Aaron Swartz and MIT

I have one one thing to say about this statement from a MIT professor about the Aaron Swartz tragedy, and that’s that the piece doesn’t say anything. It’s supposed to point the way beyond the big report on how MIT dealt with Swartz, but it doesn’t. It just cycles through some typically vacuous boilerplate administrative prose: We need to “review our practices,” we “were not intellectually engaged,”“ we might have a responsibility to help [our students] grapple with the reality of that power.” what power, you ask? Um, let’s see: “The young people we work with are so extraordinary, and are so empowered by their time here.” That power. Or empowerment. Or whatever.

I bet there have been some really fascinating discussions going on at MIT since Swartz’s death, because the legal and ethical issues raised by (a) his actions and (b) his prosecution are manifold. I want to understand those issues better, and to see how major universities are going to respond to them in practice. Will they try to close down their networks to make access more difficult? Will they accept the legal aggressiveness of entities like JSTOR, or will they try to moderate them? What if powerful institutions, especially those that sponsor influential academic journals, were to refuse to cooperate with the JSTOR subscription model and sought other avenues for funding?

As I say, I bet the conversations at MIT on these matters are fascinating — though maybe not. The one really interesting point in the statement is this:

In reviewing the record for the report, I was struck by how little attention the MIT community paid to the Swartz case, at least before the suicide. The Tech carried regular news items on the arrest and the court proceedings. Yet in the two years of the prosecution, there was not one opinion piece, and not one letter to the editor. The Aaron Swartz case offers a textbook example of the issues of openness and intellectual property on the Internet—the kinds of issues for which people traditionally look to MIT for intellectual leadership. But when those issues erupted in our midst, we didn’t recognize them, and we were not intellectually engaged. Why not?

It is possible, of course, that the community was “intellectually engaged” — just not in public. As Aaron Swartz discovered to his cost, in these matters people and institutions can be quite fierce in protecting their interests. Were faculty and administration at MIT disengaged? Or just wary about going on the record?

In any case, I am sure in the aftermath of Swartz’s suicide that the university’s lawyers have gone over every public statement from MIT employees, including this one, to make sure that they are so anodyne that they might as well not have been written at all.

addendum on Nicholas Carr

Regarding the post just below: Carr refers to Wikipedia as “a single source of information” — but is it? It’s a single conduit of information, but a conduit is not a source. What are the sources of information that emerge through the Wikipedia conduit, having undergone the Wikipedia filters? Well, there’s a great deal of dispute about that. Aaron Swartz — who not incidentally is instrumental in the creation of a more-or-less alternative to Google Books — wrote a fascinating and much-debated essay on this topic a couple of years ago. Check it out.

end of an era

This is perhaps slightly off-topic for this blog, but — caveat lector — I have a certain susceptibility to the Cult of Mac, so I might do this kind of thing from time to time. John Gruber, the most consistently sharp commentator on the Apple scene, just posted his thoughts on Apple’s recent announcement that in January they will make their final appearance at the annual Macworld Expo in San Francisco, and that during this last appearance the keynote address will be given not by Steve Jobs but by an Apple VP, Phill Schiller. Gruber:

Repetition blinds us to just how odd certain rituals of tradition are. Like how it seems perfectly normal that every December we chop down millions of small trees, decorate them with electric lights and glass balls, and display them prominently in our homes. Likewise, it has somehow come to feel normal that on a Tuesday morning in early January each year, thousands of people from around the country come to San Francisco to stand in line for hours — hundreds of them waiting all night long in a queue stretching around the block — to sit in a large auditorium and watch the CEO of an electronics company announce new products. That is not normal; it is extraordinary.

It is extraordinary. And one has to wonder how long this kind of excitement will last. My sense is that as Apple grows in its reach and influence, largely thanks to the iPhone, the Cult will become less cultish and will eventually fade away altogether. All cults thrive on marginalization: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. . . .” (Tech note for the geeky: I owe Gruber a great debt, because Markdown, the — what to call it? — formatting syntax and text-conversion tool he and Aaron Swartz wrote, and the Markdown plug-in he wrote for BBEdit, are what make it possible for me to do all my writing in one text editor. Thanks, John!)