Figures like Aaron Swartz — whose 2013 suicide after a lengthy indictment for computer fraud had a butterfly effect on the world — are difficult to talk about without casting martyrs, heroes, or otherwise larger-than-life figures. But in his new book The Idealist: Aaron Swartz and the Rise of Free Culture on the Internet, journalist Justin Peters manages to strip away the politics and sketch the late Reddit co-founder as a mere human.
To put Swartz’s life into context, Peters also explores the history of copyright law — a subject he freely admits isn’t the sexiest — in a lively, droll voice that gives proper due to a series of writers, publishers, and IP pirates who basically built literacy as we know it in America. Peters sat down with Inverse to discuss his research around Swartz, the free culture movement, what Swartz would think of Edward Snowden, and more.
What was the most surprising thing you learned while researching this book?
Probably how interesting American copyright was. I thought, “OK, I’ll dispense with the history stuff for one chapter and then move on.” But the more I read and learned about how these laws came together, the more I realized this stuff is super fascinating and necessary content to understand. I didn’t expect to spend three chapters on Noah Webster and the 1891 copyright law — that stuff can be very dry. There’s a reason why copyright laws only get revised for once or twice a century. These things are inevitably tedious. I challenged myself to try to make them interesting. The way I sort of hit on doing that is to focus on representing characters from each era of copyright in America and tell the broader story of the laws and policies.
Aaron Swartz has become something of an icon symbolizing both the open culture movement and the ways in which bureaucracy can crush the individual spirit. It can be difficult to find the humanity in someone like that — how did you approach it?
I was looking in that over a decade of mercurial things. He was blogging from age 12, all of that stuff is still up online. The fact that I was able to go through his own writings and daily musings for literally 11 or 12 years really helped me ground into the person who he was rather than the symbol he’s become. When you become so familiar with someone’s writings and their quirks, I find fascinating not just the impactful things people write but also the throwaway stuff: Musing on a shitty day or something he ate or a party. The challenge for me was to incorporate those moments and make them seem as relevant to the story as much as stuff that everybody knows about. You can deduce the sum of their billboard accomplishments, but that’s inaccurate. We’re not just our best or our worst, we’re mostly the middle. If you’re going to biographize, someone you have to tell the middle as well as the poles.
Do you think there’s been a lot of change since his death?
I don’t. I think he would be very concerned with the state of the modern internet. Someone told me the other day that Facebook, Apple, and Google have $150 billion of cash on hand. Some people are upset with the way the internet has become circumscribed by these big businesses that control usage and browsing. It would be very hard to argue that the internet is more free right now than it was in 2003 in America.
What do you think his reaction to Edward Snowden would have been?
I think he would have found Snowden a hero. Before he died, he was working on this project called Secure Drop, which was a tool for leakers or whistleblowers to be able to securely and anonymously leak information. I think he would have been inspired by Snowden and probably would have tried to help empower other potential Snowdens out there.
Do you think his death gave him martyr status?
I get why people use the word martyr to help understand history, but they die for something. Aaron died for nothing. It doesn’t mean there isn’t meaning to be drawn from his death, but there’s also no evidence from when he hanged himself that I’m doing this in the service of a cause and to advance that cause. His death is a tragedy. We can remember it and commemorate it and use it for our own purposes to inspire us, but there was no immediate good that was served.
As you say in your book, people who know him say he did not have depression or suicide thoughts prior to his suicide. Do you think he had an undiagnosed disorder nobody knew about, or it was the stress of his legal situation?
I don’t want to speculate, because nobody knows. His closest friends and family are adamant that he was not clinically depressed. In his own writings, he writes about being sad a lot and almost pathologically shy. Did he kill himself from depression? I don’t think I’d say that. I think it’s safe to say that this continued stress from the indictment contributed to his death. Without the indictment, he’d still be alive, I’m confident in saying that.
He became more human to me through the course of my research. Even after I wrote the initial Slate profile, my impression of him was still “Aaron the accomplishment machine.” But that view expanded and created a much more rich picture of a guy who’s just a guy. A very smart and accomplished guy, but he was a guy. He was fun to be around. His friends really liked him. He enjoyed watching TV. He wasted time. He could be an aggravating person. He wasn’t someone you would always love to be around. He was human, in other words. My view has changed from just being a symbol to being a real human being. He’s a great writer; that’s another thing that struck me. I didn’t realize how good of a writer he was until I immersed myself into his writing for two years. If he had been a shitty writer those would have been two shitty years because I could think of nothing worse than to use this as a primary source for a biography.
It was an interesting process. I came to really like him. It also felt like intruding, and yet he published this stuff, so there was nothing wrong with me reading it.
From the samples of his writing you present in your book, we can gather that he was deeply antisocial, or at least not socially comfortable. He writes of hating college, of sitting in his dorm room feeling alienated, etc. And yet, the open culture movement — his life’s work — is a social concept. What are your thoughts on that?
There’s a difference being adept in social situations like a party or talking to people on a bus and collaborating with people online. It’s a different socialization. There’s an assumption that the people with whom you’re interacting are usually directing interaction and collaboration, working with likeminded people towards a similar goal. Real world social settings aren’t building towards a point — the point is to just talk to people, not necessarily create something together. He definitely found it easier to interact with people who were working on something, as opposed to just hanging out.
Did you learn a lot about the conversation around open culture in your research?
I definitely learned a lot about how much sense open access makes. In terms of academic research — people having to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for a journal subscription to share it. One of the reasons why academic journal work remains on a subscription basis is that the necessary publishing apparatus to distribute this are trying to cling to their roles, even when their roles are no longer as essential as they once were. Theoretically, to envision and construct an academic publishing system, there would be no need for public schools. Research can be distributed to people online, there can be peer review, then you put it on a website. There’s no need for a publisher to intervene in that process. They add very little value, not tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of value.
What’s the biggest barrier to open access getting traction?
Inertia. Existing structures. If I’m a publishing company, and I publish a thousand different academic journals, and I’ve been around for a hundred years, I’m not going to lock the doors and shut down my operations. I’m going to say, “Great, that might be better for the world, but I have kids to feed and so do all these people that I employ.” That is a theme that reoccurs within the book. With every new communicative advance that makes it easier to share information, the people who profit from existing business models try to legislate against those advances to protect their own place in the marketplace.
You see that with the internet. It’s this constant push and pull between social good and private enterprise — which is not to say let’s cast enterprise in the villain role. The copyright and IP laws that we have are the product of creators and distributors working in their own self-interest to lobby for laws that will protect them.
Going forward, what are the objectives going to be of the Aaron Swartz of the future?
If nothing else, I think their fight will be to raise awareness of these issues in the world. By drawing attention to those actions. People use the internet to waste time at work, or watch Netflix — remind them that access to information is a political idea. To make people aware and inspire them to care more about the health of the information ecosystem.
Did Swartz’s death help or hurt the cause?
It certainly gave the cause a symbol — how effective that symbol has been in galvanizing change is up for debate. It’s been three years since Aaron died, and the computer fraud act is still around. There are other laws coming around that have similar intentions. The government is still spying on its citizens; the market of Facebook and Google and Apple and big internet continues to grow. So if you look at it that way, he hasn’t been a very effective symbol. But I don’t think you can just view it in terms of, “Here is Aaron and here are these big monolithic forces, and because those forces exist, that means Aaron’s death means nothing.”
By continuing to think about not just his death, but his life and the way that he lived and the circumstances under which he died, it’s a story that continues to encourage people to think critically about the information ecosystem in which they live and work. What it means; why it’s there. Change is the accumulation of awareness.
His story is well known, but many people might not know the nitty gritty details. For those who only have a bare understanding of it, what’s the most common misconception?
I think the most common misconception is probably that he was just the symbol that he’s become. By viewing Aaron as a martyr, you think, “That guy was super special. I’m just a person, I could never do that, so I’ll watch and admire. He did all the things he did because he was a plane above everyone else.” That’s just not true. He’s super smart and accomplished, but he was a person. The thing that separated him and how he chose to live his life from the rest of us is a preternatural ability, or some sort of saintliness that the rest of us cannot access. It was more sort of a lifelong conscious choice to work against his own best interests. That’s something we could all chose to do.
By working against his own best interests, what I mean is that he was in Silicon Valley at the birth of social web. He was one of the first startups. For 99 out of 100 people, if they’re in at the ground floor like that, they’re like, “Awesome, I’m set for the rest of my life. I might not really care about what I’m doing, but at least I’m getting paid.” But Aaron was like, “I really care about what I’m doing, so even though I’m getting paid, I’m going to stop doing it and instead turn my attention towards something I care about more.” His entire life was a series of decisions like that: “This might not be best for me, in terms of building my bank account or LinkedIn network, but I think this choice might make the world a better place.”
Of the historical figures you explored as his predecessors, is there any one in particular you think he emulated the most?
He reminded me a lot of Michael Hart, the Project Gutenberg guy, in terms of their mutual idealism and passion for open culture. I wasn’t able to find any evidence that they ever met or corresponded, but while I was researching this book, I wanted to be able to be put in a position to bring the two of them together and matchmake. They would have found each other fascinating.
Are there any figures today who are his natural predecessor, or do you think they haven’t come to light yet?
I’m sure they’re out there and we just don’t know about them yet. One of the flaws with the world and the way we choose our heroes is we tend not to choose them until after they die. A lot of the times, we view their lives as a whole and come to a broader assessment of it. I think Snowden certainly falls in the same line of Swartz and the other data idealists.