The Boy Who Could Change the World: Astra Taylor and Cory Doctorow on Aaron Swartz
Aaron Swartz (1986–2013) was a political organiser and hacktivist, devoted to a free and open internet. When he tried to 'liberate' data from an academic website, authorities responded fiercely. He faced a fine of up to $1m and 35 years in jail. In 2013, he tragically took his own life.
In his short life he had changed the world: reshaping the Internet, questioning our assumptions about intellectual property, and creating some of the tools we use in our daily online lives.
In tribute to him, we share the following perspectives on Aaaron, written by Cory Doctorow and Astra Taylor, for The Boy Who Could Change the World—a collection of Swartz's writings.
"What a gift to see such a keen and conscientious mind at work, striving to understand a world he cared so much about."—Astra Taylor on Aaron Swartz
When I first met Aaron and he told me that Grace Llewellyn’s The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education had been a big influence on him, I laughed in recognition. Chances are you haven’t heard of the book, but trust me, it’s a cult classic in certain circles. Over the years I’ve met countless curious, energetic, and always slightly rebellious young people who were emboldened to forge their own unique educational path after reading it.
Unlike Aaron, who discovered the book on his own, I got a copy from my parents. I was raised an “unschooler,” which means I grew up without classes or coursework or grades. I was raised, in other words, according to the free-form child- centered pedagogy that so inspired Aaron. Part of what I find so captivating about Aaron’s writing on education is his exuberance at discovering a philosophy of learning that aligns with his instincts and experiences. Aaron was nothing if not a compulsively curious and hardworking person, yet, as these pages make viscerally clear, he felt profoundly stifled in school. He laments the ways time is wasted, important topics are trivialized, and teachers are forced by the administration to fixate on testing instead of teaching for its own sake, which means that students become correspondingly blinkered, obsessed with passing or failing instead of getting truly absorbed in the subject at hand.
Online, Aaron found a community that pointed to the possibility of another way of doing things. Far- flung Internet users helped him master the art of computer programming, offering feedback and assistance and encouraging his love of coding—of knowledge— instead of enforcing rote memorization and instilling fear of failure, as a more orthodox student- teacher relationship might. Fear is a big theme of Aaron’s writing on education, as is boredom, and for him the two go together. Like most prominent unschooling advocates, Aaron believes human beings are naturally curious; the problem is that conventional schooling stamps this inherent inquisitiveness out of us. Students are so afraid of getting answers wrong, so terrified of seeing a big F written in red pen, that they retreat into apathy, hedging their bets to finish the required assignments instead of taking the risks true engagement requires. Fear of humiliation, in other words, squelches experimentation. And as Aaron argues, this suits the powers that be just fine, because contemporary schooling is more about instilling discipline than imparting information, let alone wisdom. Fear tends to toe the line, while curiosity interrogates and crosses it.
It’s this bigger story, about how our educational system evolved hand in hand with the rise of industrial capitalism, that Aaron begins to tell here. Though only a fragment of what he envisioned as a larger project, the essays that follow are a welcome and thought- provoking contribution to a long- standing and ongoing debate about learning, freedom, pedagogy, economics, and the public good. What’s more, these pieces provide a valuable window on the learning process, an illustration of Aaron’s fundamental argument about curiosity engaged. We witness Aaron maturing, transforming from a teenage student struggling in school to a young adult and independent scholar studying the academic system from the outside, asking why it evolved the way it did and whether it could be another way. What a gift to see such a keen and conscientious mind at work, striving to understand a world he cared so much about.
"Ask what you can do to make the world better"—Cory Doctorow on Aaron Swartz
Like Aaron, I go around a lot and talk to people about stuff that I think is of burning importance: questions about whether the Internet will be a tool for unimaginable surveillance, control, and censorship, or whether it will be a tool for unprecedented democratic deliberation, collective action, creativity, and self- expression.
When it’s over, inevitably someone will ask me how I think it’ll all turn out. After all, I’m a science fiction writer. Isn’t that a bit like being a futurist?
But being a science fiction writer is nothing like a futurist. Or shouldn’t be, anyway. A science fiction writer who believes he can predict the future is like a drug peddler who starts sampling the product—it never ends well. The point of science fiction is to talk about the present—to build a counterfactual world that illustrates some important fact about the present that is so vast and diffuse that it’s hard to put your finger on.
When you go to the doctor with a sore throat, she’ll swab it and touch the swab to a petri dish that goes into a cupboard for a day or two. When she gets it out again, the stuff that was on the swab will have multiplied into something that is visible with a conventional microscope, ready for diagnosis. Science fiction writers do that to whole societies. We pluck a single technological fact out of the world around us, and we build a world in a bottle where that fact is the totalizing truth. Through a process of fiction, we take the reader on a tour of this thought experiment that gives him the power to intuit the way technology is flexing our reality, making the invisible visible.
The important fact about the petri dish with your throat gunk on it is that it is not an accurate model of your body. It’s an incredibly simplified model of it, inaccurate in a specific and useful way. So it is with science fiction—its value is not in prediction but in description, in making the invisible visible.
Who wants to be a predictor, anyway? If the world was predictable, it would be foreordained, and what we do wouldn’t matter. A world on rails is one in which everything we do is futile. Why, if you saw what Dante did to the fortune- tellers in Inferno, you’d—
So then they say, “Fine, fine, you’re not a predictor. But what about optimism? Are you optimistic about the future or pessimistic?”
And that’s when I really start to channel my inner Aaron. Because that’s exactly the wrong sort of question to ask. Of course I’m pessimistic about what would happen if the forces of reaction triumph and the Net is irreversibly used to wire up a system of totalitarian control that combines Orwell (surveillance) with Huxley (ubiquitous corporate messaging) and Kafka (guilt by Big Data algorithm).
But so what? The fact that I’m still doing something tells you the answer to the optimism/pessimism question. If I didn’t think there was any hope of salvaging things, I wouldn’t be out there kicking at the walls and shouting from the hilltops. Is that optimism?
I don’t know. Call it hope instead.
And on second thought, even if I was convinced that nothing I did mattered, I’d still be out there. Because this world is people I love—my wife, my daughter, other family members, friends, some of you reading these words. And just as I wouldn’t stop treading water if I was trying to keep my daughter afloat in an open sea, not until my last breath was gone and my legs wouldn’t kick another stroke, even if I knew it wouldn’t make a difference, I’d still keep kicking. If I weren’t capable of another stroke, I’d still keep advocating for Net freedom even if I knew my efforts wouldn’t make a difference.
Don’t ask yourself whether the future will be good or bad. Don’t ask yourself whether you are an optimist or a pessimist. Ask what you can do to make the world better. Live as though these are the first days of a better nation. Never give up.
- excerpted from The Boy Who Could Change the World: The Writings of Aaron Swartz
In the spirit of Aaron Swartz we've made this ebook available for FREE download for one day only! See more details here.