The meaning of Aaron Swartz
from Peter Radford
This weekend has seen a flurry of comment about Aaron Swartz, whose recent suicide has set me thinking about the way in which society is dogged by bureaucracy that serves either itself or a limited elite. So many of the rules that beset us all on a daily basis exist only to protect the interests of those with access to power. The rest of us are left to flounder on our own, and to conform as best we can to the contours of society as we find them. Our ability to shape those contours is minimal.As a result, we have precious few moments when our voices really matter.
Swartz was no anarchist. He was a liberal and someone who understood that most bureaucracy is a thin veil drawn over deep seated power structures.
He was being threatened by a massive legal challenge in Massachusetts. His alleged crime was to have accessed a database called JSTOR and downloaded millions of academic articles. When MIT shut him out of its websites, he apparently found a way of connecting more directly with the database. This more physical connection may have included a minor trespassing into a restricted room housing the computers containing the database. It is important to note that as a fully fledged subscriber to JSTOR Swartz had every right to those articles. He broke no law. Instead he offended a bureaucracy suspicious of someone who might want a million or so articles. The suspicion being that he might then decide to sell the articles for personal gain. Rather than waiting to see whether he did actually sell the articles MIT assumed he was going to, and initiated a criminal complaint. If found guilty Swartz faced over three decades in jail.
The entire episode was absurd. It represented a radical overreach by the Massachusetts authorities. And a horrific moral decision by MIT.
Who was MIT protecting? Neither itself, nor its academics.
JSTOR charges for access to articles drawn from a variety of academic journals. It restricts access to that accumulation of knowledge. It acts to prevent the free flow of research, much of which is paid for by taxpayer grants to academics. The authors of the articles do not share in the cash flow.
JSTOR has infuriated me for years. It acts as bulwark against to spread of knowledge. It impedes public access by limiting access primarily to institutions. Thus a member of an institution can be granted access, but an interested and unaffiliated person cannot. So JSTOR is just a way for one bureaucracy to protect and foster others. It has no other purpose.
In a pre-internet age publishers and other intermediaries served a limited purpose: they collected and paid for storage and dissemination of knowledge. There was a social value that justified the cost of the institution and the incomes of its owners. That purpose has been eliminated, or at least reduced, by the emergence of direct access via the internet. This is common knowledge. Yet most of our more enduring institutions reflect the pre-internet era. They are hopelessly outmoded. Protecting them is to protect the special interests that coalesced around them. Those special interests were less anti-social when there was real or residual value in the institution itself. But with that value stripped away the remaining institutions are simply and purely anti-social. They serve only those who profit from their existence.
So I view the prosecution of Swartz as a battle in the confrontation between the embedded institutions of the past – the industrial era – and those of the future. The legacy investment we have in outdated institutions, and the revenues that flow through them, are a hindrance on our securing a more equable distribution of the wealth being generated by the productivity of our new technologies.
Moving to a broader interpretation of this view: I see all corporate, and much academic, bureaucracy in this light. I see their buildings, their governance structures, and their protection of information all as efforts to preserve a past. They hinder the allocation of the wealth being produced by enhanced productivity by diverting much of it into preserving outmoded institutional structures. And the people who own those structures are, by and large, the ones with sufficient power to fight back against the changes being wrought by new technologies. Or, rather, they co-opt those technologies, or suppress them, in order to preserve the cash flows they currently enjoy from the accumulated and out of date institutions they control.
We are living through a great moment when the re-structuring of society by better and more rapid communication, faster logistics, and thus greater coherence of global economies is challenging our pre-existing institutional structures most of which were developed in a slower, smaller, and less communicative age. Not only did the surge in knowledge of the industrial era bequeath us great wealth, but it left us a legacy of ways with which to distribute that wealth. It left us the nation state. It left us the giant corporation. It left us the modern university. It left us a tradition of professionalism and particularism. It left us an ever fragmented knowledge base as the scope of that knowledge swept beyond the ken of any one person. It was an era of specialization. Of competitive advantage. And of ever increasing bureaucracy as social complexity blew past our ability to deal with its scale or scope.
Information technology, properly deployed, undoes the need for much of that legacy. It puts the average person in much closer contact with the sources of their needs. It does not eliminate the complexity, but it empowers us all to deal with it more capably. In short it reduces the need for much of the social structure we have all grown up with and still see as vital to the working of society. And along with that reduction it threatens the elites who cluster around that structure, and who mistakenly conflate their own goals and those of society at large.
Management cost, that appropriation of wealth allocated purely to bureaucratic manipulation of the economic process, weighs more heavily upon us as a result of the dissonance between current productivity levels and their management via industrial age methods. It is the endurance of those old methods in a new age that warps the distribution of wealth. The classic conflict between capital and labor was swamped by the emergence of the professional bureaucracy. It became a three way struggle. Indeed the old capital/labor/land trio of classical economics reflects a past no longer relevant. A more appropriate trio would be energy/resource/knowledge. The social structures needed to manage that latter trio are not the same. Nor are the ideas and theories needed to explain the dynamics of the new system. Yet we lumber along encumbered by the past, in a path dependent course so riddled through with privilege gained long ago and echoes of conflicts that no longer matter that many of us simply give up the fight.
This is the context within which Swartz was important. In which he suffered. And due to which he gave up.
We lost a major player in the fight against the profoundly anti-social activities of our elite. That is what I contemplate with such sadness.