The Boy Who Could Change the World, by Aaron Swartz


The Boy Who Could Change the World is a collection of writings by Aaron Swartz.

Swartz is very famous in certain circles, and I suppose borderline famous at best with the general public. He was a precocious kid who hit it big in his teens with various computer thingies that I won’t pretend to understand, and then went on to be a political theorist and activist, at first on tech issues and then more broadly. He was arrested for illegally accessing copyrighted academic material that he believed ought to be available to the public. The case was prosecuted to an extreme that was widely regarded as excessive, as he was threatened with decades in prison and six figures worth of fines, as evidently they were trying to make an example of him. Eventually the government offered a plea bargain of six months in minimum security prison in exchange for a guilty plea. He turned them down and hanged himself, at age 26.

Prior to reading this book, I had read an article or two about Swartz, but no more. So I had no strong impression of him one way or the other. From very early in The Boy Who Could Change the World though, I felt a kinship with him. I recognized him as a good person, an important person, someone I feel overlaps a great deal with me in terms of values and certain other traits.

I found a great number of passages in this book striking. Some were in the introductions to the various writings, where something about Swartz was described and I found myself thinking either how much that sounded like me, or more often how much I wish I could be described that way, since of course he accomplished about a thousand times as much as I ever have. Others were in his writings themselves, and elicited that “Oh, I wish I had said that!” response from me, where you recognize that someone’s statement capsulizes something you’ve kind of believed for a long time but never fully developed to where you could articulate it. So I’m going to quote from the book more than I typically do in these pieces.

Actually one thing that caught my eye early in the book, from the Introduction by Lawrence Lessig, that fits into that category of overlap between him and me, was this: “He read voraciously, fiction as well as non-fiction, reporting at the end of each year on the hundreds of books he had read that year, with a short review of each.” Remind you of anybody? (Though in my case you’d have to replace “hundreds” with “dozens.” Good God, how can a person read hundreds of books in a year, especially if he’s then going to devote additional time to writing about each of them?)

That’s kind of cool that we would have the same intellectual hobby or whatever you want to call it, but more important in making me feel a connection with Swartz was this:

From a very young age, Aaron felt a freedom that most of us never really know: the freedom to simply do what you believe is right. That’s not to say that most of us live life in the wrong. But most of us have a way of avoiding the confrontations between right and wrong. We learn early on how to fudge the facts, how to dodge the uncomfortable.

Aaron never quite learned that. Or if he did, he got rid of it when he was young.

There’s a great deal packed into this passage as far as I’m concerned. I have believed for most of my life that our lives are an endless series of hideous moral compromises, and that a major source for these is the need to sustain ourselves by participating in the highly imperfect and routinely exploitative and cruel social and economic systems that have developed in whatever society in which we live. I believe also that 99% of the population hides from any realization that this is the situation in which they are placed, preferring to never question that there could be anything objectionable in how they make money and live their life, as long as it is legal and generally approved of by society (and, heck, often even if it’s not; as humans we have an extraordinary ability to rationalize just about anything that we believe is necessary to get us what we want).

You can lessen the compromises by minimizing your “needs.” All else being equal, the more materialistic you are the more money you’ll need, the more money you need the more you’ll be willing to do to get money, and the more you’re willing to do to get money the more moral corners you’ll cut. But if your desires are few, you can distance yourself from this unfortunate dynamic, though certainly you’ll never get away from it entirely. As Gandhi often pointed out, as long as we are embodied we’re unavoidably involved in some amount of himsa (violence).

If you already have enough resources (leaving aside for the moment what you had to do to get them) to meet your needs, and you’re self-disciplined or enlightened enough to avoid the trap of forever multiplying your needs just beyond the point that you can yet satisfy them, then you’re in a position of comparative moral luxury. The question then becomes, will you continue to make the kind of moral compromises in how you treat people that you always have even though they are no longer necessary to sustain yourself? And beyond that, will you prove willing and able to put your time and energies to good use in serving rather than exploiting your fellow man since you don’t have to devote them to getting more and more stuff for yourself?

In other words, if much of the need to do evil is removed, will you still do evil anyway? If not, will you do good instead?

The implication of Lessig’s remark is that Swartz was indeed one of the rare people who used his freedom from want to try to better live up to his ideals. Would that we all could be so dedicated to doing what’s right.

Swartz’s writings in The Boy Who Could Change the World are divided into six broad categories: Free Culture, Computers, Politics, Media, Books and Culture, and Unschool.

One of the topics Swartz addresses in the Free Culture pieces is that of intellectual property rights. He’s skeptical of the very concept, and certainly thinks it has been taken to a ridiculous extreme.

Sharing ideas and such cannot be considered stealing, he says, because stealing means taking something from someone so that they no longer have it. So if I take your bicycle, now I have it and you don’t. Whereas if I perform a song you wrote, I in no way prevent you from performing it yourself.

He is a big proponent of Napster. He sees no more of a moral problem and no more of a need for legal intervention in the case of sharing music online with Napster than in the case of checking a book out from the library.

He points out that Thomas Jefferson of all people agreed with him on the matter of intellectual property.

He notes that some would argue that when you use someone’s intellectual property in a way that copyright laws are intended to prevent, you are indeed stealing something from them. You aren’t taking away their book or their CD or some physical object like that so that they no longer have it, and you aren’t depriving them of the ability or opportunity to perform the song they wrote, stage the play they wrote, etc., but you’re taking from them, say, some of the profits they otherwise could have made off their idea, artistic creation, invention, what have you.

To this, he says that that kind of taking isn’t objectionable, or if it is, instances need to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Even if downloading a song from Napster has the effect of lessening the money the songwriter makes off it (and he notes that, by the way, it’s unclear that it does), what if I write a negative review that hurts sales? What if I write a better song and people buy that instead, thus hurting this song’s sales? What if I encourage people to spend less money on consumer goods and spend more time with their families, and that diminishes sales of this song? Am I “stealing” from whoever owns the rights to this song?

I’d say I agree more than disagree with what he has to say on this topic, but I’m not sure exactly where I come down. Certainly I agree that copyright laws have gone way, way too far nowadays—due to the lobbying power of Disney and the various corporate entities that benefit most from the extremes to which copyright has been taken—but I’m pulled in different directions on the basic concept of intellectual property.

To illustrate why I’m not completely sold on the idea of abolishing the notion of intellectual property entirely, I’ll offer two cases from my own life, and then one more general phenomenon.

For a number of years, I made a living sportsbetting. It required a great deal of labor—researching, crunching numbers, shopping betting lines, etc.

A friend of mine once asked me to let him use my picks. He was fairly well off, and he wanted to bet three times whatever I bet. That is, if I intended to bet $50 on a team, he wanted to give me $150 to add to it so I would place a $200 wager on that team instead. And so on for every wager I made.

I found this objectionable and did not agree to it. My position was that I was doing 100% of the labor to come up with these picks, and I wasn’t about to let him profit three times as much as me from the fruit of my intellectual labor. I said that we would instead have to work out some kind of partnership where if he were unable or unwilling to learn how to do the work so that we could split the labor equally then he would have to pay me some fair equivalent in cash. If we were both going to use and profit from the picks, it seemed to me that we should invest an equal amount in coming up with them. (Actually, since his greater access to capital put him in a position to benefit a lot more than me from the picks, I thought I was being quite generous in asking him to only contribute an equal amount to the work of coming up with them.)

His position was that I was being incredibly selfish in not simply letting him come along for free and use the picks. He made the Swartz-like point that giving him the picks in no way lessened their value to me (actually it almost certainly would have, due to how the sportsbooks would have responded to my betting several times as much per game, but let’s leave that factor aside); it just would have enabled him to win too. So I could benefit him, a friend, at zero cost to myself, and I was refusing to do so.

I take it the Swartz position would be that if my friend could have accessed my picks for free against my will, then he’d be doing nothing unethical by using them and benefiting from them while offering me no compensation for doing so. But I still think I was right, that if we were both going to benefit, then we should both have to contribute.

So I have sympathy for the songwriter who invests time, money, brainpower, whatever into creating a song, and doesn’t agree that someone who invested zero of that into its creation has just as much right to enjoy and profit from it.

Second example: I wrote a book many years ago about my experiences as a volunteer in a maximum security prison. I sent around a draft copy to a number of media outlets in the hopes that someone might choose to review it. I went to the trouble of clearly labeling all such copies as unfinished drafts that were absolutely not to be sold or distributed. I subsequently discovered that a number of the people at the newspapers and such that I had sent them to had immediately put the draft they had received up for sale on Amazon or wherever.

I was outraged. And here it wasn’t even the financial factor. I had no expectation at all of making money on this kind of book; it was a labor of love and I knew it would cost far more to write and publish than it would ever recoup in sales (and I was right).

It was more a privacy thing. I hadn’t declared the book finished yet, I hadn’t released it to the public. What if the draft had a lot of typos in it? I had a right to correct errors before making it public. What if the draft contained something legally libelous that I didn’t yet realize? I had a right to find that out before making it public.

I felt it was up to me to decide when a book attributed to me, with my name on the cover, became available to readers as a finished product. When I felt I had checked it enough, and had it checked enough by others, then I would publish it. No one I sent a draft to was obligated to review it or even read it, but then they should have sent it back or tossed it in the trash. How dare they in effect publish it themselves and try to make a buck off it?

I still feel like I was wronged, like I was in some sense personally violated as a writer, by the people who attempted to sell copies of the draft to the public. Ethically that is, regardless of the legalities of the situation.

Or to take it beyond my personal experience and look at a matter of broader public importance, consider journalism, or more specifically investigative reporting.

Many believe that the Internet has created a crisis situation for the kind of investigative journalism that costs money to do well. The few outlets that still do it at all pretty much have to do it as a public service that they know they’ll take a loss on, because whatever they produce others will immediately be able to distribute in spite of having contributed nothing to producing it.

Maybe moving to a world where the only people writing songs, writing books, doing journalism, etc. are people who do these things out of the love of doing them without any expectation of profit is fine, but that’s far from obvious. Swartz notes that there’s nothing stopping such folks from receiving voluntary contributions, but is that really adequate?

I’m still kind of on the fence. As I say, I certainly agree that the very corporate-friendly direction that intellectual property law has taken in recent decades is on balance a bad thing, but I’m not convinced yet that there is no justification for the concept of intellectual property.

But speaking of the voluntary creation of intellectual property that you are not compensated for—and specifically a case where it seems to work pretty darn well—Swartz has some interesting things to say about Wikipedia.

Many people, including some inside Wikipedia, were convinced that a comparative handful of Wikipedia regulars provide the overwhelming majority of the site’s content, with the non-regulars just dropping in occasionally to commit some vandalism (that the regulars then need to clean up), correct a typo, or make some other minor change here or there. Swartz went to the trouble of analyzing a great deal of data on Wikipedia edits and found that almost the exact opposite was true: It’s the part timers who provide the bulk of the substantive material, and the regulars who mostly correct typos, make adjustments to wording to fit Wikipedia’s style guidelines, etc.

And that makes sense. There’s a limit to how many things you can be knowledgeable about. The person most qualified to write the Wikipedia entry on Battlestar Galactica is probably someone who spends an alarmingly high amount of his time watching, reading about, talking about, and ruminating about Battlestar Galactica, not some Wikipedia editor who spends most of his time on Wikipedia. And the same with those most qualified to write about horseflies, the Ottoman Empire, or duct tape.

But as Swartz points out, one implication of this is that it would improve Wikipedia if the site were made more user-friendly, more welcoming toward everyday people who happen to be experts in one or more things in life but not experts in maneuvering their way around Wikipedia itself. Not that you want to disrespect the regulars who volunteer their time to keep the site’s content of a consistent style, delete spam, etc., but you want to favor the part timers who provide the bulk of the substance.

I’m mostly pro-Wikipedia, by the way. I know many people look down their nose at it as unreliable because anyone can contribute to it, but I also know that when studies have been done of such matters it has generally been found that there are at least as many advantages Wikipedia has over regular encyclopedias and other such conventional information sources (most notably how quickly information is updated) as disadvantages. I know I’ve found it to be very useful in general, albeit certainly not flawless.

I actually felt inspired reading Swartz’s pieces on Wikipedia and how it brings people together with no motive other than to voluntarily build something useful that will benefit the world. (Of course there are always going to be people getting involved with a site like that for more self-serving materialistic or ideological reasons, but I think the overwhelming majority of contributors are not evil sons of bitches like that.) It made me want to get involved myself, to help improve Wikipedia pages in the few areas where I have considerable knowledge.

I probably won’t, just because there are a million other things I also think would be worthwhile uses of my time and I’ll never get to all of them, but I’d like to.

In another piece in this section, Swartz gets at something that has always been a pet peeve of mine. Don’t you often get the sense with computer stuff that the people who design it either don’t know or don’t care how usable it is for regular people, especially regular people who didn’t grow up with computers? I regularly have a fantasy when I’m struggling with some program or website or whatever of wishing the person who created it were standing next to me so I could narrate exactly what I’m trying to do and what’s blocking me. (“OK, logically you’d think clicking on this would take me to a page with contact information like a phone number. But it seems to just take me back to the top of the page. And then this annoying video starts playing automatically. And why does the text here extend beyond the side of the page so I have to scroll back and forth to see everything? Over here it says to click on “Help” if you need further assistance, but it doesn’t say where “Help” is; I certainly don’t see it as one of the choices at the top of the page where I’d expect it to be.” And so on.)

As Swartz puts it:

For most…programmers UI [user interface] is hard, because they don’t understand it. They see things textually, not visually. The free software culture comes very much from the Unix culture, and Unix is very much expert-oriented. Experts don’t need “good UI”—they know exactly what to do already and they just want to be able to do it as fast as they can.

This is related to the other problem, which is that free software programmers code mostly for themselves. And since they completely and intuitively understand the software, it doesn’t seem like the UI is bad to them—to them, it makes perfect sense.

Another point he makes is that he thinks it should be easier to edit other people’s websites. I don’t think he means in the Wikipedia sense of editing the “real” version of them that everyone sees, but editing the version you see.

Like for instance if someone sends you a Word attachment by e-mail, you can easily open it up and change it however you want. You can delete parts of it, change the font, highlight a paragraph, whatever. I believe what he’s suggesting is that it should be similar when you open a website. You should be able to copy-and-paste content to move it around, delete the stuff that’s irrelevant to you, highlight parts of it, add links to other sites, etc.

I suppose then you’d save it under some other URL name. So if you wanted to see the (current version of the) “real” site, you’d type in the original URL, whereas if you wanted to see the one you created from it you’d type in whatever name you’d given your version.

Moving on, he notes that the anonymity of the Web can be an appealing thing. Of course it can also make it easier to pursue nefarious purposes or in general behave like a total ass, but I think he’s right that it can make ad hominem fallacies harder to commit. For instance, since he was a teenager when he was writing much of this stuff, if he were concerned about his opinions being unjustifiably dismissed due to his age rather than being read with an open mind and judged on their merits, he could post his opinions on the Web without ever saying enough about himself to enable people to infer his age.

Same with gender, race, whatever. As the famous New Yorker cartoon put it, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

Of course Web anonymity is optional. I’ve found that if anything people are more apt to want to reveal things about themselves online, to tell you that their opinion about gun control comes from a proud Alabaman substitute teacher whose father and grandfather both served in the military, and who doesn’t take government handouts, etc. Or to accompany their review of some band’s latest CD with a link to their Facebook page so you can see their photos and see their gender and approximate age and such.

I can see the value of either approach. Sometimes I might want people to know me—the total package—and sometimes I might want them to have to assess what I say only on its merits without any reference whatsoever to who I am. But the point is, at least there’s the option of anonymity if you don’t want what you say to be judged based on personal things about you.

For a time, Swartz was an enthusiastic advocate of increasing political transparency—making things like government records and lists of campaign contributions available to the public online—but he came to believe that this had little or no value unless supplemented by other information.

For one thing, the bad guys would just do the bad stuff in areas that were still hidden. So if C-Span televised sessions of the House of Representatives, House members, being aware of the cameras, would put on a meaningless show, and then do the actual corrupt horse trading or whatever in their offices or wherever there weren’t cameras.

Two, even if the newly public records included smoking guns that showed how crooked politicians were or whatever, most people would have no idea what, if anything, productive to do with this information, so they would likely just get all the more cynical and apathetic—dismissing the whole system as hopelessly corrupt.

So simply waking people up by making available to them information showing how rotten things are is not enough. Without some guidance as to how to respond to this state of affairs in a way that might actually change it for the better, they’d be as apt as not to withdraw from politics or to vote for some Tea Party stooge or a Trump and make it worse. Swartz saw that it was at least as important to develop ways of using the Internet to facilitate activism as it was to use it to disseminate information.

Some of the Computers section went over my head. Much of it is about the “Semantic Web,” which I gather has something to do with programming computers to use the Web without constant human direction—so kind of putting your computer on automatic pilot or cruise control—but that stuff was hard to follow. (It’s also old, so I assume computers today already do whatever it was he was advocating or predicting they’d do, and probably a lot more.)

In this section, Swartz declares flat out that “D.J. Bernstein is the greatest programmer in the history of the world,” which would mean more to me if I had the foggiest notion who D.J. Bernstein is or was, or had ever even heard the name.

The most interesting piece to me in this section is A Non-Programmer’s Apology, the title of which is a play on the title of mathematician G.H. Hardy’s essay A Mathematician’s Apology, in which Hardy claims that if you do something extremely well then that’s justification enough for doing it, even over something arguably more “important.”

Swartz takes the opposite view. He had come to believe that no matter how good he was at computer programming—and apparently he was something of a savant in this area—he was morally obligated to devote himself to pursuits he recognized as more important.

He’s coy in this piece about precisely what these pursuits are, but one gathers he was talking about attempting to articulate some critical social and political insights he’d developed.

I don’t want to be a programmer. When I look at programming books, I am more tempted to mock them than to read them. When I go to programmer conferences, I’d rather skip out and talk politics than programming. And writing code, although it can be enjoyable, is hardly something I want to spend my life doing.

Perhaps, I fear, this decision deprives society of one great programmer in favor of one mediocre writer. And let’s not hide behind the cloak of uncertainty; let’s say we know that it does. Even so, I would make it. The writing is too important, the programming too unenjoyable.

And for that, I apologize.

The first piece in the Politics section of The Boy Who Could Change the World is How Congress Works, which, at 41 pages, is also the longest piece in the book.

I really like this essay. It’s written in a very accessible, even simplistic, style, yet seems to me very much on target. It’s a description not of how government technically is supposed to work, but of how it actually works, warts and all, especially warts.

Students, especially below the college level in civics classes and such, are invariably taught only how such things work in theory, but I would argue that even for young children it would be at least as important—and far more interesting—to be exposed to the kind of information he provides in this piece.

He makes the very Chomskian point that the problem is not just a matter of flawed individuals doing blameworthy things, but is systemic in the incentives and filters that facilitate this or that kind of behavior. “Everyone in Congress, everyone running for Congress could be a total saint, the perfect public servant, voting only in accordance with their genuine beliefs about what was best for their constituents, and the place would still be hopelessly corrupt. Because the issue is not just that the politicians skew their votes toward the whims of the wealthy once they’re in office, but that politicians who do not share the wealthy’s views never make it that far.” (Chomsky would say the same is true of influential members of the media, academia, etc.)

This is the point that the loathsome Hillary Clinton discourages people from understanding by responding to Bernie Sanders’s criticism of the disproportionate influence of the 1% on our political system by feigning indignation that anyone could possibly accuse her of being in effect bribed by political contributions to change her votes.

It’s not about whether she’s being sincere or insincere when she favors the corporate class that funds her and funds the institutions that have shaped her and people like her; if anything the 1% are better off when society’s nominal leaders have internalized the values that favor the wealthy than when they are consciously violating their convictions in order to benefit financially.

I find the essay thinner and less convincing in its suggestions of possible ways to improve the system, but that’s not so much a reflection of a weakness in Swartz as a reflection of the fact that finding the solutions is hugely more difficult than identifying the problems. I’ve always, for instance, regarded Marxist critiques of capitalism and modern society as being at least 90% on the money, while regarding the things that actual flesh-and-blood communists do to allegedly change things for the better as routinely being terrible choices that will result in plenty of suffering and bloodshed without bringing about discernible improvements.

Swartz is very aware of this difficulty. He’s a huge Chomsky fan—as am I—but he laments that Chomsky is 99% about describing how bad things are with little guidance as to how to make them better. He wants to be different; he wants to focus on solutions. But it’s just very, very hard to come up with a convincing way out of a situation where the powerful hold all the cards.

As I read, I remained struck by how consistently Swartz’s points overlap with my beliefs (and with points made by Chomsky and others that I tend to agree with).

For instance, there is his warning of the harms of a system like ours that influences politicians toward whatever happens to be the political “center” at any given time—which relates to his later critique of mass media “objectivity.” There is his dismissal of conservative whining about the “nanny state” based on corporations’ own embracing of policies that protect them from the very market they pretend to worship when it’s in their self-interest to do so. There is his pointing out how the fragile capitalist economy is so dependent on perception and emotion, where it succeeds or fails based on the confidence the people with the most capital have that it will succeed or fail, meaning the rich can basically crash the economy any time that they anticipate policies will be enacted that they don’t like.

This section also contains a solid, and again very simple, readable, explanation and defense of Keynesian economics: Keynes, Explained Briefly. This too I would recommend to young people new to the subject matter.

There is also a piece in which Swartz speculates about converting to a system of representative democracy based on groups of a small enough size that people could meet face-to-face and really know and influence those they choose to represent them. (This is an idea he adapts from political scientist Stephen Shalom.)

What he has in mind is that everyone would be assigned to a group of 25-50 people (so, the people in a single city block, an apartment building, whatever), and they would elect someone to lead on ultra-local matters involving just those people, but also then to advance to the next level of voting.

At that next level, one person from each of 25-50 such groups of 25-50 people would meet periodically to concern themselves with matters at that local level—that of a good-sized neighborhood or small town—and to elect one of them to advance to yet another level, about the size of a city. Then up to roughly the state level. Then up to roughly the federal level. (Doing the math, it would take just five to six such levels to represent a population of 300 million people.)

The funny thing is I’ve fantasized about exactly that kind of system since I was a little kid, though I’ve generally used the round number of 10 for each level rather than 25-50. It’s not something I ever properly thought through though—just kind of a fun idea.

I wonder if something like that could actually work. My guess is no. Or maybe not so much that it couldn’t work if given a fair chance, but that it would never appeal to people enough for them to give it a fair chance. I would think it would strike most folks as actually less democratic than the current system rather than more. I don’t think they’d focus on the fact that there is the opportunity for meaningful face-to-face influence at each level—rather than, say, influencing and being influenced anonymously by massive purchases of television ads and the like—but instead on how they were no longer directly voting for anyone beyond the tiniest local area. It would seem more like the Electoral College, or like when state legislatures elected Senators—something that makes choosing leaders more indirect and hence less democratic.

I wonder if anything remotely like it has ever been tried anywhere. It’s just an interesting coincidence to me that in a book where I overlap so much with the author he would advocate an idea that I came up with and toyed with long, long ago but have otherwise never heard of.

The section entitled Media continues a lot of the same themes found in the Politics section.

In a blog post from age 19 he called The Book That Changed My Life, Swartz discusses Chomsky’s Understanding Power and its effects on him.

The contents of the book were so dramatically contrary to his worldview, and yet so persuasive, as to be genuinely upsetting to him. When he regained his balance, he started observing the world a lot more closely and no longer took conventional wisdom for granted. All he saw confirmed how far reality is from what we are led to believe it is by mainstream schools and media and such.

I can’t say I’ve ever reacted to a book the way he describes. I suppose I’ve always been pretty cynical about how things work, so to read Chomsky or whatever as a young person would have resulted in one of countless incremental alterations in my worldview rather than anything that so thoroughly turned my world upside down.

He wrote this piece the same month as A Non-Programmer’s Apology, and he explains how reading Chomsky’s book helped him understand what he needed to devote himself to:

Ever since then, I’ve realized that I need to spend my life working to fix the shocking brokenness I’d discovered. And the best way to do that, I concluded, was to try to share what I’d discovered with others.

He has much to say in this section about the poor job the mainstream media does at informing and educating the public about current affairs, in part because they have hamstrung themselves with flawed notions of objectivity and balance, creating imaginary obligations to present on each issue only the two most prominent political and corporate elite positions, and to present them equally and neutrally.

Again the overlap between us is striking—though of course it’s not like numerous others haven’t made the same points—as he complains about how the media’s clinging to this false concept of objectivity without regard for such matters as truth and evidence has enabled right wingers to blatantly lie on issue after issue and get away with it.

Media norms of balance mean that even qualified experts will always be presented as “just one side of the story,” balanced directly against inaccurate conservatives—recall how the handful of corporate-funded global warming deniers are still balanced against the overwhelming scientific consensus.

Ideally, viewers would be able to hear both perspectives and decide which they thought was accurate. But since…so little time is spent explaining complex issues, in practice very little information is presented that can help the viewer decide who’s correct. So they’re left to decide based on their existing ideological preferences, further splitting the country into two alternative realities.

Figuring out what is true…is precisely what the mainstream media should be doing. Partisan pundits would be replaced with thoughtful scholars. Non-peer-reviewed books would be ignored, not endlessly promoted. Scientific facts would be given precedence over political arguments. Political commentary would be replaced by factual education.

There’s little in the way of full-length essays on books in the Books and Culture section, in spite of the fact that it was noted earlier in The Boy Who Could Change the World that he blogged about the books he read kind of like I do. But evidently he also at the end of each year listed the books he recommended most highly, with a note of one to two paragraphs about each. A sample of these recommendations from 2006-2011 are included here.

I wish they had included more of his longer pieces on the books he read. These are so short as to say almost nothing about the books or why he recommends them. Much of it is very strong but generic praise. “Fantastic fun.” “Really, really good.” “Absolutely fantastic.” “Absolutely delightful.” (That last is actually the entire note about one of the books.)

Still, knowing that he loved certain books, even if accompanied by only a minimal amount of information as to why he did, is not completely without value to me. I feel like our thinking and our tastes are sufficiently in line with each other that I’d probably like most of his favorite books. So I’ll likely go through his recommendations, maybe read a little more about some of them online, and see about adding some to my list of books to read in the coming months and years.

I’m not sure that it fits best in this section, but he has a fun little piece on greetings or conversation starters. Not so much pick-up lines specifically, but more things to say when you’re at some group social gathering and you’re kind of expected to make conversation with someone that perhaps you don’t know well.

The common ones like “How are you?,” “How ya doing?,” “How’s it going?,” or the more formal “How do you do?” are all so hackneyed and ritualistic that they virtually never elicit anything other than a hackneyed, empty response. Asking someone what they do for a living isn’t all that great an alternative, as it can seem kind of intrusive, like you’re seeking information from which to infer their income, or how they compare to you in terms of material success.

Something like “What have you been up to lately?,” or “So, how have you been spending your time lately?” are better, and “What’s an interesting book you’ve read lately?,” or “What’s something cool you’ve learned lately?” have some promise, but ultimately Swartz suggests “What have you been thinking about lately?”

First, the question is extremely open-ended. The answer could be a book, a movie, a relationship, a class, a job, a hobby, etc. Even better, it will be whichever of these is most interesting at the moment. Second, it sends the message that thinking, and thinking about thinking, is a fundamental human activity, and thus encourages it. Third, it’s easiest to answer, since by its nature it’s asking what’s already on the person’s mind. Fourth, it’s likely to lead to productive dialog, as you can discuss the topic together and hopefully make progress. Fifth, the answer is quite likely to be novel. Unlike books and occupations, people’s thoughts seem to be endlessly varied. Sixth, it helps capture a person’s essence. A job can be forced by circumstance and parentage, but our thoughts are all our own. I can think of little better way to quickly gauge what a person is really like.

I like that and may try it.

As I say, I liked Swartz throughout this book, and I felt more and more connected to him in a way sort of like how I feel when I read David Foster Wallace’s nonfiction. (I must have a natural affinity for suicides. I also really like Nick Drake’s music since I discovered it a few years ago, though it’s not certain that his death was a suicide rather than the result of an accidental overdose of anti-depressants.)

So, just as I’m thinking that I may have found another Wallace for myself, it turns out he himself was a big fan of Wallace. “DFW’s suicide hit me very hard. I ended up coping by reading every piece of nonfiction he’d ever published. He was a brilliant, tortured man and I see so much of myself in him. His nonfiction was fantastic and I will consider my life a success if I can do half of what he did.”

Oh, but it gets better. The final section of the book is called Unschool, and its pieces almost exactly reflect my beliefs about the flaws of conventional schooling and child raising, as well as the superiority of alternative education.

Not only do I almost entirely agree with him in these areas, but these are matters that are highly important to me that I have given a lot of thought to. Indeed, I felt strongly for a time that the best career for me would be in alternative education, and I pursued it with considerable enthusiasm, though in the end it didn’t work out.

But reading this section was like reading my own thoughts on these matters (though often articulated better than I’ve been able to articulate them). Like me, he not only prefers alternative education, but specifically the options that are at the extreme end of the continuum—Sudbury schools and even unschooling.

He and I agree that kids learn what they want to learn how they want to learn it when they want to learn it. They learn by living life, not by spending most of their childhood in an extremely artificial environment (school) that kills their curiosity, initiative, and individuality. More experienced people can have a role in their lives as resources for them as needed, but what they don’t require is “teachers” as the conventional occupation has evolved.

He writes about the history of formal schooling in this country, how it was never intended to provide any kind of healthy education, but instead to instill habits of obedience, punctuality, regimentation, conformity, etc., to kill any spirit of rebellion in kids, to take people born into a culture where the norm was the difficult but free life of farming and craftsmanship and to break them down to where they would accept a life of working all day every day in factories in horrific conditions for the enrichment of capitalists.

Even if the goals of schooling today aren’t quite so openly crass and evil (though the modern day equivalents of these goals are still very much present), we continue to use the same educational model that served those purposes, tinkering with it rather than junking it entirely as we should.

I especially liked his discussion of how students learn to do what is rewarded rather than learning the material. Certainly I saw this teaching college, but I see it as much or more when I’m around younger kids. From early in elementary school they start developing the skills of reading the teacher’s body language and tone of voice and such in order to infer if their guess is right, wrong but close, or way off, and they make their next guess based on this. They figure out through experience with each teacher (tutor, parent, etc.) how long they have to work on something—or pretend to—before they can safely say they don’t get it and need help, and then have the adult do it for them.

Nowadays with all the “teaching to the test” teachers are routinely allies in students’ efforts to get the highest score possible regardless of if they learn anything.

Kids learn plenty from schoolwork. They learn manipulation. They learn ingratiation. They learn deception. They learn to spot patterns in the structure of tests. They learn rote memorization when there’s no way to avoid it. What they almost never learn is anything substantive.

Swartz describes studies of college students who had become very good at taking tests in, say, physics, while learning little or nothing about physics. Their professors were stunned that their students who routinely got A’s and B’s were consistently stumped when instead of being asked questions in the form they had prepared for were asked extremely elementary junior high level questions about the basics of physics.

In recent years I’ve occasionally had opportunities to help young kids with their homework, and my attitude is always ambivalent at best. I disagree with the whole concept of “homework” and I don’t feel right participating in it. Then if I agree to help anyway, I get trapped in that ugly cat-and-mouse game where the kid is trying to manipulate me into doing as much as possible of the homework for them—affirming every right answer, steering them toward the right answer when their initial answer is wrong—so that they can spend as little time and effort on it as possible, again because 99% of the time they’re completely indifferent to whether they actually learn anything or not, an attitude I don’t blame them for.

Again, get them away from school and none of this is a problem. Kids learn to walk, to talk, to text, to use a microwave to cook something they want to eat, to play baseball, to feed their pet turtle, to use Google, to play a guitar so they can put together a band and get girls, to use the self-checkout at the supermarket, to play Pokemon, to get around whatever grown-ups put up to block them from porn sites, and on and on—all on their own, when they’re not in school.

If they weren’t spending such a huge percentage of their waking hours in school or doing homework, think about how much more they could learn.

Also in the Unschool section, Swartz returns to the “objectivity” and “balance” points from earlier in the book, this time to show that they are misused to judge academia just as they are misused to judge the media. In very much the same way I’m apt to do, he uses satirical analogies to make the point that a lack of “balance” does not in and of itself constitute bias, that genuine bias has to do with deviating from the position best supported by the evidence, not deviating from the degree of popularity of a position.

This is from all the way back when he was just 18 and he could already see through the bullshit that very few people—including very few college students—ever develop the critical thinking skills to see through:

A shocking recent study has discovered that only 13% of Stanford professors are Republicans. The authors compare this to the 51% of 2004 voters who selected a Republican for president and argue this is “evidence of discrimination” and that “academic Republicans are being eradicated by academic Democrats.”

Scary as this is, my preliminary research has discovered some even more shocking facts. I have found that only 1% of Stanford professors believe in telepathy…compared with 36% of the general population. And less than half a percent believe “people on this earth are sometimes possessed by the devil,” compared with 49% of those outside the ivory tower. And while 25% of Americans believe in astrology…I could only find one Stanford professor who would agree.

Finally, in a piece called Legacy that has been chosen as the The Boy Who Could Change the World’s epilogue, Swartz muses about how to really live the most meaningful, beneficial life. We tend to think, he says, that the most important people are those who have the most obvious impact, e.g., scientists who make major discoveries and inventions, Supreme Court justices who decide important cases, and so on. He recalls being urged toward certain fields when his genius became apparent, on the grounds that these were the areas where major advances were expected very soon and thus where there was the greatest opportunity to make a name for oneself and achieve the most.

But he argues that this is not the right way to look at things, because really you’re not very important at all if things would have proceeded pretty much the same way had you never existed. So, had there been no Darwin, someone else would have come up with evolution at about the same time (in fact Alfred Russel Wallace did). If Newton had not given us calculus we would have gotten it from Leibniz instead, so no big deal. Had the Supreme Court justice who authored some landmark decision flunked out of law school instead and never been appointed to the Court, the same President would have chosen some other distinguished jurist of basically the same ideology and the case would have come out the same.

So the advice he got to enter a field that was on the verge of exploding so he could have the most impact was precisely the wrong advice. That’s just the field that doesn’t need someone like him, as the advances are going to come with or without his presence.

So how do you actually make the most positive difference in the world? Not by taking an established position in an established field and doing what anyone else in that position would do, but by having the vision to go against what’s established, and to do what maybe no one else would do—at least not for a long time—if you didn’t do it.

So what jobs do have a real legacy? It’s hard to think of most of them, since by their very nature they require doing things that other people aren’t trying to do, and thus include the things that people haven’t thought of. But one good source of them is trying to do things that change the system instead of following it. For example, the university system encourages people to become professors who do research in certain areas (and thus many people do this); it discourages people from trying to change the nature of the university itself.

Naturally, doing things like changing the university are much harder than simply becoming yet another professor. But for those who genuinely care about their legacies, it doesn’t seem like there’s much choice.

One small criticism of the book as a whole: I would have preferred that the pieces be presented in chronological order, or at least in chronological order within a given section. Commentaries in the introductions (to the book and to the individual sections) comment about how Swartz changed his mind about various things, about how his thinking evolved, and about how he wasn’t afraid to say things inconsistent with earlier views, but it would be a lot easier to get a sense of that if the writings were in chronological order.

But overall my assessment of The Boy Who Could Change the World is a highly favorable one, because my assessment of Aaron Swartz is.

I mean here’s a guy who’s brilliant enough to agree with me on subject after subject, from how to live a principled life to what it means (and doesn’t mean) to be objective versus biased, who loves Chomsky, who hates corporate bullshit and the Machiavellian right wing liars who echo it, and who is utterly frank about all these things. What’s not to like?

I was already feeling almost a David Foster Wallace-level connection with him before I realized that Wallace is yet another passion that we share. Then to discover on top of that that he’s an enthusiastic believer in freeing children from conventional schooling—well, I think that’s what officially tipped it to where I fell in love.

(Or would have if, you know, there wasn’t the whole wrong gender thing, and the whole not being alive thing.)

Aaron’s awesome. He joins Wallace as another writer I don’t know and will never know, and yet feel I know. I appreciate him, what he tried to do, the ideas he expressed, and the palpable idealism, warmth, and compassion with which he lived his life. (Check out his photo on his Wikipedia page, and tell me that isn’t a warm, gentle soul.)


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