Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Why Swartz was not Assange; Or, the real business of news

Chalk and cheese.
I got into a lot of discussions about the unfortunate death of Aaron Swartz after my blog post of yesterday. The most extensive of these was with my brother, an intelligent, technically adept and articulate man who works in the geek community. But I felt that we were talking different languages. Today is day one following the announcement of Swartz's death and the mainstream media is silent, except for one story on the Guardian website about attacks on MIT websites by Anonymous. My brother and I got to comparing Swartz and Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder who remains holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy building in London. My brother suggested they were doing the same thing, but that the prosecutorial effort expended in Swartz's case was far greater, leading to his suicide. But to compare Swartz - taking on an academic publisher, a publisher of journal articles that few people would read anyway, if they had been released into the public domain - and Assange is to betray a lack of real insight, because they were chalk and cheese in reality. Hence the silence in the mainstream media. And hence the caution I pointed to yesterday evinced by Stilgherrian, a famously iconoclastic and irreverent tech journo who works as a freelancer in Australia, when discussing Swartz. Swartz was essentially a hacker, Stilgherrian wrote.

Now on an aside I want to point briefly to the relationship between geeks and creatives, and especially my own attempts, at the beginning of last year, to understand SOPA, the proposed anti-piracy law that failed to pass in the US Congress. My take on this subject is that companies that produce digital content have a right to protect their product, and I suggested that the complaints from the geek community were overly partisan and extreme. There's this feeling in the geek community that certain types of organisation that are involved in digital content production do not merit respect, and are therefore fair game for ingenious hackers. The funny thing is that I don't hear any of the creatives who work with those companies complaining about poor treatment. There were no writers, sound recordists, scriptwriters, poets, musicians or other creative individuals complaining about SOPA. Not as far as I know, anyway. And I think that's meaningful. Aaron Swartz got caught up in this type of shitstorm and it looked like he would lose, but it's also interesting to note that for most people his suicide was the first time that they'd heard of the prosecution against him. Is that because it was just not newsworthy?

Everyone likes to think their own priorities are important, and they react with delight when they find people with similar views. When Julian Assange began to release classified information publicly his relationship with the media was solid and productive. They were best mates. Hale fellows. But Assange made the mistake of treating the media like just another module in his plan to change the world, and he overreached. You don't verbally assault the editor of one of the world's leading liberal dailies like he was some n00b code monkey. You respect his priorities and work with him. You keep the liberal media onside because they can save your skin when the shit hits the fan. But iconoclastic, self-confident, driven Assange rubbed the media up the wrong way and when he needed help they remained silent. They spoke different languages. They did not communicate. Words were said that would later be regretted.

As for the law, journalists have long experience with it because there are specific elements of the law that touch on the occupation. And danger? Journalists die every year in their hundreds for doing their jobs. What about changing the world? Yes, journalists are acquainted with the sensations attached to this idea, and daily search for the story that will cause the government embarrassment, reveal corporate malfeasance, or even lead to a change in the political makeup of the country. This is why Assange was - and remains - of such interest to journalists, and it's partly why Swartz has simply dropped off the radar in the mainstream just one day after the announcement of his death. The techniques the two men used may have been the same, the fire that drove them might have been similar, but to the rest of the world they are just chalk and cheese.

On a final note, none in the geek community paid any attention to the call I put out in yesterday's blog post to try to find ways that can cause writers to be paid. Wouldn't it be great if creatives and geeks could start talking the same language? The stuff creatives produce is as popular as ever - more so even in the era of social media. Our stories are shared in millions of links every day by people who want to communicate with each other in the context of larger narratives. But we're not benefiting much financially from this increased exposure. Our employers are strapped for cash and the first thing to go is the freelancers. New websites that deal in news appear but they set their rates too low to be of any use to a self-respecting journalist. Hacktivist geeks are trying to free up more information but in many ways that's damaging the people who so successfully inform and entertain the world. Why can't we put our heads together and find a way to ensure that the people who do the work that the world values so highly are paid adequately for their labours. That's a game-changer.


Resuna said...

I don't think half a dozen twitter exchanges count as a "conversation". It's too easy to read too much into what people say... for example, I never even suggested that the "prosecutorial effort expended was far greater". I have no idea where you even got that from.

There are differences betwen them, but they are mostly a matter of scale, and there are far more similarities than you're prepared to grant. The biggest mistake you're making is thinking this is about JSTOR. It isn't. It's about PACER.

Matthew da Silva said...

As you keep saying, just as you continue to ignore the larger points that I make. You want the minutiae of the case to be important so that you have some foundation to argue form, but these details count for very little. Swartz will be forgotten when Assange is still a symbol of what techies can do if they focus their attention on worthwhile objects.

You also continue to ignore my suggestion that the geek community put its head together and work out a way for people to effectively and efficiently pay for the stories they consume. But hactivists don't care about this because they're too busy debating the finer points of ... whatever it is they talk about. In any case, they all believe that information should be freely available and that the people who produce it can just go fish off a pier.

It's all incredibly dull and depressing. I read an ABC News story this morning about how academics feel about the JSTOR hack and I had to prop my eyes open with matches to prevent myself falling asleep. What a non-story!