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[liberationtech] Who killed Aaron Swartz?

Shava Nerad shava23 at
Wed Jan 16 14:02:32 PST 2013

Aaron's parents have implicated the prosecutors and MIT in Aaron's death,
and I don't mean to disrespect them in this, but I'd like to speculate a
little more on all of this, because I've been plagued a bit by this for

It churns my stomach to think that part of what went into Aaron's thoughts
on his death might be a media calculation -- he was so good with that sort
of thing -- that his work would benefit better from his death than from his
life at this point in time.

And that really does make me feel ill, literally.  That part of that
decision might have been coldly rational, not entirely out of depression,
but actually looking at the media map of his work, how the feds were going
to work to discredit him and the movement, and where the tipping point
might have been -- not knowing exactly what the spin the feds might have
had to control the media circus at their end.

But think about the parallels on say, Tarek Mehanna ( who was convicted for "material
support" to terrorism for translating web pages from Arabic to English,
17.5 years of hard time, felony terrorism charges.  I have no doubt that
the charges against Aaron could be made to stick, much to the harm to
hacker culture and so on.

I can simulate that in my head.  Can y'all?  Aaron thinking about the harm
done to the cause he cares about if this comes to court vs. if he martyrs
himself now?

I am in a very very dark mood myself.  Not in any danger of suicide --
thanks if any are concerned -- but in the mood to organize and teach and
take these people down a few pegs before more young people fall.  We need
to get out of our desk chairs a bit more, don't you think?  Just a bit?
 And show that we are not so laughably easy targets, or we will be taken
down like this, one by one, unless we can show that we can work the system
in a way that is effective.

And I'm afraid that does not mean filing internet petitions to have people
removed from office.  It means working social capital within the system,
working with groups that have that kind of social capital already (some of
our groups in DC have those "ins" like EFF, or even Tor when I was there;
not so much now, CDT perhaps, some of the larger foundations have good
connections).  It means playing politics.

It means doing the righteous good nonprofit side of lobbying that doesn't
pay off Congress but really does educate them and petition them for redress
of grievances -- work I've done on behalf of digital divide interests, and
hardly anyone does any more -- you don't even hear the word "lobbyist" used
that way any more although it's the original definition of the word.

And all of these things can be done *facilitated* by technology but by GOD
they have to be done face to face and they need money and they require
bodies willing to take risks and get out from behind the keyboard and to do
those ikky things like deal with politicians and compromises and ikky
people your friends think have "germs" and aren't part of the cool kids.

And when you go to parties, people will think you are too sincere about
your work, make too little money, and are obviously making bad decisions,
and are probably a little paranoid about life because you are dealing with
all these things that involve stuff they'd just rather not hear about.

(Which is, by the way, very much like what military people feel like among
civilians, who they also believe they are in the business of protecting.)

We are in the business of watching the watchers.  Of safeguarding justice
and liberties.  That is what I believe.  And although some of you are
academics, and study this from offices where you write reports on some of
us, some of us are hybrids or activists, and we are on the line, and likely
to have shorter less pleasant lives.  It makes for an interesting little
social dynamic here.

Titularly, I am supposed to be pleasant about this, because often enough,
activists are petitioning the people reading this list who are not
activists for support, places to publish, or grants or recommendations.
 But mostly these days I am retired, so I get to be a bit of the crone
goddess of this list.  It's a bit like having tenure in a way.

It can seem very frustrating to those of us in the field to see so many so
totally risk averse, where "support" means nothing more than to publish a
blog article, signing an ineffective petition, or symbolically rsvp YES to
an event with no intent to attend, or send a few dollars to MoveOn when
MoveOn does very little except continue MoveOn's work of continuing
MoveOn's work of continuing MoveOn's work.

But when it comes to attending a meeting, taking an action that would
disrupt a routine or risk a blot on an otherwise spotless permanent record,
leaving a comfort zone or even a living room, or working with strangers on
a project where the suffering-fools-gladly nerves might be a bit abraded --
idealism goes quickly into the crapper.

Most people want to *think* of themselves as idealists and in favor of
social change.  And if someone like Anonymous tells them "Push this button
on this HUD and you can change the world!" they will, without question
(which scares the crap out of me).  But if they have to actually work to
deal with unfamiliar things and unfamiliar people and more evident risks to
change the world, they quickly withdrawal, because it is outside their
comfort zones.

And unless we can solve that with liberation technologies -- as apparently
Anonymous has, through sheer coyote duplicity -- we can't solve problems
such as those that led to Aaron's suicide, or solve those that we are faced
with to prevent the next one, or to continue his work effectively.

Because this is an asymmetrical war, and the liberation technologies we
have do not stack up to the arsenal of government, and never have.  We will
always have to supplement them with people power on the ground, with
politics, with human organizing.  I can't see the way around that.  And
online means are only seducing people away from effective engagement in the
real world at this point.  Morosov and Putnam have us by the short hairs
and we have yet to answer them effectively.

Who killed Aaron Swartz?  Maybe in a way it was all of us, too.  Because
all of us contribute to the environment where -- if I'm right and he might
have calculated his media impact -- the government could credibly destroy
his work and the movement around it in the popular press around his trial,
and he knew that none of us could counter it or save him.

I can teach people to be clever and full of tricks -- but I can teach,
what, fifteen, thirty at a time at most?  How deep?  How long?  Teaching
people skills has never been well adapted to automation; ymmv.  I could
teach a couple in depth as shadows, padawans.  Most of us are not even
doing that (I'm not, now -- I don't even have funding for me, much less for
me and staff or teaching).

So where do we go with this?  Where have intellectuals ever gone with this?
 Isn't this, dare I say, a perennial problem?


Shava Nerad
shava23 at
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