For Aaron Swartz, A #pdftribute

A few years ago when I was an undergraduate at NYU, I took a course that would put me on my course to my current research agenda. This was even before I knew I had a research agenda ahead of me. It was Biella Coleman’s Hacker Culture & Politics class. And it was the kind of class you left with an idea-high, that feeling that made you endlessly excited about the prospect of figuring stuff out in the world.

Part of the course’s genius was Biella’s design. But part of it was about the other students in the class, people who had such a capacious and resonant echo chamber of ideas that there was never a skip in the beat of the discussion. I took the course with Ilya Zhitomirskiy, who, along with some other NYU dudes that I knew from NYU, went on to found Diaspora*, a decentralized “anti-Facebook” social networking venture.

In November of 2011, Ilya committed suicide.

We could pause here to parse the potential causes of Ilya’s death. Was it the pressure of a tech parvenu who moves out to San Francisco right after graduation to face a daunting new career? Did Ilya have  mental health issues that existed before the rise of Diaspora*?

The point is that it doesn’t matter.

This past weekend Reddit founder and activist Aaron Swartz killed himself.

We could ask the same questions about Aaron, trying to locate a moment when things went awry, searching for order in the unthinkable.

The point is that it doesn’t matter.

Canadian hacker Nadim Kobeissi wrote a post following Swartz’s death that highlight many of the issues that we’re left to contend with. It’s called “Why young Hackers are Killing Themselves.”

The hacker community is plagued, and our plague is a plague of ruthlessness, of a lack of mutual reinforcement. A plague of keeping up appearances. A plague that has managed to convince us that seeing people and their efforts in black and white is alright. A plague that makes us believe that personal attacks are valid against hackers, programmers and entrepreneurs we don’t agree with, that defamation and harassment are valid weapons when our online personas are attacked, when there’s a project we don’t like or that we feel somehow threatens us. And the harassment can be ugly. It can be pervasive, as if those committing it see their target as part of a video game that they just know they can beat. It can involve race, sex, and intense gas-lighting and demoralization. It’s a plague that makes us all busy in regular part-time, making each other feel like failures. Criticize ideas, not people.

The point here is that even beyond causality and our palpable need to make sense of things following such tragedies, we still must contend with the way that disability affects our daily practices. And we must think about disability even in the most seemingly unlikely places, like in hacker spaces.

Many people with mental illnesses – or psychosocial disorders – tend not to want to identify as disabled. And for good reason, if we remember the horrible legacy of asylums and stigma that have surrounded the term for so long. But since I work in both disability studies and hacker culture, I’m thinking about a bridge between these terms that doesn’t flatten either to a one-dimensional, shame-ridden phrase.

Disability and hacking share much beyond their need to be emancipated from their negative connotations. They both have emancipatory potential, by – as McKenzie Wark would have it – creating abstractions in the world. Hacking and disability are about seeking out borders, transgressing them when we need to, and imagining new worlds. It’s about thinking vanward.

What’s remarkable for me as I think back on my class with Ilya Zhitomirskiy at NYU is how deeply I was invested in these questions even then. I wrote my senior thesis about the pleasures of hacking, which are so often about monomania and obsession and concentration and flow; things that entangle the mind and body into new configurations that demand that we reconfigure how we might think about “normalcy.” What I see in the necessary discussions we must have about disability in hacker communities starts with this obsession: how it can be good and indeed essential to deep hacking, but also when it can be bad and antithetical to deep hacking.

There’s no ideal time to talk about these things, because if we do it now, we trivialize Aaron’s death by talking about larger themes that may not really be born out by evidence from hacker circles. But if we wait, we run the risk of forgetting just how central these conversations should be.

So instead of making a sweeping call to action, I’ll do the only thing I think is appropriate right now. Here is my #pdftribute to Aaron. This is my undergraduate thesis, “The Pleasure of the Hack.”

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Culture Lab @ ASC.

The Culture Lab is a forum for researchers at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania committed to exploring, enriching, and elucidating the contours of culture and communication. We are interested in culture as it is, as it takes shape, and as it is remembered. We are interested, in other words, in culture anywhere that it exists.
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