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Aaron Swartz and “Hactivision”

January 17, 2013 2:34 am 1 comment

Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook

When did it happen? When did technology become knowledge? When did code become wisdom? When did Greek gods become geek gods? When did the new product rollout or the tech-conference stage and back screen become lectern and altar, the new stained-glass backdrop for the church of futurism?

An eighteen or thirty or twenty-five year old super programmer, or hacker, is

The late Steve Jobs of Apple

an eighteen or thirty or twenty-five year old super programmer or hacker, not the Übermensch of free flowing data humanizing itself in the transformations of digital hyperspace, the reorganization of energy into bits. To know how to code things, to know how to get things, is not the same as to know things.

I am sorry about Adam Swartz, sorry for his family, for those who knew and cared for him. Much was lost – great talent and intelligence, a human being with, it seems, some troubles.

This is not about that.

Nor is it about the legitimacy of Swartz’s complaints against JSTOR or the severity of the Justice Department’s prosecution.

Jeff Bezos of

This is about revolutions in technology being confused with a revolution in human relations, the ethical conditions of being. Increasingly, the wizards themselves and their cultural acolytes, who think they see the future, cannot see the plain truths before them.

As good a newsman as there is, Warren Olney, promo-ed his To the Point radio program with a reference to Swartz’s “passion for information.” MSNBC’s Chris Hayes stated that at the time of his death Aaron was being prosecuted by the federal government and threatened with up to 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines for the crime of — and I’m not exaggerating here — downloading too many free articles from the online database of scholarly work JSTOR.

Hayes called Swartz “one of those preternaturally brilliant, precocious hackers,” “a kind of 21st century, nerd renaissance man” who, like Hayes, was a fellow, ironically, at Harvard’s Safra Center for Ethics.

Much of the moral confusion of whole segments of the population derives from their worshipping digital code above the alphabetical, and the ideas that the latter should discriminate before the former acts to disseminate them.

Swartz had a “passion for information.” And Willie Sutton had a passion for money. (He robbed banks, he said, “because that’s where the money is.”) The question is how they got them. Hayes, a very smart man, says that Swartz obtained his information from JSTOR by – he’s not exaggerating – “downloading” it. Download– what a conveniently generic term, covering up the self-delusion by which the user obscures the method and means of the download. It is as if download represents a regressive barbarity of language in which the loss of distinction leaves us only with the non-cyber “take,” and we do not pause to consider how we take – by receipt of being given, let’s say, or in purchase, by pocket picking or at gun point, or, perhaps more apt in Swartz’s case, cat burglary. Demand Progress, an organization Swartz founded, says that it runs

online campaigns to rally people to take action on the news that affects them — by contacting Congress and other leaders, funding pressure tactics, and spreading the word in their own communities.

There is no reference to second-story jobs.

What Swartz did was to use, without the authorization of either MIT or JSTOR, in words from Wikipedia,

MIT’s data network to bulk-download a substantial portion of JSTOR’s collection of millions of academic journal articles.

According to sources all over the Internet, in its statement defending Swartz, Demand Progress said that the Justice Department’s indictment of Swartz was like

trying to put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library.

Have we truly entered an age in which so many smart and learned people cannot grasp the simple distinction between checking books out of the library and breaking into the library and taking them? Would the young genius who conceived the better lock pick and committed that transgression be feted as a wise and revolutionary soul? And we see how those who make these slap dash arguments of entitled self-justification deceive themselves by honoring the word and the idea far less than they do data and information. So much information. So little of being informed.

In the Sunday New York Times The Stone feature, Peter Ludlow, a philosopher of language at Northwestern University, fudged the language wearing a scholar’s toque. In “What Is a ‘Hacktivist’?” Ludlow expresses concern about “letting the demonization of hacktivists go unanswered.”

“Lexical Warfare” is a phrase that I like to use for battles over how a term is to be understood.


Over the past few years we’ve watched a lexical warfare battle slowly unfold in the treatment of the term “hacktivism.” There has been an effort to redefine what the word means and what kinds of activities it describes; at the same time there has been an effort to tarnish the hacktivist label so that anyone who chooses to label themselves as such does so at their peril.

In the simplest and broadest sense, a hacktivist is someone who uses technology hacking to effect social change. The conflict now is between those who want to change the meaning of the word to denote immoral, sinister activities and those who want to defend the broader, more inclusive understanding of hacktivist. [Emphasis added]

How simple Ludlow makes the case. How unclear. Simple and broad make for porous definitions. “Someone who uses technology,” for instance – well, that’s me writing these words on computer software. It’s also the cop tasering someone. It’s the “hacktavist” committing a denial of service attack on Bank of America – and I’m not sticking up for them – when you can’t make the online transfer of the funds you need in order to cover that check.

“Effect social change”? That’s a voter, a petition, a demonstration, a civil rights movement in which Martin Luther King, Jr. broke obscene and discriminatory laws in acts of civil disobedience and nonetheless accordingly still went to jail in Birmingham, Alabama. It’s also a revolutionary crowd swarming the Winter Palace and tanks on the streets of Santiago, Chile overthrowing Salvador Allende. These alleffect social change.

Are we clear now on the definition of “hacktavist”?

Since Ludlow marshals his own army in the lexical warfare over hactivist, I suppose, he chooses then to fail to explore more fundamentally the lexical origins of the word. It is itself a hacked term, a portmanteau joining the social and political intentions of “activist” with the meaning of “hack” and “hacker” themselves. A staid old source such as Merriam-Webster (but online!) offers as the fourth, relevant definition of the former

a : to write computer programs for enjoyment

b : to gain access to a computer illegally

Already we see the split in directions. Already we see, too, that the related but variant meanings constitute not an ongoing war, as Ludlow would have it, but a settled peace: two established definitions and the affirmative one actually given precedence over the pejorative. Why is that? It is because conceptually the pejorative meaning is formed from the affirmative. Here is the more cutting edge Urban Dictionary.

1. Hack


To program a computer in a clever, virtuosic, and wizardly manner. Ordinary computer jockeys merely write programs; hacking is the domain of digital poets. Hacking is a subtle and arguably mystical art, equal parts wit and technical ability, that is rarely appreciated by non-hackers. See hacker.

2. To break into computer systems with malicious intent. This sense of the term is the one that is most commonly heard in the media, although sense 1 is much more faithful to its original meaning. Contrary to popular misconception, this sort of hacking rarely requires cleverness or exceptional technical ability; most so-called “black hat” hackers rely on brute force techniques or exploit known weaknesses and the incompetence of system administrators.

3. To jury-rig or improvise something inelegant but effective, usually as a temporary solution to a problem. See noun sense 2.

Number 3 provides the link between 1 and 2. The clever, virtuosic wizardry of meaning number 1 leads to the jury-rigging and improvisation of meaning number 3. Jury-rigging and improvisation lead to finding ways to “break into computer systems” in meaning number 2, yet  “inelegant but effective” in 3 denote the aesthetic response that meaning 1 offers as a critique of meaning 2 – the separation of the good hack from the bad, the good hacker from the bad hacker. And the goodhacktavist from the bad one? It’s like the aesthetic quality of scientific theory: the good ones, theorists believe, the accurate ones it is their faith, are simple and beautiful. So, too, apparently believe the hackers. However, there is something more to the distinction, a little time bomb in the definition that blows a hole in personal responsibility: notice that in meaning number 2, bad hacking is breaking into computer systems with “malicious intent.” Notice that in the Merriam-Webster definition above, the distinguishing term is not intent, malicious or otherwise, but “illegality.”

The hactivist’s hack is only bad if it is malicious. If the hacker is teaching his favorite political bogeyman a lesson, or through the bogeyman the rest of us – by pointing out the corporation’s cyber vulnerabilities, or challenging a non-profit’s regulation of its content, or questioning the legitimacy of government secrecy – then all is well. Because the hacker means well. He’s not malicious.

Ludlow is at rather comical pains to make hacktivists warm and cuddly. When he is not looking very deeply into the language he claims to be analyzing, he is recounting his attendance at a

birthday party in Germany for Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who was turning 34. As it happened, Domscheit-Berg had also been the spokesperson for Wikileaks and, after Julian Assange, the group’s most visible person. He had left the organization in 2010, and now he had a new venture, OpenLeaks. The party was also meant to be a coming out party for OpenLeaks.

What does Ludlow find there?

When I arrived at the house the first thing I noticed was a large vegetable garden outside. The second thing I noticed was that a tree out front had been fitted out with a colorful knit wool sweater. This was the effort of Daniel’s wife Anke — “knit hacking,” she called it. And around the small town I saw evidence of her guerilla knit hacking. The steel poles of nearby street signs had also been fitted with woolen sweaters. Most impressively, though, a World War II tank, sitting outside a nearby former Nazi concentration camp for women had also been knit-hacked; the entire barrel of the tank’s gun had been fit with a tight colorful wool sweater and adorned with some woolen flowers for good measure.

One is surprised not read of the knit wool sweaters in their hair. Apparently Ludlow traveled to somewhere outside of Berlin by way of San Francisco 1967, and where the tanks have been beat into key strokes.

It is not merely that a lot of untutored or sloppy thinkers – or lexical warriors – are missing the point, the point of taking responsibility for one’s actions in the collective that is any society and its regulating rules of behavior; we see in the disparity between the Merriam-Webster and Urban Dictionary definitions that the abandonment of responsibility is built in: all that matters for the hacker and his supporters are their intentions, as they judge them, and not any social obligation to abide by laws or – if conscience so directs them – to accept responsibility for breaking laws. They claim not only the right to determine on their own what laws, what regulations, what terms of service, what secrets are legitimate, but freedom from review, from judgment by others, from facing the price of transgressive acts.

Some defenders of Swartz have argued that JSTOR itself declined to pursue charges against him. Does a business owner’s decision, for whatever reason, not to pursue civil action against an individual for breaking and entering into his property absolve the individual of criminal violation? Some of Swartz’s defenders have criticized MIT, from some vague sense of intellectual solidarity, for not also speaking in his defense. In defense of what, Swartz’s hijacking of MIT’s data network in order to break through the JSTOR’s access walls?

The cocoon of like-minded, ill-considered, self-justifying and aggrandizing rationalization of this culture is a site to behold. But it’s not a vision of the future. It’s the same old blinders.

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