Aaron Swartz and the Rise of Free Culture on the Internet

This conversation with Justin Peters took place at Workbar, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on January 28, 2016. Only the introduction is transcribed below.

First, thank you for coming. I assume you are gathered at Workbar because Donald Trump is not in the debate tonight; it starts at 9. The man makes wonders. [Did you see the clip of Trump in Iowa City on Thursday calling Bernie Sanders a communist and in reply getting a tomato thrown at him? The man called out Heil Trumpler! American democracy.]

Second, you all should purchase Justin Peters’ important book, which will teach you more about American politics and culture than you’ll learn from Fox news on its best night. The book comes on the heels of a documentary, “The Internet’s Own Boy,” and coincides with a new collection of Aaron Swartz’s writings. I urge you to read the books and watch the documentary.

Justin’s book uses Aaron’s life as a lens to tell the story of free culture, and I’ll let him draw the connections between Aaron’s many projects and the broader movement. But for some of us Aaron’s story is a deeply personal affront to our ideals. Jeff Mayersohn, owner of the Harvard Book Store, is here tonight. As are Aaron’s friends George Scialabba, the attorney Jerry Cohen—who stood up for Aaron in the Boston Globe—and Harvey Silverglate, who wrote brilliantly about his prosecution. We’re also glad to see Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU Massachusetts. Kind thanks to Bill Jacobson and Workbar for hosting us this evening.

I met Aaron in the fall of 2010. He’d returned to Cambridge from San Francisco and waved goodbye to the commercial startup life. He’d worked in the Democracy Center, and he was now working on fellowship at Harvard and living at 95 Massachusetts Avenue, about five blocks from here and a short walk to my apartment in Inman Square to which he would occasionally come for dinner and conversation.

To me he had the mien of a Talmudic scholar, including the bad posture that comes from bending over books and computer terminals. He was soft-spoken, sweet smiling, and sported good sense of humor and strange diet, and he seemed to be balanced in this peculiar combination of fragility and toughness.

I appreciated his sense of independence and openness to experimentation. Just then George, and Jeff, and Jerry were joining with me to move The Baffler literary magazine from Chicago to Cambridge and restart it here. We’re a bit more respectable now, but at that time we were picking up all kinds of oddballs and eccentrics. We envisioned the new Baffler as a loosely formulated, tightly run, independent-minded collective of disaffiliated journalists and poets, under-paid artists and illustrators, closet utopians, ex-professors, and partially disenfranchised philosophers. Aaron fit right in.

Aaron by this time had left the startup world, left corporate life, left institutions. To me, Aaron was immensely attractive. My first instinct told me he was constantly learning how to test his ideals in the world. He had that basic courage. I though he was what the German social theorist Karl Mannheim called a ‘free-floating intellectual.’ (There is a whole line of thinking, in fact, that has perceived free-floating intellectuals as a danger to existing institutions.) He came equipped with knowledge of anarchism and libertarian socialism. His father had been a Baffler reader in Chicago in the 1990s.

Though by dint of background and expertise we had almost nothing in common, this spontaneous mutual formation, or elective affinity, freed us up to focus on what we thought was important, in writing, conversation, and art. This is a crucial point in understanding Aaron’s appeal. You don’t get to meet many people in this country who are free in this respect; if they are free they float, unfocused and undisciplined. Aaron seemed to me a very fine and rare example of a free person, following his own path, trying very hard to live in accord with his democratic ideals. One tiny illustration, by way of contrasting him with the haughty and hierarchical professors down the road: Only in retrospect did I realize that Aaron didn’t condescend to me when I asked him what must have been very, very basic technical questions about digital publishing.

Our discussions centered on the philosophical basis of anarchism (authority and hierarchy) in American thought, the problems with formal education (he left after 9th grade, I punished myself all the way to a phd; we arrived at the same conclusion, though it took me longer to figure it out), the corruption of science, the feudal nature of academia, and the tech industry here and in Silicon Valley.

Aaron joined The Baffler’s new masthead as contributing editor, and we collaborated throughout 2011 and 2012. He registered our website and set up the framework. He participated in our initial planning sessions in Brooklyn. He gave me extensive editorial commentary on our first new issue, which appeared in March 2012. He wrote a brutal essay about Apple from which Justin quotes in his book.

A week after his first indictment came down on July 14, 2011, George Scialabba and I—after we recovered from our shock—wrote a post for Guernica protesting the US Attorney’s decision. The case kept getting worse in the ensuing months, and we were frustrated that Aaron’s plight was not getting more attention. We were really puzzled, too, since there seemed to be no victim in this case, yet it persisted.

He was a bit hot. The New York Observer published a snarky blog calling attention to the fact that our publisher at the time was MIT Press, and yet we had hired on the MIT hacker Aaron Swartz. In the aftermath of that article, I got a call from a somewhat miffed director at the press asking me about the relationship and asking for a ‘heads-up’ on such sensitive matters involving him.

I last saw Aaron in New York after Thanksgiving in November 2012. He came to an event of ours. I remember thinking he looked scared and small, fragile. I last talked with him three days before his death. He said he was looking forward to an expanded role at the Baffler and in particular to helping us launch a research institute with the motto, “direct action through ideas.” This he liked very much.

At the time of his death on Friday, January 11, 2013, Jeff Mayersohn and I were sitting in his office at Harvard Book Store discussing how we could help with Aaron’s defense fund. Later that night I received a text message with the bad news. We were both heartbroken and deeply shaken by his death. And three years later, I think a lot of us are still profoundly disturbed at the misconduct of the U.S. Attorney’s office and the cowardice at the highest levels of MIT. Now that I’ve given away my feelings about all this, let me turn this over to Justin Peters, who gives us a broader perspective. Justin will read from his book, after which, we’ll have a conversation, and you are warmly invited to participate. Please say hi to Justin.