Aaron Swartz was a 26 year old internet pioneer, entrepreneur and activist who died tragically on January 11th. Speaking of Aaron’s death, Tim Berners-Lee, the man credited with inventing the internet said ‘we have lost a mentor, a wise elder’.
Aaron, a Stanford University drop-out, was instrumental in the development of the internet as we know it. He co-authored the RSS specification, co-founded Reddit.com, and co-founded the Progressive Change Campaign Committee for political reform which has almost 1 million members. Aaron was instrumental in the 2011 defeat of ‘SOPA’ bill in the U.S, which threatened free speech online.
In late 2010 and early 2011 Aaron, who was a fellow of Harvard University’s Center for Ethics, downloaded millions of academic journal articles from M.I.T’s labs and was later charged by police. He faced 35 years in prison and millions in legal costs
Aaron’s death has been covered by news outlets worldwide and the internet and activism community has rallied to keep his spirit alive and to protect freedom of speech online and to promote the values of truth, democracy, justice and compassion that Aaron lived for. See www.demandprogress.org
Ruairí McKiernan interview with Aaron Swartz at Harvard, Boston in January 2010.
Tell me about your work
I co-founded a group called the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. What we try to do is organise people over the Internet who care about progressive politics and moving the country in a more progressive direction to come together, join our email list, join our campaigns, and help to get progressive candidates elected all over the country.
I think one of the things we’ve found is that if you want to run for office there’s a path for doing it but it’s a very a corporate controlled path. You hire a bunch of big money consultants, you talk to a bunch of big money donors, you go round the major corporations and speak with their executives and persuade them that you like the things that they do and the result is that most of the people in congress are business friendly and corporate funded candidates. What we want to do is build a pipeline to get more progressive, more activist people elected into congress so they can start to effect real social change.
How do you know that you’re being effective in that work?
I think it’s nice that we have this focus on elections because you know elections are very clear. There’s a deadline. There are two candidates. One you’re supporting, one you’re opposing, and there’s a date when you find out find out which one of you won and so you really can’t fool yourself with elections. You can’t say well we got 90 % of the way there at the end of the day. Either your candidate is in office or it isn’t and you can see exactly how much you accomplished and how many votes you needed to go. So one of the things I like about it is that it gives us a constant sense of exactly what we’re achieving, how close we are to getting there and what we need to do.
Why do you do what you do?
That’s a good question. I feel very strongly that it’s not enough to just live in the world as it is, to just take what you’re given and follow the things that adults told you to do and that your parents told you to do and the society tells you to do. I think that you should always be questioning. I take this very scientific attitude that everything you’ve learned is just provisional that it’s always open to recantation or refutation or questioning and I think the same applies to society. I felt growing up I slowly had this process of realising that all the things around me were just the natural way that things were the way things would be. They weren’t natural at all. They were things that could be changed and things that more importantly were wrong and should change. Once I realised that there was really no going back I couldn’t fool myself into saying I’ll just go and work for a business and ignore all that once I realised that there were real serious problems, fundamental problems, that I could do something to address I didn’t see a way to forget that.
How did you go about getting active?
You know I’d always been wanting to get active. Even when I was at school I was very frustrated with school. I thought the teachers didn’t really know what they were talking about. They were very domineering and controlling and the homework was kind of a sham and was just a ways to piece things together and force them to do busy work. I started reading books about the history of education and how this education system was developed, alternatives to it and ways that people could actually learn things as opposed to just regurgitating facts that teachers were telling them. This led me down this path of questioning things. Once I questioned the school I was in, I questioned the society that built the school, the business that the schools were training people for, I questioned the government that set up this whole structure.
What were the projects or campaigns that you first got involved with?
Well like I said I got interested in educational stuff, I don’t think I got involved in a political campaign. I spent a lot of time after that wondering what is it that I could really affect. You know I did a lot of writing and a lot of reading, but a lot of the stuff I read about social change seemed to come from this model, you know, in the revolutions in the 60s people thought if we just get enough people together who are angry, get a lot of people together who are angry, then all of a sudden magically this revolution will happen and will take over the country and, you know, it just didn’t make sense to me. I think now that I’ve more background, more context, I think that it came out of this experience of watching the Soviet Union because the Soviet Union was so underdeveloped and you know there weren’t very many political structures in place. It was true that a small group of people getting a bunch of people angry could kinda take over a whole country and I just don’t think that that could happen in developed countries like the US or Ireland so I began wondering what is it that you can do in developed countries, you know everything seems so ineffective and so powerless and it wasn’t until just recently that I started thinking ok, the internet provides this opportunity now to raise money to get candidates elected. It used to be that there was just no way for a small group of people to go up against the power of big money, but one of the things we’ve seen in the PCCC , there’s just a couple of us who work there and in the past year using nothing but basically computers and our own apartments we’ve gotten 300,000 people (now 950,000) to join our list and to raise millions of dollars. I mean that just three people were able to make a huge difference like that and the internet provides this chance where we can start taking on big corporations.
As you developed your interest in social activism have there been any people or ideas or organisations that have really inspired you?
Right before I went to college I read two books. I read a book “ Moral Mazes” by Robert Jackall which is a study of how corporations work, and it’s actually a fascinating book, this sociologist, he just picks a corporation at random and just goes and studies the middle managers, not the people who do any of the grunt work and not the big decision makers, just the people whose job is to make sure that things day to day get done, and he shows how even though they’re all perfectly reasonable people, perfectly nice people you’d be happy to meet any of them, all the things that they were accomplishing were just incredibly evil. So you have these people in this average corporation, they were making decisions to blow out their worker’s eardrums in the factory, to poison the lakes and the lagoons nearby, to make these products that are filled with toxic chemicals that poisoned their customers, not because any of them were bad people and wanted to kill their workers and their neighbourhood and their customers, but just because that was the logic of the situation they were in.
Another book I read was a book “Understanding Power” by Noam Chomsky which kind of took the same sort of analysis but applied it to wider society which you know we’re in a situation where it may be filled with perfectly good people but they’re in these structures that cause them to continually do evil, to invade countries, to bomb people, to take money from poor people and give it to rich people, to do all these things that are wrong. These books really opened my eyes about just how bad the society we were living in really is.
And is there any key message that you’d give to anyone watching this interview or listening in? Any key point you’d like to encourage people to, to keep in mind when they’re thinking about the issues that affect them, or the issues they might want to take action on?
I think the most important thing is to realise that you can accomplish something. I know that sometimes you just feel powerless that you’re one small person in this world of big corporations and big evil people and big media companies and so on, and there’s nothing you can do, but the fact is a lot of the reason it seems like that is that people feel powerless. People are afraid to do anything you know for a long time I watched the news and all I saw was this corporate propaganda and this kind of anti-activism attacks and I thought, that the news media was just inevitably biased against us, that there was just no hope that the only solution alternative was to create alternative news streams.
Now with the PCCC I’ve found that it’s not that the news media is inevitably biased against us, it’s just that, reporters you know, like all of us are just kinda lazy you know they report the stories that people give to them, and there are huge companies that are willing to write up stories for them and you know hand them to them on silver platters and all they have to do is just type them up. Of course they’re going to do that and it turned out that when we did the same thing, we started writing press releases, going to reporters and pitching stories, they were just as happy to write about us as they were to write about Coca Cola. So because I had believed for so long that change was impossible it precluded me from taking any actions that could have caused that change and so I think the first step for everyone out there is to believe that you can actually accomplish something because once you believe that you’re half way to actually doing something.
SEPARATE 2011 INTERVIEW FOR YOUTH YOUTHRISING
INTERNET ACTIVIST AARON SWARTZ TALKS TO SPUNOUT
You've been involved in using the internet for activism a long time now. How did you get started with it all?
I was very lucky -- my Dad ran a software company, so we had computers around the house since I was born and an Internet connection from very early on. Back in those days, it seemed so clear that this was going to change everything, that not using the Internet for activism seemed crazy.
What was the main inspiration behind you getting involved with the web and in campaigning?
For a while, I made the usual programmer's mistake that the way to change the world with technology was to make better technology - just give voters, politicians, whomever better tools to do their job and everything would work better. But after trying it, it became pretty obvious that wasn't enough: you needed to fight.
What do you think are the particular benefits of focusing on the web as a tool for change?
It's so easy -- there's hardly anything comparable. Where else can you get people to help you do something in just a couple seconds?
What have been the highlights in the journey so far?
The moments that get me jazzed are combining the online stuff with very exciting offline stuff. After hundreds of thousands of people signed a petition supporting a government-run health insurance plan for the US, I got to run around the halls of Congress buttonholing politicians about whether they'd vote for it.
How do you feel about where the U.S is at right now?
We're in a pretty sorry state -- our political system is getting increasingly dysfunctional as our problems are getting increasingly severe. It seems ripe for radical change, but it seems as likely the change will be for the worse as for the better.
From what you hear about the EU and Ireland, what are your impressions of what is going on over here?
It sounds like the Euro has turned out to have exactly the problems that folks like Paul Krugman and Gordon Brown said it would. In the US, the government may not be doing enough to get people back to work, but at least it's possible. Under the Euro, Germany can insist on letting the Irish suffer another man-made disaster. Ireland needs to declare a bank holiday and escape.
In general, how do you stay motivated, focused and determined in the face of adversity?
What else are you going to do? It's nice to take a vacation every once in a while, but I find I can't go too far without finding myself itching to get back into the fight.
What advice would you give to people starting out in community or campaign projects?
Start by picking something you're confident you can achieve. There's nothing like a victory to keep you going and learning from a concrete success or failure is much better than throwing yourself into a big fight you don't expect to win.
How do you stay sane in the middle of it all? What do you do for fun, to unwind etc?
Sneaking off with friends and holing up with a good book. Nothing gets me energized like working with other amazing people.
A selection of Ruairí's articles published in the Irish Times, the Irish Independent, the Sunday Times, the Huffington Post, and other publications.