Society, it seems, is finally embracing the hacktivist hero — the technologist who uses his or her coding and programming skills to make the world a better place. The death of 26-year-old Internet freedom activist Aaron Swartz, who took his own life Friday evening, needs to become a rallying point for those who believe in online free speech, in the free culture movement, and the ability of the Internet to create change in the power corridors of Washington, D.C.
The fact that so many different people from so many different areas of technology and academia have been profoundly touched by Swartz’s death is a testament to the power of an idea, in particular this idea: that technology should exist to make the world a better place. Swartz, as a programmer and coder, helped to create the Internet standard RSS, played an early role at Reddit, contributed to Wikipedia, and co-founded the online advocacy group Demand Progress. Each of these experiences undoubtedly allowed him to refine his understanding of how technologies of the digital era actually work and to better understand how they can be used for good and evil.
Swartz, as a result, was able to parlay his first-hand knowledge of technology into powerful statements about freedom, democracy and intellectual property. He and others like him facing potential prosecution and imprisonment from the federal government are, hopefully, showing us that “hacking the system” can have positive implications - it can stop legislation and policies that stand to stifle free speech online, it can make available publicly-funded academic knowledge to a broader audience, and bring nuance and understanding to Washington politicians unfamiliar with how the Internet can shape and influence popular culture.
The power of coders and programmers is beginning to catch up to that of lobbyists and politicians. What makes Swartz different from other hacktivists that have enjoyed popular support, such as Julian Assange, is that he seemed to exist both inside and outside the system at the same time. While talented beyond his years, Swartz was not the classic figure of a disillusioned youth attempting to exploit the system for personal gain, a shadowy international figure stealing and disseminating state secrets, or an individual out to punish the system for imagined wrongs.
Instead, he understood that changing the system meant finding ways of enfranchising those without a voice online. Instead of becoming a serial entrepreneur in search of the next big paycheck after success at Reddit, Swartz preferred to work on advancing a higher agenda for societal change. He was not Anonymous. He had a face and a personality.
If there is a silver lining to this story, it’s that the outpouring of support after Swartz’s death may make it easier for other hacktivist heroes to change society in the future. A petition was launched on Jan. 7 to make DDos attacks (a fave of hacktivists) into a legalized form of protest, which could make hacktivism even more mainstream. As a society, we must realize that coding and programming is more than a path to creating the next big social media company or game on the Internet. They are tools, as the online memorial to Swartz points out, that can be used to make the Internet and the world a “fairer, better place.”
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