The Idealist, by Justin Peters

Knowledge is power. Therefore, free, unimpeded access to information is an inherently political issue.


Unless you keep pretty up to date with the tech community and the news that surrounds its activities, you may not know who Aaron Swartz was. On the other hand, if you were paying attention to US news in the early months of 2013, it’s possible that you do. In January of that year, Swartz was found dead in his apartment; he had apparently hanged himself. He had helped to establish the Creative Commons, and was one of the three founders of Reddit, amongst many other projects. At the time of his death, he had been indicted by the FBI under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and was facing up to ninety-five years in prison. His alleged crime involved downloading millions of articles from JSTOR, a database for academic papers. The FBI was convinced that he had intended to distribute them widely, and saw this as an infringement not only of JSTOR’s terms of service, but of US intellectual property law. Swartz, and the people he had spent most of his twenty-six years talking to and working with, believed that his action was a necessary step towards creating open access libraries, so that everyone—not just the people who could afford incredibly pricy journal subscriptions—could benefit from the work of publicly funded academics; that there was, in Swartz’s own words, “no justice in obeying unjust laws”, and that American copyright laws were fundamentally unjust and geared towards protecting corporations instead of empowering citizens. In The Idealist, Justin Peters sets out to explain not only why Swartz’s death was an unnecessary tragedy caused in large part by the state’s determination to hound him, but also the history and the rationale of the ideas he was fighting for in the first place.

It is outrageously informative on that history. Peters starts with the first legal battle over copyright in the United States: that of Noah Webster to protect his spelling textbook of 1783, A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, from piracy. Webster wrote this textbook out of a sense of national pride, a desire to eradicate class divisions by giving poorer colonials a set of linguistic standards which would make them sound less like illiterate rustics. By doing this, Webster laid the foundation for arguments both for and against copyright provision for the next two hundred-odd years: the speed and ease with which information can be disseminated and/or acquired was subsequently framed in terms of public benefit. The question, in other words, has almost always been: Is it more or less advantageous to the general public to expand the public domain? Will it cause American creativity to flourish, or decline? Will access to literature and culture inspire people, or make them complacent? And—tacit but omnipresent in these discussions—how do you ensure that the rights of the creator are not simply a proxy for the rights of the corporation that distributes their work?

Amazingly, it has frequently been argued that it is in fact disadvantageous to the public to expand the public domain. Those of us who work, or want to work, as creatives can kind of see the point when it’s expressed the way it was in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing:

“Every time a Napster enthusiast downloads a song, it takes money from the pockets of all these members of the creative community,” Ulrich said, remarking that the “touted new paradigm that the Internet gurus tell us we must adopt sounds to me like good old-fashioned trafficking in stolen goods.”

(That’s Larry Ulrich, the drummer from Metallica.)

As we all know, this attitude served the music industry extremely poorly. One of the great virtues of Justin Peters’s writing is that he assumes his readers are bright but not experts—possibly not surprising given his background as a journalist for Slate—and I found him a particularly effective guide when he was explaining things like why the music industry failed so badly:

…[The] mainstream culture industries operate on a mildly coercive ‘push marketing’ model in which companies use advertising and promotions to create consumer demand for the products they want to sell, and the formats in which they want to sell them. Online file sharing repudiates ‘push marketing’ by allowing consumers to unilaterally decide what they want to consume and how they want to do so. As file sharing grew ever more popular in the early 2000s, bringing with it potential opportunities for new, collaborative models of marketing and production, the culture industries instead focused almost wholly on ways to regain their lost control.

This piece of explanation is equally useful when applied to the large academic and journal publishers whom Swartz was targeting when he started crawling JSTOR. I used to work for one—Taylor and Francis, which has recently acquired Elsevier, the main target of Swartz’s, and Peters’s, frustration—and it is a little alarming to realise just how blithely I accepted the idea that subscriptions to these services ought to be paid for. Consider this:

Tens of thousands of scholarly journals exist, and since the 1970s their subscription prices have risen at a rate higher than the rate of inflation […] but academic libraries are, more or less, compelled to subscribe. Every professor expects to find his specialization’s academic journal on the library’s shelves. Thus, many academic libraries wind up spending the bulk of their yearly acquisitions budgets on journal subscriptions.

That’s assuming that a library has a meaningful acquisitions budget at all. Many of them do not—or, at least, don’t have much of one. This plight is especially common in underdeveloped countries, where librarians have enough trouble keeping their computers on […] The result is an ever-widening gap between rich institutions and poor ones.

(A footnote to this section gives an example: as of two years ago, a print subscription to the journal Applied Surface Science cost institutions $12,471 per year.)

Online content distribution was meant to be a partial solution to this. JSTOR, however—the biggest online database of this kind of academic material in the world—struck a deal with publishers when it was first founded, promising that they wouldn’t lose out on potential profits by allowing JSTOR to collect their journals content. The result is that libraries still have to pay annual subscription fees, which are still prohibitively high, and access has not appreciably widened in any way. Meanwhile, the work of academics becomes commoditised—which really is not the point of academia, where you work on arcane and often expensive projects subsidised by benevolent instutitions and sometimes governments with the tacit understanding that whatever you find out will be freely shared for mankind’s general benefit—and, moreover, that commoditisation works only to enrich their publishers, not the academics themselves. It’s a system that screws almost everyone.

Peters’s book works so well because he spends a lot of time getting the reader up to speed on the debates behind these issues. It is not, however, solely a history; it is also a biography of Aaron Swartz, who conformed in many ways to the stereotypical image we might have of a hacker or a nerd. Though he was a brilliant, articulate thinker, and a talented programmer—he was contributing extensively to mailing lists by the time he hit eighth grade, and was a major player in the launch of the Creative Commons at the age of fifteen—he was also profoundly disdainful of authority. He refused to attend high school past tenth grade, and instead took classes at a local college. He had terrible body image and self-esteem issues, which manifested in eating rituals and a series of “cleansing” diets which terrified his friends. Photographs suggest a sweet, slightly diffident young man, but he was also known for getting straight to the heart of a problem, without anything like tact or diplomacy. He was desperately afraid of being seen as dependent or emotional. Asking for help, of any kind, from anyone, was his worst nightmare. He suffered from chronic depression. And, perhaps most damningly, his convictions led him to make statements about the duty of the hacker-citizen to liberate information. Much of Swartz’s clash with the FBI was exacerbated by this sort of personality baggage; he looked like what the government thought of as a bad guy.

“Looks like he is a big hacker, i googled him,” was one MIT police officer’s response upon Swartz’s arrest. Not Reddit cofounder; not Open Library architect; not computer prodigy or applied sociologist or Harvard affiliate or any of the other lines on his résumé. A big hacker.

And, before the FBI, Swartz’s brilliance and his privilege—he grew up in Highland Park, a wealthy suburb of Chicago; he was exposed to computers from a very young age, having a father in the industry (Robert Swartz eventually worked as a consultant for MIT); he had the wealth and the support to enable him to drop out of schools, universities and workplaces when he found them too restrictive—caused problems too. There’s a reason the book’s title is The Idealist, and reasons why idealism is often, definitively, impractical. If you’re reading this as someone who tries to make a living by writing, you’ll probably already have thought of some good reasons for reasonably strong copyright laws. Another perspective comes from a librarian at UNC Chapel Hill with the splendidly mediaeval name of Bess Sadler, who approved of Swartz’s aims but, like most of the rest of us, had to live in the real world:

“I thought he was ethically right, but I was unwilling to put my own livelihood on the line with such strong statements [as Swartz’s Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto]… A librarian who issued a manifesto like that would be unemployable, and that’s something that should give us all pause.”

Which is not to say that it’s not a good idea, or that we shouldn’t strive for a world where creators and their work are sufficiently valued that they can easily afford to be generous, as people who contribute to free and open-source software very frequently are. (This isn’t to say that all F/OSS contributors are wildly wealthy. Michael Hart, the founder of Project Gutenberg, was a mercurial megalomaniac who spent most of the ’80s living on a mattress in Urbana, Illinois, living off the rent paid to him by various lodgers. Modern house price absurdity—amongst other things—has made this strategy difficult for most young creators, though. It’s much more tempting to make your money in start-ups or industry first, and be ethical when you can afford to be.)

I could go on, and I probably will in bits and pieces, because this book is probably the single most important one I’ll read all year in terms of informing and challenging my ideas about power, information, and how technology should be used. It’s currently in vogue to encourage doom-mongering about the Internet: mainstream media reports often imply that it’s causing impotence, or school shootings, or apathy, or obesity, or bigotry, or festering hatred. It does these things, sometimes (hello, Breitbart! Hey there, 4chan! And Gamergate, and Twitter Support; I see you too!) But you don’t have to believe that, ultimately, that’s all the Internet is good for. It was first designed and used by people who wanted to build an infinite library. And that, bookish chums, is an ideal worth hanging on to.

Many, many thanks to Thogdin Ripley (another excellent name) at Duckworth Overlook for the review copy. The Idealist was published in the UK on 23 March.

I wrote this when I was sixteen and it’s held up okay

In my junior year of high school, we had to write a different sort of essay every month. The categories of essay–process, descriptive, narrative, and so on–were determined by our textbook, which was so profoundly uninteresting that I have forgotten its name. The theory was that eventually we would have a set of personal essays, one or two of which might be used for our college applications the next year. (US college applications require at least one personal essay, which generally prompts a lot of adolescent soul-searching/panic.) This was one I wrote in November; it is optimistically saved, in my computer, as “college essay 2” (I didn’t capitalize the titles of computer files back then. I think I thought it made me somehow, obscurely, cooler.)

In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since (The Great Gatsby)

I’m no F. Scott Fitzgerald (thank God). I’m no Nick Caraway either, but we do have something in common, Nick and I. He, of course, is well out of his “more vulnerable years” by the time he sets forth his father’s advice, and I have a feeling I’ve only just started in on mine. But both of us have listened to our fathers dispensing what paternal wisdom they would. Whether it is the best advice I have ever received remains in doubt; whether my father’s pronouncement even qualifies as advice, for that matter, is a question I will not attempt to answer. I do know that, like Nick Caraway, I have been “turning it over” ever since, and I may never stop.

At some point in everyone’s life, death makes a real and tangible appearance. It doesn’t necessarily happen the first time someone you know dies—dozens of great-aunts and second cousins were six feet under before I recognized death as a part of my world, the real, actual world—but make no mistake, it happens eventually. It happened to me the summer I turned sixteen, under circumstances that are irrelevant to the trajectory of this essay. Suffice to say that, at the time, I walked through the world as if everything had been turned one hundred and eighty degrees to the right. Such profound disorientation is as painful as it is sudden, and it does not go away, and there is no one—there is literally no one—to whom you can communicate all of this. Bits and pieces of it slip out, of course, but they constitute a mere twenty percent of the iceberg of grief and sorrow and rage and incomprehension that lies in your path, that you cannot get over, that you have to live on alone.

By this I am not asking for your sympathy; I am not asking for your pity. I am only trying to set up the story.

At the end of the summer my parents and I were talking about the death, which had defined the past three months of our lives. My father the atheist, who had had a couple of beers, was expounding upon his view of the afterlife. It sounded to me like something Emerson might say after partaking of magic mushrooms, and I told him so. He chuckled indulgently, which is what he does when I’m rude, then became very serious and leaned forward suddenly. “Eleanor Mary,” he said, “we live for other people. We do not live for ourselves.”

It has been nearly five months since he said this, and still I am trying to figure out what he meant by it.

To live for someone else.

There are many ways to take this. To live for someone else could mean to always put them first. To listen to them cry. To be, as a character from the excellent movie Waitress puts it, “whatever you need me to be.” But then what are you, except a repository for someone else’s needs and neuroses? What can you be when you leave yourself out of the equation? No. I am not convinced.

Other people; other people. Who do you live for? I wonder this sometimes. At my age it’s harder to tell. When you’re forty you can say, “I live for my wife, my husband, my daughter, my son. I live for my mother”; you can even say “I live for my dog,” if that’s what you’ve got. There’s nothing wrong with living for your dog. When you’re sixteen, what do you have? What belongs to you? Whom do you love? Who loves you?

Your parents, sure. The love of your parents is like a given in a geometry problem. It’s your base, your jumping-off point, but after the first few sentences, it doesn’t enter into your proof. You only use it as a place to start from.

You live for your friends, of course, if you have them. But your friends are young and selfish people, just like you, and they are fallible, just like you, and you will let each other down. It won’t be the end of the world when it happens, but it will happen.

Who are you living for? Who needs you here?

Somehow you know who needs you. I know who needs me. Family is a mathematical constant, friends are deeply flawed, but you prop each other up. You love each other. You live for each other.

If I die tomorrow, someone will suffer terribly. My death tomorrow would cause other people to go through days of such crushing grayness, such bleak internal landscapes, as no human being should be required to go through. The people who love me aren’t perfect, but I am good enough for them, and they are good enough for me, and in this way life goes on.

A few months after the death, a good friend and I were talking about it. We were in her car, it was late at night, and we couldn’t see each other’s faces. Finally she said, “You know one good thing now.”

“No,” I said. “What?”

“You know,” she said, “that you will never do this. You will never hurt anyone this way, because you know what it’s like. And I know that I will never do this to you, I will never hurt you this way, because this can’t happen twice.”

I am sixteen years old and selfish and I live to gratify my own wishes. This is all true. But if that were all, I wouldn’t make it, not for very long. I live for my mother, a part of whom would die if I did. I live for my father, despite—partly because of—his Emersonian declarations. I live for my brother, who is still young and utterly sincere in a way that hurts to witness. I live for my friends and their laughter and the darkening sky; I live for rural midnights on long dirt roads; I live for rooftops and rosemary and learning how to cook.

I live for the dead boy, because he cannot, anymore; and I live for myself, because, thank God, I can.

The year after I wrote this, I met these people. Then I went to uni and I met L'Auberge Anglaise. I am more grateful to all of you than I can say; you know who you are.

The year after I wrote this, I met these people. Then I went to uni and I met L’Auberge Anglaise. I am more grateful to all of you than I can say; you know who you are.

Top Ten 2014 Releases I Meant To Read But Didn’t Get To

  1. An Untamed State, by Roxane Gay. Already released in the States in May 2014, but only just being released in UK hardcover in January, this debut novel by one of the Internet’s most famous fem-columnists explores the tensions between money and poverty in Haiti, when the wealthy daughter of a Haitian construction tycoon is kidnapped. The body of a woman becomes the playing field for the economic struggles between men, and it’s all done in the most breathtaking prose (apparently). Obviously, I’m desperate to read this.
  2. Station Eleven, by Emily St John Mandel. “Survival is insufficient”: a line from an old Star Trek episode, a strong candidate for best life advice ever, and the slogan painted on the caravan of a group of traveling Shakespearean actors as they flee the mysterious pandemic sweeping the American continent. One of the most highly feted books of the year, also a debut novel, also speculative fiction, also has Shakespeare in it. CAN IT PLEASE BE IN PAPERBACK SOON PLEASE
  3. How to be both, by Ali Smith. I’ve only ever read one Ali Smith novel, The Accidental. I barely remember any of it because I was fifteen and at that time of my life I read novels the way children pop M&Ms at Easter, but bits of it sometimes return to me in a fugueish sort of way. This meditation on art and gender should, according to most people, have won the Booker Prize, and it comes in two different versions, where different halves of the story are presented first. It’s a clever conceit, and forces you to think about how you perceive the same piece of art when you return to it repeatedly, with different concerns and experiences each time. Love a good thinky-arty book, me.
  4. The Wake, by Paul Kingsnorth. At Quadrapheme, we got to this book early last year, and our reviewer Martin Cornwell loved it. As a big fan of Beowulf, I’m hoping I’ll enjoy it too; it’s told in a kind of faux-Old English (not super-difficult to work out words, though, and there’s a glossary), and describes the experience of the Anglo-Saxon population of Britain just after the Norman invasion. Medieval post-colonialism: yes please!
  5. Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay. This isn’t a novel but a collection of essays, and the title alone makes me think that Roxane Gay and I are going to get along pretty well. Writing on why her favorite color is pink, as well as on topics within art and politics, she declares, “I’m human, full of contradictions, and a feminist.” YES MATE. Let’s all just write that on our foreheads.
  6. The Children Act, by Ian McEwan. Raised in a legal family, I have a particular interest in novels that address topics of law, ethics and self-determination. McEwan’s novel is the story of a young man–though still, as a seventeen-year-old, legally a child–who, for religious reasons, wishes to refuse a treatment that could save his life. The book is told from the point of view of the High Court judge in charge of his case. The title refers both to an English statute of 1989, designed to protect the rights of children, and to the young defendant’s attempt to exercise his right to self-determination. I’m often dubious about McEwan, particularly his recent outings, but this looks very promising.
  7. Lila, by Marilynne Robinson. I loved Gilead, and Lila revisits those characters from a different point of view. Combining Robinson’s usual golden, numinous prose with the darker edge provided by a homeless protagonist, wary of trusting anyone and distinctly uncomfortable fitting into the role of “minister’s wife” that she ends up adopting, this book looks like just the sort of thing that will simultaneously break your heart and fill you with hope.
  8. The Rental Heart, by Kirsty Logan. Anything subtitled And Other Fairytales, which Logan’s debut collection is, is bound to appeal to me. I tend to be very wary of short stories, particularly canonical ones, but Logan’s “exploration of substitutions for love” (as Amazon curiously terms it) looks like it has a strong dollop of the surreal and the poignant–always a winning combination.
  9. The Book of Strange New Things, by Michael Faber. Partly this looks so wonderful because it has a similar premise to Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, which blew my mind last year. First contact with an alien civilization, with a particular focus on how Christianity chooses to evangelize other planets: how could it be anything other than fascinating, meaty and moving? Especially since it’s coming from the pen of the ridiculously imaginative Michael Faber, who already gave us both Under the Skin and The Crimson Petal and the White.
  10. The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, by Tom Rachman. A Welsh bookseller named Tooly Zylberberg had a childhood she cannot understand: abducted, but then adopted by her abductors, she traveled around Asia and Europe with this unlikely family for years. The Rise and Fall of Great Powers is the story of why, featuring (amongst others) a chess-playing, avocado-eating Russian named Humphrey, a pot-bellied pig, and the shadowy Venn, who seems to have all the answers. Just the thing to get lost in.