The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2013

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MAR 2013 Issue

A Wide Open Mind

Aaron Swartz
Raw Thought
(Self-published, 2005 - 2012)

By any objective account, Aaron Swartz, the programmer and activist who killed himself on January 11th of this year, was a genius. Only 26 years old when he died, he had already played major roles in both the technological and social ways we use the Internet. At 14 he helped design the Rich Site Summary (or RSS) feed specifications that allow programs like Google Reader to work. By age 18 he was a partner at Reddit, and by 24 he was a fellow at Harvard University. However, Swartz was not content to work solely on the Internet’s infrastructure. His efforts were consistently in service to a political philosophy that valued the democratic power of information and resisted attempts to privatize it for profit. Swartz focused on both the political and technical levels to enable wider access. He built code for projects like Open Library (a nonprofit competitor of Google Books), and Creative Commons, which provides writers and artists with an alternative to traditional copyright. He founded an organization, Demand Progress, to lobby Congress and he counted as one of his greatest successes stymieing the 2011 “Stop Online Piracy Act” whose draconian measures, he argued, would have stifled free information on the web.

Aaron Swartz speaking at the Freedom to Connect conference, run by David Isenberg in Washington, D.C. area May 21 – 22, 2012.

Swartz’s interest in open information also had a personal dimension. Along with his coding and activism, Swartz was a compelling thinker across a range of disciplines, who made great use of the Internet’s associative, boundary-blurring relationship to research and knowledge. As he wrote in a 2005 post on his blog, “Creativity comes from applying things you learn in other fields to the field you work in. If you have a bunch of different projects going in different fields, then you have many more ideas you can apply.” That blog, called Raw Thought, contains everything from footnoted primary research analyses to economics-based movie reviews, and makes cross-connections between social science, politics, feminism, the environment, and anything else that caught his attention. I had been reading Raw Thought for nearly eight years when Swartz died. I always assumed that many of the ideas there would eventually make their way into a book of essays. I don’t know now if they ever will. Despite all the talk about the Internet providing “endless information at our fingertips,” there remain very few truly polymathic thinkers. Swartz’s raw thoughts are therefore worth close reading.

Though he maintained that the blog was primarily for himself, Swartz curated his own work, and as such his blog has both an abbreviated archive and a “full archive”. The abbreviated archive divides his posts into six categories: “politics and parody,” “thought,” “reviews,” “diary,” “tech,” and “administrivia,” and is an entry point for finding Swartz’s most complete-feeling, essayistic posts. The “full archive,” (which still does not actually contain everything), arranges almost 450 of Swartz’s posts in mostly chronological order, starting with those written when he was about 19. It’s here that one can really begin to see how wide-ranging and inquisitive Swartz was. There are posts on summits and conferences he was attending, skeptical reviews of talks he attended (one given by David Lynch on Transcendental Meditation), experiments with weight loss, critiques of a wide range of popular and overlooked books, movies, companies, social media, food, conservative and liberal ideas, and paeans to rigorous thought on all fronts.  He was a self-defined feminist and progressive thinker who sought to identify and fix societal flaws both large and small, a person able to see both highly technical details and to conceive of big-picture ideas, who worked to address both in his writing.

One of the first posts I read, and the one that first drew me to Swartz’s blog, is part of a six-part essay from late 2006 titled Wikimedia at the Crossroads. In the post, titled “Who Writes Wikipedia?” Swartz describes hearing Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, give a talk in which he explained it wasn’t millions of anonymous strangers who wrote the site:

“The idea that a lot of people have of Wikipedia,” [Wales] noted, “is that it’s some emergent phenomenon—the wisdom of mobs, swarm intelligence, that sort of thing—thousands and thousands of individual users each adding a little bit of content and out of this emerges a coherent body of work.” But, he insisted, the truth was rather different: Wikipedia was actually written by “a community … a dedicated group of a few hundred volunteers” where “I know all of them and they all know each other.” Really, “it’s much like any traditional organization.”

Wales made this claim after looking at who made the most edits to each Wikipedia page. “Over 50 percent of all the edits are done by just .7 percent of the users … 524 people ....” This led him to the conclusion that the website is mostly put together by a small group of volunteers.

Swartz, was, as he put it, “curious and skeptical” about Wales’s methodology and conclusions. He decided to put together his own study. He picked a single page and examined its entire history, looking at which users made which edits. What he found was that the substantive additions to the page were mostly made by “outsiders”—people who were not regular Wikipedia editors, and often didn’t even bother to create accounts. Those additions were then brought into Wikipedia’s format by the small group of volunteers that Wales had talked about. Though the second group made more edits, their edits were about formatting, not content. To confirm his findings, Swartz wrote a program to scan the archives and look at hundreds of thousands of other pages the same way. It turned out that Wales’s account of how Wikipedia had been written was entirely wrong. “Insiders account for the vast majority of the edits,” Swartz wrote. “But it’s the outsiders who provide nearly all of the content.” As Swartz went on to explain, this makes more sense:

[...] everyone has a bunch of obscure things that, for one reason or another, they’ve come to know well. So they share them, clicking the edit link and adding a paragraph or two .... At the same time, a small number of people have become particularly involved in Wikipedia itself, learning its policies and special syntax, and spending their time tweaking the contributions of everybody else.

Swartz’s capacity to find the flaw in a logical argument, and to design a method to test the argument is exactly the kind of skill that a good coder needs. But what was most striking wasn’t the research. Swartz wasn’t out to simply poke holes in Wales’s arguments. He saw Wikipedia as a fundamentally new idea—a democratic exchange of free information worth preserving—and used this essay to advocate for policies that specifically encouraged both “wikipedians” and casual users to continue to contribute to the site. It was this marriage of both detail and big-picture that made the post so interesting.

For six years (from 2006 – 2011) Swartz posted a year-end review of the many, many books he’d read (2011’s is here, with links to earlier ones) and whether / how much he recommended each, including brief synopses, particularly interesting ideas, or connections he’d made with other ideas and books. These posts were enormous, as it wasn’t unusual for him to have read over 100 books in a year. Though I couldn’t keep up with his pace, I often searched out some of his most highly recommended titles, and was rarely disappointed.

One of the last pieces he posted was a series on all three of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, viewed through the lens of the economic and political philosophies that each movie embodies. Swartz looked at the ways Nolan played with conservative versus liberal policies toward crime, and pondered what message Nolan was trying to make with the trilogy. This had become something of a theme for Swartz, who had also written cogent accounts of the theoretical underpinnings of Looper and Citizen Kane.

Not every essay on the site is focused, or revelatory, of course. Much of the writing is, well, raw. It is a blog, after all, started when Swartz was 15, and he pointed out in the “About” page that he didn’t edit or go back over anything. He wasn’t interested in writing as much as recording his own thoughts. As such, he often makes the kind of unsubstantiated assertions that are typical of a lightning-quick intellect trying to get to his good ideas. One relatively interesting essay on American social class and mobility begins with Swartz being astounded by a comment from his father that America doesn’t have social classes. Then he tosses off this statement: “My dad has always found occasion to repeat the absurd propaganda he picks up from his daily doses of NPR and the New York Times—evolution is a fraud, global warming is perfectly normal, etc.” The idea that either NPR or the Times espouses “absurd propaganda,” such as that evolution and global warming are myths, is baseless and itself absurd. Were this essay published in a book or journal, an editor would very likely encourage Swartz to excise or at least rewrite and substantiate his claim. As it is, the sentence sours a short but relatively pointed examination of a pervasive American myth, and an otherwise interesting post. Because this is a blog, however, the comments section often works as an informal editing conference, and Swartz is often taken to task for flawed statements such as this.

Many of Swartz’s posts, however, are astounding. Most recently he had been writing a series on self-improvement called Raw Nerve. It is a curious collage of ideas and techniques drawn from odd thinkers like industrialist Ray Dalio, a physician named Ignaz Semmelweis who pioneered antiseptic procedures, George Orwell, and social psychologists such as Carol Dweck and Carol Tavris. The essays focus on techniques for identifying personal blind spots and changing fundamental behavior, as opposed to more conventional self-help, which Swartz called “narrow Quick Tips,” “Good Life philosophizing” and “cheerleading,” or the gadget-based “life-hacks” more traditionally popular among techies. He’d written about increased productivity before; one his earliest and most thorough essays was “HOWTO: Be more productive,” but, as Swartz put it in his introduction to the series, though he’d often tried to be better at work, “I’ve never stopped to ask whether I could get better at life.” 

In light of his suicide, it’s tempting to try to make some meaning from these posts, with titles like “Look at yourself objectively,” “Confront reality,” and “Lean into the pain.” But there doesn’t seem to be much meaning to make. The essays themselves are startlingly useful, and contain decent, practical, even hopeful advice about living a more intentional, interesting life. In fact, the distance between the confident, curious, critically engaged voice on Swartz’s blog, and the person who hanged himself in despair feels more incongruous the more one reads.

Except for one short story about a young man’s struggle with food and his eventual suicide, written in 2007, these are not generally the tortured writings of an anguished individual. They are mostly a collection of very compelling ideas gathered by a restlessly brilliant mind who clearly enjoyed marrying notions from a variety of disciplines, and who had the capacity to make truly new things. The more one reads the more one realizes just how much of a loss his death was.


Christopher Michel

CHRISTOPHER MICHEL is a writer and stay-at-home dad. He lives in Brooklyn's secret Chinatown.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2013

All Issues