⚡️ Replies To: The Boy's Own Internet
Four mini-essays in defense and memory of Aaron Swartz
A few weeks ago, we published the essay The Boy’s Own Internet, which made a nuanced critique of popular portrayals of hacker-activist Aaron Swartz. Today, we are excited to share a few community responses to the essay, including several in defense of his legacy.
🗯 reboot replies: the boy’s own internet
Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Thiago on the psycho-emotional side of Swartz’s story
The essay focuses on blind spots of Swartz’s story using social lenses. It did bother me, though, how it seems to completely miss the psycho-emotional side of how things unfolded. When Zhang writes things like "Why didn’t Swartz see this coming?" or seems perplexed by his awkward social skills, the author appears to be in a very common blind spot of not being able to imagine the point of view of a person that suffers from severe mental health issues, which his tragic death proved were his case.
Yes, questioning heroic narratives is important, but not everything is a social/systemic problem. Some people do have individual, deep problems that very clearly influence how their life's stories unfold.
Thiago Rezende is a Brazilian visual artist and psychologist.
Lucas on leading a movement of technologists
Like Zhang, I’ve admired Aaron Swartz since his work on SOPA/PIPA in the early 2010s, and watched The Internet’s Own Boy a few years back. I was drawn to his example of living a life deeply in line with one’s values, that was unconfined to a single discipline and had considerable impact across multiple domains. I was drawn to his pragmatism, his writing about personal growth and theories of change.
It’s certainly true I gave Swartz credit as an advocate in part due to his technical achievements—for his work on early versions of RSS, Creative Commons, and Reddit—but, as The Internet’s Own Boy suggests, this was a large part of his appeal.
Zhang is right that the documentary presents too narrow of a view, and that young technologists would (more ideally) look toward organizers, including those without technical knowledge, as examples. However, I disagree with Zhang’s central thesis: Aaron Swartz was most certainly a movement leader. Parts of his coalition—largely white, well-off tech workers from the Global North—certainly looked like him, or were not traditionally marginalized. However, Swartz’s example is worth highlighting because he successfully mobilized a group that had largely considered itself apolitical, or privileged enough to be unconcerned with political shifts. Swartz’s technical achievement gave him credibility in these circles, and made him an example where technologists (myself included) could see themselves.
Swartz was famous for a personal maxim: “What is the most important thing in the world you can be working on right now? What is stopping you from doing it?” This is part of what makes Swartz’s internet advocacy so compelling; it seemed authentic, a continuation of his previous work. Swartz worked on issues he had real stake in, where he had useful expertise to contribute. This is not to say those issues were only technical; Swartz, in fact, pushed back on norms that valued technical skills over all else. In his blog post “A Non-Programmer’s Non-Apology” he writes:
Perhaps, I fear, this decision deprives society of one great programmer in favor of one mediocre writer. And let’s not hide behind the cloak of uncertainty, let’s say we know that it does. Even so, I would make it. The writing is too important, the programming too unenjoyable.
In running Reboot’s student fellowship, it became clear that these same neuroses—a lack of experience, particularly, with writing—were giant barriers students cited in completing original written work. Swartz is inspiring partially because of this awkwardness, because of his acute knowledge of these shortcomings and continued determination to work in spite of them.
Aaron Swartz certainly was not a ‘perfect activist’—as if such a thing exists—but I think his example remains worthy of note because he was a clearly visible example of someone shifting from technical work to public advocacy, and having clear impact in the latter.
Lucas Gelfond (he/him) is a writer and software engineer.
Jasmine on the value of direct action
Aaron Swartz’s privilege certainly facilitated his martyr status, and I appreciated Zhang’s analysis of why “information is power” isn’t enough. However, I don’t think Swartz was uninformed or unstrategic about the reality of the criminal legal system. Rather, like other direct actionists throughout history, he made a choice—and an immensely impactful one—to act as if he was already free.
Swartz was deeply involved in policy activism, for example, founding the organization Demand Progress to organize for internet freedom. He knew how to build coalitions and impact the law. But the file releasing work was different in both process and goal. While his petitions against SOPA/PIPA nudged legacy institutions to change, Swartz simultaneously used his personal skills to create new grassroots power centers—public academic and legal libraries built from downloaded files—in their place.
Direct action might seem utopian, but it has its roots on the ground. It’s specifically in environments of institutional failure that bottom-up action becomes necessary. The Black Panthers provided free breakfast to their communities, countless neighborhoods created mutual aid funds during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the first workers on strike simply refused to accept the cruel conditions they were under—formal law be damned. When Swartz learned how costly it'd be to give JSTOR access to international researchers at conferences he attended, he naturally took matters into his own hands. In addition to the material impact of resource-sharing, direct action “repudiates such acceptance of the existing order and suggests that we have both the right and the power to change the world.”
I worry about the implication that all activism should be measured by its orientation to the law. There is power in conscious subversion (or ignorance) of the status quo, and in civilly disobedient acts that reveal the gratuitous violence of the state. Swartz’s persecution and death may have been tragic, unjust, and avoidable—yet it catalyzed a wave of policy efforts around open access and activist protection from his supporter, a legacy far more substantive than a documentary tribute.
Jasmine Sun (she/her) is the director of Reboot.
Olu on finding solace and difference in the story of Aaron Swartz
I watched The Internet's Own Boy at the suggestion of my bootcamp when I was first learning to code. I bawled my eyes out. The portrayal of Aaron’s optimism, apparent political motivations and technical skills won me over, and I was moved by it. I had started out my university career assuming I would go into journalism, then charity, and pivoted to tech at the very end. I had assumed I'd have to leave behind most of my “helping the world” aspirations, as tech seemed obviously far too apolitical and separate a field to have an impact on the spheres of social and environmental justice!
My naivety is strange to think back on, but I was 22, and being young and naive is one of the great joys of life at that time. Aaron was 24 when he got into legal trouble over JSTOR, and whilst I think I would have been more cautious as a Black person, I understand the invincibility of youth and being a cis, straight, financially secure young man who had gotten away with the PACER incident. I can sympathise with thinking you’d get no more than a slap on the wrist. I remember explaining his legacy to my younger siblings, and them asking why Aaron hadn’t expected to get arrested.
I also found it surprising to learn from Zhang’s piece that Aaron was not a fan of the “genius” label. I always found it discouraging that people like him, who have been to MIT and have lots of other privileges besides being good at tech, are always the ones lauded. Early in my career, I assumed it was because they were so much better at what they did than everyone else. This is at odds with all I’ve seen in the industry so far, and the rampant ignoring of people who it is convenient or profitable in some way to ignore when prizes, recognition and accolades come around.
Aaron Swartz’s legacy is much more complicated than I originally thought, and I think it’s a shame I was first introduced to his brand of activism within tech compared to the myriad ways of making a positive impact in the industry.
Olu Niyi-Awosusi (they/them) is a web developer and writer living in London.
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As you can tell, I haven’t stopped thinking about Direct Action by David Graeber since I read it last year. It brought a totally new lens to how I conceive of activism, agency, and world-making as a daily practice.
I listened to this podcast with British producer Fred again… (of recent Boiler Room fame, though he was making bangers well before that). Other than his musical process—e.g. his love of voice memos and iPhone speakers—I especially liked the last bit of advice: Fred recommends writing down a list of tasks that require no inspiration to accomplish, but will accelerate your work when it finally hits.
Max Read talks to the Telegram trading bots (ft. the very convincing “Analyst Neil” of Bain Capital Management) so you don’t have to.
me & who
💝 closing note
We’d love to feature more community exchanges like this in the newsletter. Let us know what you’d like to see a debate about in a comment or reply!
We also just published a team spotlight of Matthew Sun, three-time student fellowship mentor and Kernel digital director extraordinaire:
Go download some files today,
Jasmine & Reboot team