Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Swartz forgot that public culture has to be created first

It's passing strange that journalists continue to fail to critically analyze what Aaron Swartz aimed to do when he talked of "liberating information". Well, ok, there are some concessions to reason, for example in a feature story published a couple of days ago by the Guardian stemming from an interview with Swartz's girlfriend. The subs have put a question mark in the headline, for example: 'Aaron Swartz: hacker, genius… martyr?'. There's also scare quotes around a word in the intro: "When he tried to 'liberate' data from an academic website ..." But that's as far as the inquiry goes, which strikes me as being unbalanced, especially considering the deleterious state of publishing in the digital age. Newspapers, especially, are struggling. Magazine companies, too. Swartz should have been more sympathetic to their situation, having briefly worked for Conde Nast after it acquired Reddit in 2006.

The story also contains a link to Swartz's bizarre statement of intent of 2008, the 'Guerilla Open Access Manifesto' in which he inveigles strongly against evil corporations that "lock up" information in a way that constitutes "private theft of public culture" as though such content somehow materialised, complete and beautiful, from the zeitgeist and from relevant existing texts like the form of an ideal female in Botticelli's Birth of Venus. Public culture? Publishing corporations do, indeed, like automakers, employ mostly low-paid workers to generate the material they then sell to the public. They're called writers. Oh you forgot about them? But Swartz's manifesto does not mention writers; it's all about the corporations and the public. There's a mere vacuum, a zero, a blank space at the place where the work is actually produced. By missing a key location in the production and distribution flow - where talented, well-meaning and productive people are right now suffering material hardship - Swartz traduces the significance of his moral exercise.

Making sure writers get paid for their work should have been a priority for an idealist like Swartz, a man who spent months working in a political campaign in order to understand its workings, so that he could help to promote its goals. Working on Reddit would have given him ideas about how writers can monetise their content, surely? But what he saw was the website being bought by a corporation, and he then fled to seek other opportunities to improve things elsewhere. I'm all for improving processes and methods, don't get me wrong. But Swartz for some strange reason only saw part of the real picture, and ignored the key component in the process, the place where everything starts, where everything meaningful and useful happens.

It's also important to note that Swartz with his JSTOR exercise was focusing his attention on one part of publishing, the same part that he points to in his manifesto: academic publishing. I'm not sure why this was, but it's possibly the place where the moral outlines were clearest, since academics already get paid for doing the work that they then relegate to publishing houses like Reed Elsevier. In a real sense, those academics have been adequately remunerated for the work even before the work gets packaged for distribution to libraries around the world.

But the same cannot be said for other kinds of writers. Novelists, poets, freelance journalists, copywriters all get paid at the point of sale not, as for academics, at the point of production. And public culture would be measurably poorer without them. The laws of copyright exist to protect people like these from theft of work they create. When I think of Aaron Swartz, then, I also often think of Daniel Defoe (pic), who wrote an astonishing array of works at a time when copyright law was nonexistent, which probably accounts for his extraordinary productivity and his endlessly poor material circumstances. Defoe also had six children, but they would not have benefited from their father's efforts because any bookseller in London at the time could take Defoe's books and pamphlets and reprint them, and sell the resulting items, without giving any consideration to the originator of the work, or his heirs.

Later in the 18th century other writers, notably Samuel Johnson, would petition the government to do something to ameliorate this terrible situation, resulting in laws that protected writers and publishers from theft of original work. I challenge anyone to find a writer who disagrees with laws such as this. Those who occupy themselves exclusively with the technological aspects of digital might hold grudges against publishing corporations and even seek to find ways to subvert the economic and legal structures that support their business model. But you will never find a writer who wants to see publishers made poorer, because publishers pay writers. If one loses the other also loses out. Maybe those tech-heads who are wedded to ideas of information liberation can do something to help writers to make money from their work. In the case of journalism, the need is pressing, and someone with Swartz's political bent must see that the alternative to a strong and independent media is a journalism function that is owned and controlled by exactly those corporate interests whose power they so deeply resent. Democracy? The irony is as thick as cold engine oil.

Getting back to the matter of societal progress through information sharing, Swartz also misses a key feature of the case because the fact is that academics rarely participate in the public sphere. The reason they do not is because there is nothing to motivate them to do so. Academics seek career advancement through publishing, and so their efforts are focused on completing peer-reviewed work that can be packaged in tight, jargon-filled bundles that are then distributed through publishing companies' networks. The people who reward universities through funding keep a record of this kind of publication, and add a plus-mark against the institution that houses the originator of the published work. So both the university and the academic are encouraged to use the mainstream publishing process.

Information sharing is not just about publishing complete works, fitted with footnotes and references and bibliographies. There are other ways to share and participate meaningfully in public debates. In Australia, The Conversation website houses a team of journalists who work closely with academics from a range of universities to produce topical stories that are distributed free on the internet. The model has been very successful, and there are even rumours of a sister site starting up in the UK to serve academics living there.

Social media is another place where academics can participate and share ideas, but for the most part they do not, again, because there is no incentive for them to do so. Social media also takes time, which most academics would prefer to use to make the works that can help their careers. And it also embodies risk, as academics often are targeted for verbal abuse by unsavoury elements of the community; they're shy of sock puppets.

So while universities might want to encourage academics who work inside them to engage more actively with the broader community, they have so far failed to find a way to promote participation and sharing. These things can be good for universities for many reasons, such as helping them to attract philanthropic donations and to attract the best performing applicants. But until they find a way to reward social media participation, academics will continue to keep their distance. 

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