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On the death of Aaron Swartz

A tribute to the hacker as hero, a “pirate” whose life the poet would choose out of all possible lives.

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aaron-schwartzI read his obituary in The Economist, and today, El País reported on his death at the age of 26. They called him a pirate, but, as I said many years ago now, an information pirate is a hero of innovation. And Aaron was a hero. The obituary of the British weekly ended by saying that once, at about 16 years old, he wrote something about how he wouldn’t mind dying as long as the contents of his hard drives …

…were made publicly available, nothing deleted, nothing withheld, nothing secret, nothing charged for; all information out in the light of day, as everything should be.

His greatest heroism was to break the security barriers of JSTOR (which mourns for the death of its pirate), twice, to give everyone access to scientific articles — otherwise, universities would have no choice but to continue to pay for subscriptions to the magazines that contain them.

As it happens, these days, I’m putting the finishing touches on an article I’ve written, trying to carefully cite the references used with their date, volume, and the pages they’re on, and I see them and I want to have them to finish my academic task, when this wouldn’t be at all necessary, if JSTOR didn’t artificially blind our access to journals, thereby supporting the publishers. Anyone who goes through troubles like this must recognize with me that we would waste less time if we could enjoy the work of a hacker like Aaron Swartz.

As a tribute, I’m going to reproduce several paragraphs from what I wrote years ago on the occasion the presentation of the book “From Nations to Networks.”

Let’s see…

A hacker calls into question for the first time the theoretical economic separation between producer and consumer. Hackers are, in principle, privileged and experienced Internet users, who explore new territory, just the way the pioneers explored the frontier in the Old West. But that exploration makes them producers, because, in their exploration, they break closed codes (like the cowboys tore down barbed-wire fences put up by farmers), develop new code, and insist that it be available to everyone. That is, they are producers of open code as well as users.

Timothy Garton Ash, writing in El País, gave us a brushstroke of the values that define this or that facet of hackers, although he isn’t referring to them:

The productive facet is based on people being governed by values like effort, punctuality, discipline and a willingness to accept delayed gratification. In contrast, the consumer facet is based on being expansive and given to allowing themselves whims, seeking pleasure, and living for the moment.

What’s interesting about this distinction is that, today, it’s possible to accept delayed gratification and simultaneously live for the moment. And this mix is very hacker.

Getting more technical, I would say that a hacker is an expert in using the Internet, a user-producer who seems to be a vehicule for a number of values that I’m going to try to distill from the personal characteristics of my favorite hackers favoritos and from some of the few publications that exist about it. Here are those values.

  1. Freedom is, without the slightest doubt, their basic value, and for hackers, it’s more important than happiness: they will never accept a solution, even if it’s perfect, if they can’t observe its inner workings and alter them.
  2. They don’t believe in the excesses of intellectual property rights (beyond the recognition of authorship, which they demand forcefully) and are prepared to share their solutions or their creations in order to feel like part of a collective adventure, looking for the land of abundance, where private property no longer matters, all that matters is access to las cosas buenas in life.
  3. Even though, day to day, they feel like they’re part of a cultural movement goes beyond IT, their individualism and their pride in being authors are legendary, and so they only respond to intellectual incentives associated with recognition of their creative intelligence, and this way, they contribute to maintaining diversity within the wider cultural movement.
  4. Their rationality isn’t merely functional, but rather, they show important features of expressive rationality, because one of their highest aspirations is being recognized as hackers.
  5. Because they are users and producers at the same time, they know that identity is something that is very real, and can be played with, though not for free, and they have choice but to deal with multiple loyalties.
  6. This last one makes them contradictory beings that move on impulse, in and out of concrete projects at the service of various causes, which they serve with this or that loyalty or identity.
  7. It’s precisely their double condition as user and producer, aside from the intangibility of their product, that justifies their aversion to salaried work.

It’s very illuminating to understand how hackers work and deduce the consequences of that way of working. Hackers work in a network, which is to say, they’re not subject to any hierarchy  nor do they have a centerpoint. We could say, following the terminology of Deleuze and Guatari, they are the postmodern figure of the rhizome, which opposes, and contrasts with, the modern figure of the tree, whether we’re talking about science, technology, or industrial relations. Now, this way of working has very important consequences.

  1. Because they have no choice but to recognize their double personality as users and producers, hackers turn out to be the right people to use their networks to encourage the formation of other networks identity-based networks not centered on technical aspects, but on any common feature. That is to say, they are ideal netweavers.
  2. This proliferation of overlapping networks (since each citizen can belong to several) widens and completes markets, which can and must bring with it an important increase in productivity.
  3. The last consequence of the way hackers work is that the weaving and unraveling of identity-based networks (netweaving) is going to accelerate. In effect, according to Akerlof and Kranton, the permanence of an identity depends on the values of certain parameters that reflect both the cost of separating from the community and the punishment one would have to endure to rejoin it. What hackers’ ability to weave networks is going to bring with it is a change in the value of those parameters in the direction of facilitating their formation and their liquidation. Some networks will last quite a while, driven by a significant network effect; but other networks, and ultimately, all of them, will end up unraveling. These conditions facilitate the formation of temporary productive teams that would produce those new goods that maintain the economic system through la creative destruction.

And I ended with a little paragraph that I offer to close this tribute to a hero.

In summary, perhaps rather ironically, a hacker is like Sabina’s pirate, whose life the poet would choose out of all possible lives: “La del pirata cojo, con pata de palo, con cara de malo, con parche en el ojo.” (“The life of the limping pirate, with a wooden leg, with a mean look on his face, with a patch on his eye.”) They only look mean — they’re actually loyal to the members of their community; but they fight like dangerous bulls, perhaps because they limp, or only have one eye. But, yes, they are pirates, just like the black corsair who was in love with Yolanda and was condemned to wander the world for an original sin committed in Piedmont.

Translated by Steve Herrick from the original (in Spanish).

«On the death of Aaron Swartz» recibió 0 desde que se publicó el Sábado 26 de Enero de 2013 . Si te ha gustado este post quizá te gusten otros posts escritos por Juan Urrutia.

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