Monday, 14 January 2013

Activist geek suicides and new-economy lads and lasses howl in anguish

I'm tired, I've been up since 4am and I'm recovering from a bad flu. But yet ... this Aaron Swartz brouhaha has got my goat. So far the best thing on it is Stilgherrian's take in Crikey, in which the well-known Australian tech journo pretty effectively distances himself from the online vigilantes now baying for blood. And why shouldn't he? Stilgherrian is, as we all should know by now, a creative, a writer who earns his living by regularly producing original copy and selling it to outlets in the media. Why should he side with the loonies who want all information to be free? That was Swartz's way of thinking. He was playing with fire and he got caught up in a type of machinery that represents interests who are sick and tired of having their property stolen. I think it's terribly sad that he committed suicide, but he should have been more careful, especially if he had a pre-existing medical condition that could become problematic under a situation of extreme stress.

Activist geeks and "information should be free" loonies are incorrigible, and they're everywhere. They are laughing out loud at the problems confronting the media - a media too stupid, in the early days of the internet, to see the apocalypse coming. They think that the mainstream media, like all big business, is corrupt and deserves to become extinct. Which is odd, because most of the links that appear in social media point to stories written by journalists who work for the mainstream media. It seems that, like the "crap" produced by large entertainment companies, these products are what people want to consume. It's just that they don't want to pay for them.

For creatives, the internet is highly problematic. On one hand it can help to build a profile. On the other hand, the rise of the internet has meant that it is becoming harder and harder to earn a living from writing. Rates for stories are coming down as mainstream outlets who used to pay well stop commissioning, and as new outlets set their fees ridiculously low; how about $100 for a story that takes two days to write? If you can live on the rates freelance journalists can expect to earn today then you are doing wonderfully well.

The young, hacktivist legionaires who often hide behind pseudonyms online can take courage from the fact that the mainstream media IS indeed in poor financial straits. But that's actually not a good thing. Outlets like Huffington Post, which seems to have done really well in the new world online, actually pays zero for the stories it publishes. Writers are getting squeezed by media outlets, on the one hand, and by their readers, on the other. There's no place to go. Many just drop out. Instead of looking for ways to steal information, hactivists might more profitably try to find ways that can cause writers to be paid, and also ensure that readers pay - a little, at least - for the stories they so avidly consume every day of the year.

The appetite for stories is unabated, but we need a new way to allow outlets to recoup a part of the cost each time a story is read. An activist geek who could come up with a solution like this would be really doing the world a favour. Aaron Swartz had a heart of gold, of course, there's no doubt, but his ideas were formed by his chosen discipline. If he had been a writer, he would have looked elsewhere for a way to stick it to the man. Empower the writer, not the corporation. There's a story.


protoplasmtango said...

Well, yes and no, Matt. You're entirely right about the dire situation for writers who earn their living from writing. But the papers Swartz downloaded from JSTOR were academic papers. They're different.
Academics and scientists produce papers as part of their wider employment, for which they're paid. Not only do journal publishers not pay authors, they frequently demand submission fees. The academic publishing enterprise is so similar to extortion as to be effectively indistinguishable.
And the subscription fees are ludicruous. Even Harvard, which is by far the richest university in the world, has had to cut down on its journal subscriptions because of the ballooning cost.
There's a good argument to be made that publicly-funded science should always be published in open-access journals rather than lining the pockets of companies like Elsevier.
I can see that many might think this is the thin end of the wedge, but it's a bit inaccurate to be conflating journal publications and the demise of freelance writing as a viable career.
It's blogging that's done that, along with the sad failure of non-specialist print media to find a business model that allows them to pay writers and still remain in business.

Matthew da Silva said...

But surely academic publishers have overheads in terms of editorial content, getting papers reviewed, printing and layout, etcetera. Not only that, but they add value to the paper through association with the journal name. I just object to hacktivists thinking they know best and trying to break a system that doesn't need to be broken. Surely there are other issues, like the pressing one I so innovatively outlined in my post, but which you choose to completely ignore, that can deserve their time and effort.

protoplasmtango said...

Except that the overheads go nowhere close to the subscription cost. Average annual cost of a chemistry journal sub, for example, is just under $4k. Many are much higher. And increasingly they're online only, so no cost for paper, printing or mailing.
Paper reviews aren't very time-consuming, given that standard practice is to ask the author to recommend an expert in the area who is not associated with the work under review (there's a bit of a scandal about that at the moment - some people have been recommmending themselves under false names). Reviewers are - of course - not paid either.
I can't see anything wrong with trying to crack open a system like academic journal publishing, which IS broken.

Matthew da Silva said...

Hacktivists go ahead and try to crack these things open, as you put it, because they can. It's information. It's digital. So, weh-hey! All stops out, man! Wheee! Like that scene in Jurassic Park with the girl who starts up a computer: "I know this, it's UNIX." Well, let me tell you something, there are bigger fish to fry, and those fish need journalists to fry them, and journalists are being squeezed by the internet economy unto death, and the hacktivists are applauding. You want to go for something big? Do WikiLeaks. Look at government transparency. Look at official corruption in the thrid world. Leave publishers alone, they are under enough pressure in the new environment anyway. Your goal is wrong because you're lazy.

Resuna said...

Journals perform no editing, and very little layout, they almost always receive camera-ready copy or the digital equivalent from the authors. It has to be that way - there's almost nobody at the journal with the necessary expertise to perform corrections. Review is done by passing the journal to other authors and asking them to review it.

It's not "hacktivists" that are behind the movement against academic journals. It's academics, and an increasing number of brave researchers are refusing to join in. Brave, because what's really propping the journals up is "publish or perish"... and if you don't publish through the journals, it doesn't count.

The system doesn't "need to be broken", it is broken.

And what he was planning on releasing wasn't even everything in JSTOR, it was just the content that was already public domain because it was paid for by US government funds.

The other material that Aaron freed was US federal law, which is only available for an inflated price from one government publisher. Again, material that was 100% public domain.

There's plenty of examples of dodgy "hactivism" for you to attack, but the only doodgy thing Aaron was alleged to have done was break into a computer network. That, if he did it, was stupid, dangerous, and should be treated like any other burglary... with a typical sentence 2-3 years (and possibly probation): not 50 years and millions of dollars in fines.

And it's that outrageously disproportionate punishment that's got people's backs up.

Matthew da Silva said...

Resuna, see comment of mine, above. I'll be posting more on this in future here.

Resuna said...

I'd already seen your comment before I wrote that.

Matthew da Silva said...

Ok, here's me spelling it out clearly. I've been insulted by activist geeks who think that the new paradigm means that "old model" journalism is dead and fuck you, too bad, you're a dumb cocksucker piss off. I've read about SOPA and tried to get on top of it, and found that the entertainment industry certainly does have reason to do what they wanted to do there. I've had geeks insult me because I believe that copyright should extend after the life of the author, as it should: what about books that catch on after the author's death. I've heard the partisan bitching from the geek community and I see none of them doing the type of work that I know has to be done to keep the powerful honest. Now, WikiLeaks tried to do that. Taking on the US government takes balls. But what does Swartz do? He takes on an academic publisher? Like, wow! That's sure going to make a big difference to peoples' lives. Not. The type of speech used by people in the geek community alienates me because they do not care about the repercussions of their acts, they just want to stick it to the man and bugger the little guys who get caught up in the resulting changes. It's all stops out, and FORWARD at all costs. Why? Because they can. What the geek community needs is a brains trust to advise them on what's an important goal, and what's not. But they won't listen. They're iconoclastic and independent, just like the creatives whose financial standing they care so little about.

Resuna said...

And conflating Aaron Swartz with "activist geeks who think that the new paradigm means that "old model" journalism is dead and fuck you, too bad, you're a dumb cocksucker piss off" is like conflating all journalists with the likes of Rush Limbaugh. There's plenty of people who call themselves "journalists" who are nothing but hot bags of hateful air, and the "activist geeks" you're dealing with are making the mistake of treating all journalists as if they were wastes of oxygen like Rush. They haven't done their research.

And neither have you. What got Swartz into trouble was taking on the US governnment. The outrageous disproportionate charges are payback for Aaron having "gotten away with" the PACER incident.

Matthew da Silva said...

Give me Rush Limbaugh over an activist geek who wants to free information, any day.