Monday, January 14, 2013

Access Only

The death of the young prodigy Aaron Swartz is deeply felt at Bluepepper, as all such endings are. He was 26, just about a man in our time scale, and yet apparently still trapped in that bitter-sweet aspic of "child prodigy" that has sounded the death-knell of so many great hearts and minds.

That his death may have been as much a product of a certain strain of dogmatism in his formidable personality as any callous and nefarious dealings in the Attorney General's Office of that most equivocal of federations is less clear, but for Bluepepper it is far the more pressing consideration. 

The world can ill-afford to lose such minds in what may well be remembered as the most mindless of ages over which the venal and wilfully ignorant appear to hold sway. And here was a good young man accused by the very same of fraud and theft. 

But for all that, the age can equally ill-afford such brilliant minds to be hobbled by dogma. Left and right have no place in reasoned argument. 

In a nutshell, and for the sake of those who might be living in one, Aaron Swartz stood accused of stealing  up to five million articles from JSTOR (an invaluable storehouse of academic articles old and new to which, in the interests of full disclosure, Bluepepper admits to be a willing and satisfied subscriber). He allegedly did so by leaving a laptop in a utility closet on MIT campus and allowing his ingenious program to do its work. His intention was to release these invaluable academic articles for free to the general public. There was no profit motive, nor anything John Pilger could sink his shiny teeth into. Aaron Swartz as such was a child of his times. There are, after all, no cabals in an open and pluralistic society. Nowhere to hide your loose change. But to many the ivy halls of academia can often appear like a secret cabal influencing, either directly or indirectly, every aspect of our lives with no obligation for full and frank disclosure (other than in the peer-reviewed publications that are the very nub of this problem).

Aaron Swartz hoped to utilise the extraordinary power of the very medium I am using to brow beat you now, dear reader, to correct a glaring discrepancy in our attempts to foster the full potential of each individual in the human community. In doing so he committed a fairly serious crime. He stole. According to a US attorney, "..stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars." 

It would seem dogma is not a stranger to that most politicised of judiciaries. 

What perhaps this officer of the court should have mentioned (in the interests of full disclosure), is that the "stolen" articles in question are otherwise so prohibitively expensive that many public and campus libraries simply cannot afford to subscribe to the publications in which they are originally published, and not because the authors or the editors are charging a king's ransom for their services (with the inevitable and enduring exceptions), but simply because the distributor/s in this vital but admittedly specialised market are.

JSTOR, to its credit, was an attempt to surmount this formidable hill of beans, but the problems of copyright, and what is public and private property remained. Not, as stressed above, so much the obsession of the author, the original "owner" of any given idea, nor necessarily of the publishers and editors of said ideas, but of the distributors whose business plan appeals to the greying legion who have never had an original thought in their entire superannuated lives.

Aaron Swartz sought to correct this creeping "theft" of our collective potential in the best way he knew.  Perhaps no case could have better gone to the nub of our times than this one. The Assange case is already written on yellowing sheets, but by his tragic suicide Aaron Swartz has brought the world's attention to the fact that there is a gross inequity in the distribution of that most trade-able commodity: ideas. And that in this abiding inequity sits the kernel of future sorrow.

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