How things are phrased matters a great deal. This is something that Evgeny Morozov has done good work examining over the past few years. Specifically, Morozov calls out thinkers and popular articles about technology as often pushing technology as a ‘solution’ to particular social issues (his most recent example is in The Babbler). Solutions, by strongly correlating technology with a ‘problem’, effectively become cast through very particular (often corporate) lenses that tend to hide or obscure the real problems, questions, or alternate solutions that might address - or (re)define - the issue(s) at hand.
To give you an idea of the kind of stuff that enrages Morozov (and, to a lesser extent, me), look no further than Cory Doctorow’s recent piece, titled “Copyright wars are damaging the health of the internet.” In this case, the life of ‘the Internet’ is the key driver of the future of social issues related to speech and freedom. The first few paragraphs read as follow:
I’ve sat through more presentations about the way to solve the copyright wars than I’ve had hot dinners, and all of them has fallen short of the mark. That’s because virtually everyone with a solution to the copyright wars is worried about the income of artists, while I’m worried about the health of the internet.
Oh, sure, I worry about the income of artists, too, but that’s a secondary concern. After all, practically everyone who ever set out to earn a living from the arts has failed – indeed, a substantial portion of those who try end up losing money in the bargain. That’s nothing to do with the internet: the arts are a terrible business, one where the majority of the income accrues to a statistically insignificant fraction of practitioners – a lopsided long tail with a very fat head. I happen to be one of the extremely lucky lotto winners in this strange and improbable field – I support my family with creative work – but I’m not parochial enough to think that my destiny and the destiny of my fellow 0.0000000000000000001 percenters are the real issue here.
What is the real issue here? Put simply, it’s the health of the internet.
The regularized reference to the ‘health’ of the Internet is significant because it creates the lens through which the reader should, apparently, understand the dispute between rights holders and Internet users. From this way of thinking about a piece of technology it’s possible to think of the ‘net as an organism that can be either ‘sick’ or ‘healthy’. Given that we (presumably) tend not to see the Internet as a bacteria or virus deserving destruction it makes sense that we (almost automatically) want to search for ‘antibiotics’ to get the Internet healthy again. Doctorow frames that as resisting new copyright reforms and repealing past ones.
In effect, Doctorow’s framing of the issue personalizes and humanizes a socio-technical invention that is embedded in differential policy and cultural domains across the world. Moreover, he has cast ‘the Internet’ in a manner that predisposes your reaction to any solution: clearly, ‘the Internet’ should be kept healthy. (Unless you hate technology, of course.)
The article goes on to insist that copyright policies are being designed in a manner that is detrimental to free speech, privacy, and general good governance. That’s fine. But it’s not the point that most readers are going to walk away with, and that’s unfortunate. As it stands, the ‘copyright wars’ seem to be never-ending, and we keep seeing these very popular pieces that are crafted to draft new recruits into the ‘armies’. Personally, I’d prefer that the ‘generals’ of the various sides actually engage in conversation about the relationship between copyright, freedom of speech, freedom of publication, and the power relationships between corporate, governmental, and citizens’ interests. I’d rather we get a real public debate instead of (seeming) non-stop sloganeering.
I should note that Cory isn’t just a ‘solutionist’. He really does ‘get’ the significance of talking about the ‘net as an organism: by doing so people can more directly - and quickly - connect with ‘saving’ it. It’s surprisingly hard to talk about ‘saving’ something when doing so entails learning an awful lot about complex policy and social rights issues. So, in the case of this article, I think you’re witnessing a particular epistemic elite crafting language to achieve very specific political goals.
And that’s what’s important. By phrasing language, as he has, Doctorow is committing to a specific political maneuver by way of embedding in people’s minds that copyright is the equivalent of a Japanese whaler going after a rare soon-to-be-extinct whale. It’s a helpful kind of thought-worm to implant. But it also obscures the power politics and policy wonkery and just plain silliness involved in the whole copyright ‘issue.’ It also makes you choose if you’re ‘for’ a ‘living’ or a ‘dead’ Internet: why can’t I be for a middle position? What is that middle position? Does a ‘live’ Internet mean a ‘dead’ copyright? Can I get a ‘semi-living’ Internet along with only a ‘half-dead’ copyright?
Strong statements - and rhetoric - like Doctorow’s and other elites in the copyright wars are as meant to obscure potential avenues of thinking as they are to make clear how to ‘fix’ problems. Doctorow does a good job in getting people riled up, which is part of his ‘job’ as an activist, but I’m not confident that after two decades we shouldn’t be moving towards a more nuanced debate. I’m also just sick and tired of ‘war’ language.
I think that it’s increasingly important to focus on positive solutions. Copyright reformists (like me!) have about as much chance successfully framing policy solutions to copyright using war language as we do spearing Moby Dick. And I’d rather stop chasing white whales.
Aaron was part of an army of citizens that believes democracy only works when the citizenry are informed, when we know about our rights—and our obligations. An army that believes we must make justice and knowledge available to all—not just the well born or those that have grabbed the reigns of power—so that we may govern ourselves more wisely.
When people try to restrict access to the law, or they try to collect tolls on the road to knowledge, or deny education to those without means, those people are the ones who should face the stern gaze of an outraged public prosecutor.
Carl Malamud, “Aaron’s Army”
(Some will say this is not the time. I disagree. This is the time when every mixed emotion needs to find voice.)
Since his arrest in January, 2011, I have known more about the events that began this spiral than I have wanted to know. Aaron consulted me as a friend and lawyer. He shared with me what went down and why, and I worked with him to get help. When my obligations to Harvard created a conflict that made it impossible for me to continue as a lawyer, I continued as a friend. Not a good enough friend, no doubt, but nothing was going to draw that friendship into doubt.
The billions of snippets of sadness and bewilderment spinning across the Net confirm who this amazing boy was to all of us. But as I’ve read these aches, there’s one strain I wish we could resist:
Please don’t pathologize this story.
No doubt it is a certain crazy that brings a person as loved as Aaron was loved (and he was surrounded in NY by people who loved him) to do what Aaron did. It angers me that he did what he did. But if we’re going to learn from this, we can’t let slide what brought him here.
First, of course, Aaron brought Aaron here. As I said when I wrote about the case(when obligations required I say something publicly), if what the government alleged was true — and I say “if” because I am not revealing what Aaron said to me then — then what he did was wrong. And if not legally wrong, then at least morally wrong. The causes that Aaron fought for are my causes too. But as much as I respect those who disagree with me about this, these means are not mine.
But all this shows is that if the government proved its case, some punishment was appropriate. So what was that appropriate punishment? Was Aaron a terrorist? Or a cracker trying to profit from stolen goods? Or was this something completely different?
Early on, and to its great credit, JSTOR figured “appropriate” out: They declined to pursue their own action against Aaron, and they asked the government to drop its. MIT, to its great shame, was not as clear, and so the prosecutor had the excuse he needed to continue his war against the “criminal” who we who loved him knew as Aaron.
Here is where we need a better sense of justice, and shame. For the outrageousness in this story is not just Aaron. It is also the absurdity of the prosecutor’s behavior. From the beginning, the government worked as hard as it could to characterize what Aaron did in the most extreme and absurd way. The “property” Aaron had “stolen,” we were told, was worth “millions of dollars” — with the hint, and then the suggestion, that his aim must have been to profit from his crime. But anyone who says that there is money to be made in a stash ofACADEMIC ARTICLES is either an idiot or a liar. It was clear what this was not, yet our government continued to push as if it had caught the 9/11 terrorists red-handed.
Aaron had literally done nothing in his life “to make money.” He was fortunate Reddit turned out as it did, but from his work building the RSS standard, to his work architecting Creative Commons, to his work liberating public records, to his work building a free public library, to his work supporting Change Congress/FixCongressFirst/Rootstrikers, and then Demand Progress, Aaron was always and only working for (at least his conception of) the public good. He was brilliant, and funny. A kid genius. A soul, a conscience, the source of a question I have asked myself a million times: What would Aaron think? That person is gone today, driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying. I get wrong. But I also get proportionality. And if you don’t get both, you don’t deserve to have the power of the United States government behind you.
For remember, we live in a world where the architects of the financial crisis regularly dine at the White House — and where even those brought to “justice” never even have to admit any wrongdoing, let alone be labeled “felons.”
In that world, the question this government needs to answer is why it was so necessary that Aaron Swartz be labeled a “felon.” For in the 18 months of negotiations, that was what he was not willing to accept, and so that was the reason he was facing a million dollar trial in April — his wealth bled dry, yet unable to appeal openly to us for the financial help he needed to fund his defense, at least without risking the ire of a district court judge. And so as wrong and misguided and fucking sad as this is, I get how the prospect of this fight, defenseless, made it make sense to this brilliant but troubled boy to end it.
Fifty years in jail, charges our government. Somehow, we need to get beyond the “I’m right so I’m right to nuke you” ethics that dominates our time. That begins with one word: Shame.
One word, and endless tears.