This morning, Saturday, January 12, many of us opened up our email, news feeds, and Facebook pages and were faced with the news that one of the online media's greatest living visionaries, Aaron Swartz, had been found dead the previous day in his New York City apartment, apparently of suicide.
Many articles, like today's New York Times piece on its Technology page focus on his innovations, like the development of the RSS XML vocabulary that allows for easy updating of live content on the web, or co-founding the information sharing community Reddit. Also of interest, and informing the circumstances of his demise, was helping spearhead the campaign to block the Stop Online Piracy Act, and fighting prosecution in a case stemming from an effort to make public documents on the academic information site JSTOR and the federal judicial site Public Access to Court Electronic Records. In the former, he faced up to 50 years in prison and a $1 million fine, despite JSTOR deciding not to pursue the case.
Swartz as Visionary
However, there is another aspect to his short, but impactful career that deserves attention. Aaron Swartz saw in the development of the internet, and its expansion to all areas of culture, business, and education a monumental opportunity. Hitherto existing media-- print, radio, television-- all fell under the control of those who held the infrastructure. This usually meant state or corporate entities served as the gatekeepers of information, and the main channels of communicating that information. Efforts over the decades, from public access television, leafleting and independent press, to low-power FM radio sought to allow the public to have a voice apart from the channels provided by those that only larger resources could provide. While widespread, few of these efforts could overcome limitations in resources and regulations to reach a mass audience.
The Game Changes
However, two developments in the 1990s and the early 2000s changed the media game. First, in 1995 the National Science Foundation stepped down from managing the internet, opening it to commercial use. Then, in 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act. This allowed cable companies to provide internet access on their high-capacity infrastructure. As the cost of broadband access fell for consumers and high-speed internet became universally offered by cable and satellite broadcasters, the percentage of US residents with access to the internet jumped from 2.3% in 1993, to 9.24% in 1995, to 43% in 2000, to 78.24% in 2011 (World Bank, Last updated: Oct 31, 2012).
With access to the internet reaching near universality, with a broad range of means to reach it, from web-based browsing to mobile apps to internet TV, not only were the means to reach information available to a large majority of the public, but the means to broadcast information was as well. Aaron Swartz saw the possibilities for bringing the media to the people, and vice versa. He was part of an emerging generation of hackers, activists, and developers who were not only looking to expand these possibilities, but fighting to keep this new medium open for the public.
In a 2007 interview, Swartz pointed out that "The change in the architecture of the media is completely connected to a change in the architecture of control." With the internet, everyone could have a channel, or a blog, or some other way to be heard. He saw that this change in the architecture of the media meant greater collaboration of those who could help each other find an audience, filter the signal from the noise, but most of all, do so without the control of larger entities. Swartz's efforts, with Reddit, as a contributor at Wikipedia, and in his push to make JSTOR and PACER free to the public, were in the service of this end.
But most of all, he pointed out that the playing field had been leveled, and that a new struggle for the control of this new media landscape was brewing. Instead of corporate entities in a struggle between each other and state regulators, the battle would be between these entities and the public. With the fight for net neutrality, against broadband providers seeking to control the flow of content on their systems, or SOPA, this has shown to be the chief battleground for free speech, free assembly and access to information.
The loss of one of the most prominent advocates of democratizing the media will be felt throughout the online community. But the genie is out of the bottle, and will not easily be contained again. For those of us in the Nebraska and Iowa online media community, the brave new world of the internet as a broadcasting and social medium bears the indelible mark of many people across the globe. For every Aaron Swartz on the national stage, there are many more operating locally, pursuing the same ends and opening a common future.