if not Biblical association with the same fruit, only this time, involving the Garden of Eden too.
Swartz had every reason to believe he was going to lose his life one way or another. Particularly given that he was about a month from facing a federal trial in which he stood to lose his meaningful life in federal prison and some rather big fines which would have rendered this wonderboy wizkid with a lot of bucks, a forgotten figure, if not a broke, middle aged former hack when he rejoined the world again. If he ever did. Left behind, with forty years of IT geekery to catch up with.
If you know what that really means, by personal or next door association, who would blame anyone for taking a path that promised relief vs. a future that was profoundly unsure if not terribly scary future, you know one of two things.
You know not to pass judgement if you’ve never been there. Or, as a corrollary, even if you have. It’s an impossible thing to face. Be punished for a “crime” that didn’t even really exist, much less was prosecuted with such zeal less than a decade ago. In a world that remains profoundly ignorant, outside the over-educated and elite set, of what it is you actually accomplished. And therefore could never be judged by a jury of his peers. Just because there aren’t a whole lot of them. And most of them do everything they can to avoid jury duty.
That to me, and those who read this story for what it is worth, know that this is really either the beginning of the end, or, like global warming, rather towards the end of the end.
If the government ever manages to pass bills as draconian as the ones Swartz is credited for leading the charge against, just like FISA, it will become the “New Normal,” “New World Order,” if not just another brick in the wall.
And if the government on top of that, lies about its intent to receive “input” from its people via the bullhorn you helped set up in various underhanded if not reported ways, you know there is problem in mission control, whether or not it is in Houston.
Swartz knew this too.
I just hope his many grieving survivors grieve enough to understand really what just happened. And not, as the government no doubt hoped (or even planned) disperse in confusion in the face of a goliath whose might has turned against its own people.
Not to mention always remember, the first casualty in any war is the truth.
And the “truth” right now is as murky as where we all are headed if we allow this kind of thing to continue. In a real war that appears not only to be perpetual, but involves a government that is finally admitting, in that shadowy way it has of doing sometimes when caught red handed as in this situation, that it is an oligarchy.
Funded by, and at war with, its own people.
CORRECTION: When first posted, this article incorrectly identified Evelyn Waugh rather than E.M Forster with the authorship of Maurice. Easy to do, they were both homosexuals, as were Melville, “America’s poet” Walt Whitman (who also lived in Brooklyn), and many members of the American and British establishment. Many of whom outed and persecuted other gay men. Starting with Roy Cohn. We also clarified this article to link to the specific legislation at stake, and clarified that Obama specifically asked to receive public comment via Reddit right before the election and it was publicly blocked on several occasions, including a blackout of Reddit on Amazon’s server that went largely unreported right before an Obama event, and then there was indeed a two month ban right before the election, of anything related to “politics” posted at the top of the REDDIT page.
Swartz (and apparently attorneys close to the case) said the government was going to get jail time out of him, even on a technicality.
That is pretty hard to understand, considering that if he had had decent counsel (and that doesn’t automatically go with a paycheck) how the defense could have screwed up this much.
Including pointing out at trial that Massachusetts, a supposedly “liberal” state, has a governor with strong connections to the White House, named Duval Patrick, who also (unbelievably) asked both DOJ and Obama to allow Massachusetts as a state to skip out on its federal, civil rights obligations when he asked for a pass on ADA compliance for all ARRA funds.
Disgusting, yes, but something that could have been used at trial.
And further, if these genius twerps who really wanted to defend this kid had done their homework, they would have asked for a change of venue to California, where the Unruh Act (the state law protecting people with disabilities and home of some of the most advanced American law on the topic particularly as it relates to IP if not disability) would have found plenty of reasons to dismiss the case automatically. Starting with the fact that under California and International Law, it is a human rights violation, not “just” a civil rights one, that would have protected Swartz from prosecution. Specifically, banning access to the Internet in countries more humane than ours, is considered, even in countries with IP laws much stronger than the US (which as a history of gross violation of them too) a human rights crime. I.e. a crime against humanity.
Or a war crime.
Take your pick.