Would anyone care about Aaron Swartz’s flight into corporeal oblivion if he was not the son of a white businessman, if he was not a “prodigy” and a golden child attending a prestigious elite university which itself exists to funnel high achievers into government, academia and the corporate world, where they will trade on an artificially scarce skill set while capturing wealth for those who lord over the rest of us?
Isn’t the essential back story here that he was a young man who’s been cast in the role of hero posthumously for doing nothing more than violating the minor expectation that, being upper class, he’d act like a dickish member of the ruling class all of the time?
And yet, that is why he is valorized and lionized by academics, so-called radicals and the rest of the middle and upper class white world which hadn’t heard of him until he’d done spectacularly what rich kids do ordinarily. He checked out, and left other people to clean up his mess and make excuses for his actions.
His revolutionary act? Making academic papers available to the kind of people who can afford them in the first place.
Hacking a pay wall. Can’t you just feel your groceries bills getting smaller already?
“Information will be free” is the mantra of people who don’t have to worry about the cops, doctors’ costs and hunger every single day. It’s the kind of slogan you can expect from people who take a computer, an automobile and a college degree for granted. Its validity as a principle exists in direct proportion to the height one occupies in a social hierarchy.
For most of us, everything costs. All of it. All of the fucking time. Free stuff isn’t revolutionary. It’s unreliable good luck. It’s what happens when the rich get lazy and bored and want to prove to each other that all that money makes them special. You don’t count on it, because you can never count on the wealthy to keep their end of any bargain. They’re rich because they learned how to live with using others as tools, how to betray and call it an economy - or they learned to live with inheriting that stolen labor as privilege and property.
So what if his name wasn’t Aaron Swartz, but was instead something vaguely black sounding, like Vontaze Washington? What if he hadn’t “liberated” a bunch of data that only matters to academics, white people with free time and Lawrence Lessig, but had instead come out of an underfunded public school, in a neighborhood where the cops and the bureaucrats start off assuming that your melanin per square inch exists in a causal relationship to your capacity for intelligence and moral value? What if, facing no chance of gainful and steady employment, he began to supplement his meager income by going into time debt to the crushing tyranny that is an illicit drug distribution pyramid? What if all he could afford to liberate was a few hours each week to help his mother with the laundry and the groceries, and that the almost inevitable outcome of his “choices” was that one day some suburban douchebag was going to give his name to the cops after getting busted at a college party? And while the future business major gets a warning and a “boys will be boys,” young Mr. Washington gets the full penalty of the law?
Or, what if young Mr. Swartz was not Mr. Washington but was instead a young miss Hernandez? What if what she was trying to quietly liberate was her autonomy - not the assumption of it, nor the probability of it as an intellectual exercise, but an autonomy so normal and unquestioned that no man would ever assume that her freedom came at the cost of his needs and labor? What if her act of liberation wasn’t hand waved away at every turn? What if her expected existence was not an endless grind of male possessiveness and weakness masquerading as attraction, a social norm which establishes from the day she is born until the day she’s predictably reduced to a statistic that she owes an explanation and a justification for her every decision, else she’s a whore, a bitch, asking for it, stupid, should have been more careful, had to have given mixed signals, provoked her attacker, tempted her harasser, learned her lesson?
We wouldn’t know their names. That’s what.
Some rich high achiever offing himself after he’s treated like a working class woman, a migrant worker or a black man could only seem astounding to white people, to libertarians and climbers and merit liberals, because the cops, management and the law fucking with their worlds daily is precisely out of the norm. Their everyday is a base line deference, an assumption that they will do good in the world and that the social order exists for their benefit. They depend upon it. It’s the air they breathe. It takes some kind of chutzpah heavy self-absorption - maybe even an “epistemic closure” - to discover in Aaron Swartz’s fate a monumental tragedy.
So that’s Mr. Swartz’s high achievement, as his history is forgotten and his myth commences. He got a bunch of white liberals and libertarians to congratulate themselves over their shared outrage at his bathetic end.