AARON SWARTZ AND BRADLEY MANNING: HOW THE US GOVERNMENT CONTAINS THOSE WHO WOULD FREE INFORMATION
“Remember how they outlawed acid soon as they found out it was a channel to something they didn’t want us to see? Why should information be any different?”
So says paranoid, stoner gumshoe Doc Sportello to the protohacker Fritz in Thomas Pynchon’s stem-winding psychedelic noir novel Inherent Vice. Doc’s referring to ARPANET, an early form of the internet. Pynchon may just have been playing to countercultural nostalgia, but then again, as any Pynchon nut will tell you, the hermetic author has always been on the side of misfits, running his subversive types through a gauntlet of endless Menippean carnivals.
But here’s the thing that Pynchon misses (maybe it’s just a function of Doc’s stoned operating filter): information has always been, in some form or another, outlawed. Did the good doctor forget prepsychedelic human history? Perhaps Doc’s naïveté is irrelevant when we consider that the internet and psychedelics—likened to one another by Tim Leary, Terrence McKenna, and others—blow information and consciousness wide open.
When Doc asks Fritz when the government is going to outlaw ARPANET and thus information, Fritz responds, “What. Why would they do that?”
Western civilization’s democracies will likely never outlaw the internet (they need it for the free market, you see)—but they have declared war on those who would use it to free once-secret information. And so it was with Aaron Swartz, and thus shall it be with Bradley Manning, the young Army soldier suspected of supplying WikiLeaks with its diplomatic cable dump. One is dead, the other contained (for now).
Manning knows the dimensions of his prison cell well. Since his arrival in 2010 he’s probably surveyed every dimple and crenulation of his cell’s concrete walls during his daily 23-hour isolation sessions.
Aaron H. Swartz, one of our our most vigorous champions of open access and copyright reform, committed suicide in New York City on Friday at the age of 26.
He was a pioneer and a renegade, part of the team that built Reddit as well as the widely-used RSS protocol. But he first began making headlines for a coding exploit that he undertook in September of 2010, when he used MIT’s servers to scrape and download some two million academic articles stored by the online catalog JSTOR using a program named keepgrabbing.py. Per copyright law, it may have been illegal or, as some argue, “inconsiderate”: these articles were meant only to be available to MIT affiliates, not to the wider world that Swartz believed deserved better access to the world’s information.
MIT didn’t press charges and neither did JSTOR. The government, however, decided to throw the book at Swartz, eventually hitting him with 13 separate charges and threatening to send him to prison for decades. According to his mother, Swartz was depressed about the court case and possibility of years in prison. He’d contemplated suicide in the past and, for unknown reasons, followed through this time.
- by Leandro Oliva and Adam Clark Estes