Saturday, January 12, 2013

A Modern Gnostic Martyr

I had heard about Aaron Swartz's suicide but never connected him with the 'liberation' of JSTOR articles last year - that is, until I read the just released New York Times piece on his passing.  It is there we are reminded of his untimely - even prophetic - demands for full public access to academic articles held for ransom behind steep pay-per-view walls.  As the author notes Swartz:

became an Internet folk hero, pushing to make many Web files free and open to the public. But in July 2011, he was indicted on federal charges of gaining illegal access to JSTOR, a subscription-only service for distributing scientific and literary journals, and downloading 4.8 million articles and documents, nearly the entire library.

Interestingly I have been noticing that JSTOR has recently changed some of its policies to allow for greater access to its articles and books.  Nevertheless this was undoubtedly only a public relations effort in light of the charges that Swartz was facing for his 'liberation' efforts:

including wire fraud and computer fraud, [which] were pending at the time of Mr. Swartz’s death, carrying potential penalties of up to 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines.

It is too easy to dismiss Swartz as an opportunist or someone who was 'mentally unstable.'  The same could undoubtedly have been said about revolutionaries of any age.  We live in a period which will only be remembered for two things - the universal 'dumbing down' of our popular culture and at the very same time the greater accessibility of 'higher culture' such as books, music and images - thanks to the very same source, the internet.

Swartz will be remembered in future generations as a gnostic martyr - one who fought for allowing billions to be brought into acquaintance with knowledge.  It is shameful that the pressures of his liberation efforts should have been met with such draconian measures.  The original authors of those articles were never paid a cent for their labors while the publishing houses were raking in huge royalties for generations.  It is ridiculous.  The world has changed but the academic publishing paradigm has not - or should I say had not until the untimely efforts of Swartz.  His sacrifices should not be forgotten.

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