Remembering Aaron: activism and the effective citizen

This morning, I gave a speech to a gathering of public media executives from around the world, Public Broadcasters International. This evening, I will open a hackathon at the MIT Media Lab in memory of Aaron Swartz. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I wanted to talk about the same ideas to the two groups. Here’s the talk I gave this morning, which opened and closed with a remembrance of Aaron as an exemplar of multifaceted, effective citizenship. (It got both enthusiastic and angry reactions, including legendary documentarian Ric Burns taking the stage to proclaim himself the anti-Zuckerman. Which is great, as I’ve always wanted a nemesis.)


Today would have been Aaron Swartz’s 27th birthday. Early this year, the programmer, organizer and activist hanged himself, likely because he was overwhelmed by the aggressive prosecution he was facing. Federal prosecutor Stephen Heymann considered Aaron’s activism around opening scholarly research to be a felony and wanted to be sure Aaron faced prison time. Regrettably, my employer, MIT, did very little to block this prosecution, and there is an ongoing debate about MIT’s culpability in Aaron’s death that my students and I are deeply involved in. Representativs Zoe Lofgren and Ron Wyden have proposed reforms to the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act under the title of “Aaron’s Law” and others are pushing for more comprehensive reforms.

But that’s not what people will be talking about at MIT later today. People will be mourning Aaron and discussing the circumstances of his death, but more will be looking to Aaron’s life as an inspiration. We’ll be hosting one of dozens of hackathons that will take place around the globe in Aaron’s memory. In Bangalore, Brisbane, Berlin, Buenos Aires and Boston, young people – many of them designers and computer programmers, but not all – will get together and talk about what they can do to make the world better. Some will write code that helps scholars share their work under open access licenses. Others will organize campaigns to expose corporate money in politics or challenge restrictions to free speech online. Still others will work on systems like Strongbox, designed to allow whistleblowers and leakers to share critical information while retaining their anonymity.

What the people who come to these hackathons have in common is this: they believe they can change the world, in ways both big and small. Aaron’s memory is a rallying point for them because Aaron dedicated so much of his brief life to seeking ways he could be effective, to have an impact. I knew Aaron well enough to understand some of his frustrations, and I know he was obsessed with the idea of being effective as a citizen, with making sure that the efforts he undertook to change the world had real, measurable, positive impacts.

There’s a good deal of talk about “the crisis in civics” in the United States, the idea that young people are too selfish and self-absorbed to be bothered to inform themselves about political issues or to vote. And there’s some data to support this: young people vote at a much lower rate than people a generation older, and few young people list a career in public service as one of their aspirations. But movements like Occupy, Los Indignados, the Arab Spring and Gezi protests, all of which had strong youth contingents or were youth organized, contradicts the idea that young people are disengaged. I don’t think we’re seeing civic indifference – I think we are watching the shape of civics change.

Consider Carmen Rios, 22 year old member of SPARK, a group that trains students in activism. Rios was angered by the Steubenville, Ohio rape case and was looking for ways to address concerns that high school athletic culture was breeding a sense of entitlement and domination that could lead to rape. Worked with a Colby College football player to demand that the National Federation of State High School Associations, a national association of coaches, offer resources on sexual assault prevention to coaches. 70k petition signatures, and the organization got on the phone to SPARK activists to implement a plan

Or meet Khalida Brohi. When she was just a teenager, her best friend was killed – an honor killing – because she wanted to marry a man she loved instead of consenting to an arranged marriage. To help young women in her native Balochistan gain independence, she launched Sughar Centers, a set of community centers where women came to practice embroidery and produce handicrafts for sale on international markets, putting money into family budgets. With earning power, the women are gaining more power and independence within their households. And when they are at the Sughar Centers, the women take literacy classes and talk about what roles they want to have in their communities.

Other inspiring activists work with code, not with thread. In reaction to Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA surveillance, a group of Icelandic media activists began writing Mailpile, a new email client designed to make the powerful PGP encryption protocol usable by the average Internet user. Smári McCarthy, who is in charge of the project’s security, is well-known to the Internet security community as one of the activists behind IMMI, an ambitious project to give Iceland the world’s strongest legal environment for press freedom and to export this model to other countries. With Smári’s involvement and the urgent need for an alternative to mail systems like Gmail, Mailpile raised a $163,000 development budget from online donations within 5 weeks.

Not all young activists have turned away from politics and the legal system to seek change. Some are trying to hack law as effectively as the Mailpile team are hacking code. DREAM activists are young people, born in other countries but brought to America as children and raised in the United States. Many did not know that they were undocumented immigrants until they graduated high school and applied to college, where they faced massive tuition bills because they are not legal residents of the states where they live. The DREAM nine are activists who self-deported to Mexico and then sought asylum in the United States as a way of calling attention to the hundreds of thousands of young people facing the same predicament. They are using the legal system’s asylum process to challenge the broader policy environment while making their struggle public as a way to challenge existing stereotypes of the undocumented.

Effective citizens are multifaceted and multitalented. They recognize that there are many paths towards social change and that we might have to walk multiple paths simultaneously. The most effective citizens have a more complete toolbelt than most of us have – they understand that they may need different techniques at different points in their struggle, sometimes building businesses, other times building popular social movements. When facing complex challenges, like a US surveillance state that’s spun out of control, they may need to figure out how to use all these tools at the same time, a challenge that’s akin to playing chess on four boards simultaneously. Effective citizens are quickly learning that they need to work together, to build movements, so that someone who knows how write a tool to encrypt email can work with someone to pass legislation to protect email from surveillance and a group that can help the general public understand why encryption is important.

Thus far, I’ve cited five remarkable individuals and groups – surely this level of engaged citizenship isn’t something we can expect from everyone?

Well, maybe it should be. What these examples have in common is that they’ve moved beyond a vision of civics that centers on being informed and voting. Michael Schudson’s excellent 1998 book “The Good Citizen” argues that our vision of what it means to be a good citizen changes over time – analyzing the US, he sees four different models of citizenship that we’ve passed through over the years. He suggests that the model we often think of ourselves as embedded within – the informed citizen model – is a product of the progressive era, and may have lost its potency in the 1960s when effective citizenship moved into the courts, where people fought for rights through litigation. Our current picture of citizenship might be best described as “monitorial citizenship”, where our role as citizens is to keep track of powerful institutions like governments and corporations and to hold them to account when they violate citizen or consumer rights.

I think Schudson is important not because I think his vision of contemporary citizenship is the right one – monitorial citizenship doesn’t leave much room for citizens to create new forms of change. But I think it’s important to acknowledge that citizenship can – and is – changing. In looking at citizenship, activism and protest around the world, I see three themes that cut across many of the countries and communities I’m watching:

Citizenship is participatory.

The generation that’s grown up with the internet has a strong desire to see their mark upon the world. This may be a result of growing up in an interactive media environment where socializing involves making your mark on the internet. I see a lot of young people who are frustrated by political processes that don’t leave room for individual input. “If there’s nothing I can do to help, why are you telling me about this problem?” I think the rise of attention philanthropy, where people try to help a cause by calling attention to it via social media reflects this tendency – young people know how to create and spread media, and they can do so in ways that leverage their creative individuality.

I think the rise of platforms that invite people to give money to specific projects, to support individuals with microloans or with contributions to their artistic endeavors are a piece of the same impulse to see your positive effect on the world. The emergence of civic crowdfunding, where members of a community contribute to a project that we would normally think of as a public good seems like the logical extension of this line of thought, in both its positive and negative manifestations. It’s great that people want to have a hand in social change, but we may not want a world where social services go to those best able to pay for them or best organized to make them happen.

Citizenship is passionate.

With the rise of the internet, we’ve experienced an incredible rise in choice. We have access to news from all over the world, we have more movies at our fingertips than could fit in any video store. We can learn about virtually any topic (or write our own encyclopedia entry about it, if we choose.) And we are free to pursue our passions, whether they are shared by our friends and neighbors or not, because there’s certain to be someone out there that shares our dedication to the cause.

When I think of passionate citizenship, I mean to emphasize the negative sense of the term as well as the positive. Jason Russell’s passion about children affected by war in northern Uganda led him to build Invisible Children, an organization that came to widespread attention with their Kony 2012 campaign… which, in turn, ignited the passions of millions of people who heard about the Lord’s Resistance Army for the first time. Critics – myself included – argued that capturing Joseph Kony wasn’t an appropriate priority for US policy in Central Africa. But that’s the challenge with a politics of passion. Russell followed his passions and channeled the passions of others – it’s a challenge for the rest of us to figure out how to have a dialog with passionate, well-meaning people that can examine the assumptions behind those passions and seek a way forward as a society and a government.

Citizenship is pointillist.

When civics is about people following their passions, it’s hard to have a dialog in the public sphere. The issue you are passionate about and want to debate may not be one I find remotely interesting. How do we come together and find solutions through conversation and compromise if we can’t agree on what issues are the key ones society faces? Bill Kovachs and Tom Rosensteil posit the idea of the “interlocking public”, the idea that my interest in West Africa gets communicated to my friends and family, who become informed on issues there through me, and my father’s interest in prison reform means that I’m somewhat knowledgeable about that subject. We follow our passions, become knowledgeable and inform one another, allowing us to debate complex issues as a public.

There’s another possibility, though, which is that publics come together in opposition, but not in creative cooperation. Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci observes that protests in Taksim Square over the proposed paving of Gezi Park brought together Kurdish separatists, Turkish nationalists and gay and lesbian activists, a group who would otherwise be extremely unlikely to interact with one another. Such groups were able to unite in their frustration with and opposition to Tayyip Erdogan, but had a difficult time cooperating on a broader vision of a reformed Turkey. As with the Tahrir Square protests, it was easier to come together in opposition than in cooperation, and there are open questions about how coalitions and cooperation emerges in the face of pointillistic civic engagement.

I offer this vision of civics not because I think it’s fairer, more successful or more participatory than conventional views of civics – I am deeply concerned about some aspects of this vision, including the challenge of creating a public dialog from a diverse set of passionate perspectives. I offer this more as description than prescription, a reflection of what I am seeing in working with with digital activists in the US and around the world.

But I do think civics is changing in the ways I describe, and I think media should consider what role it can and should have facing this new form of civic practice.

If we believe that civics is participatory, we need to move beyond a model where journalism informs us and makes us better voters to a model where journalism helps us get involved with issues we care about. I worry that we often report stories in a way that readers feel helpless and disempowered. The news tells us that injustice and tragedy are taking place but offers little insight on how we could help make things better. It’s easy to understand why news can lead some to a pattern of learned helplessness, a sense that they are powerless to affect circumstances locally or globally.

There are creative projects proposed to help us move from information to engagement. Shoutabout pairs news stories with ways to get engaged with an issue, often showing petitions to sign or organizations to support on multiple sides of an issue. PBS is working with Shoutabout, as is Christian Science Monitor. In most cases, they are pushing readers and viewers to fairly thin modes of engagement, but it’s a start, and a recognition that news organizations can do more than identify problems.

I see David Bornstein’s Solutions Journalism Network as a fellow traveller, featuring people and organizations in their coverage who’ve found novel solutions to complex social problems. We need journalists to do this work, identifying solutions and evaluating their effectiveness.

At a recent conference in Berlin, I was introduced to the work of Ulrik Haagerup, who is leading the Danish Broadcasting Corporation towards something he calls “constructive journalism“. Reporters on the network aren’t able to report on an issue, like the overuse of antibiotics in the dairy industry, without finding alternatives, a farm that produces milk commercially without using antibiotics. It’s not possible to report every story this way, but it’s a fantastic challenge to think about reporting in a way that helps people move beyond problems to solutions.

More than linking individual stories to specific campaigns for change, I hope that journalists can think about the different paths through which people are seeking change. There’s a tendency to overfocus on where we think news will be made: in Congress and parliaments, in announcements from big companies. It’s easier to report on an election or a government shutdown than on slow, gradual changes like the growing acceptance of gays and lesbians, or a move in scholarly publishing towards open access models. For people to take the steps to be effective citizens, they need help seeing the effects they are having on the world.

I opened this talk by remembering Aaron and will close the same way. I miss Aaron, but I see him in the students I teach and in the activists I worth with. I think he would be happy to be remembered with hackathons, with people embracing the idea that they can make the world a better place and that they, as individuals, can help bring about change. I want to build a world where people like Aaron can be effective, can help change the world, and I want your help. Thanks for listening.

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