An Interview With Justin Peters

Justin Peters is a Slate correspondent and the author of The Idealist: Aaron Swartz and the Rise of Free Culture on the Internet. The book is about the life of Aaron Swartz, who was an American computer programmer, entrepreneur, writer, political organizer, and Internet hacktivist. He was involved in the development of the web feed format RSS and the Markdown publishing format, the organization Creative Commons, the website framework web.py, and the social news site Reddit, in which he became a partner after its merger with his company, Infogami.

Here is my interview with Justin about the story in his book The Idealist:

Armen: This book, through the concepts/quotes/messages/stories in it, the way you presented them, and your incisive usage of vocabulary, is a powerful entity. I associate with much of Aaron’s quotes and thoughts(and contacted my congressmen around SOPA time), as well as your tone in presenting them, and your added messages. It hits hard that the normal people go away. What drew you most to discussing his story?

Justin Peters: I had written about Aaron for Slate soon after he died. At the time, I was covering crime for Slate, and I initially approached the piece as if it were a crime story: a caper, an arrest, an indictment, a suicide. But the piece soon grew beyond my initial conception of it, and the more I learned about Aaron and his work, the more I came to believe that his story was broadly relevant as a lens on the ways in which information circulates through society in the digital age. I’ve been fascinated by these issues for years, and Aaron’s story seemed to present a great opportunity to examine them in detail and really put things into historical context.

Armen: Jay-Z has a lyric where he says “foolish pride held me together through the years I wasn’t felt”. Did Aaron have this type of pride to power through, or was it something else that propelled him in his early years?

Justin Peters: I don’t know if it was pride that propelled him so much as passion for ideas. Aaron wasn’t motivated by the prospect of personal reward or public recognition, or really by the need to have the world deem him important, to have powerful people know his name. He got all of those things, but he didn’t seek them. Mostly, he just wanted to make the rest of the world see the things he saw; to help other people recognize and fix flawed systems.

Armen: Your presentation of the events and communications leading up to the Eldred vs. Ashcroft case certainly gave me, as a reader, the dramatic and cooperative feeling that they had at the time. You mentioned that professor/attorney Lessig later said he should have approached the Supreme Court in a moral manner, instead of strictly legal. Do you think he was nervous about deviating from a professorial presentation, or that he didn’t consider an alternative?

Justin Peters: I think that Lessig truly believed that his case was good enough that he didn’t have to resort to rhetorical tricks and moral arguments. He may have been nervous, sure — I think that the Supreme Court appearance was only the second time that he had ever argued a case in open court — but I think it was more that he felt the Copyright Term Extension Act was clearly ill-conceived and unconstitutional, and that, as long as he presented the facts in a clear and precise manner, the Justices would come to the same conclusion.

Armen: I noticed a level of camaraderie or acknowledgement in your comments throughout the book toward Aaron and his battles. Would you say you identify with him, and what might you tell him today, were he to reappear on maybe a Project Gutenberg 3D VR edition?

Justin Peters: I respect the hell out of Aaron, and I like him, but I don’t know that I identify with him per se. I don’t feel things as deeply as Aaron felt things; I lack the clarity of vision that he seemed to have. I’m not one to go out and lead rallies or political movements; I’m certainly not one to take direct action to remediate social injustice. I don’t know what I’d tell him if he were to reappear on a Project Gutenberg 3D VR edition. “Don’t kill yourself,” most likely.

Armen: As you spend a portion of your time in Boston, do you look at MIT (and possibly Harvard) differently after the stance they took, or their lack of mitigation of the situation Swartz was in? In general, does his plight cause you to pause in some form as you look around?

Justin Peters: Absolutely. For years I was enamored of MIT. I completely bought into the school’s image as a haven for curiosity. I used to think of it as the antidote to Harvard, actually. My wife used to work there, and I spent a lot of time wandering the halls, marveling that the doors were never locked, that all the people I met in all seemed to be working on novel and exciting projects. I even wrote my grad school thesis about a Media Lab research project. I bought what MIT was selling. It wasn’t until I wrote my book that I started to realize the extent to which MIT serves as a bought-and-paid-for R&D lab for government and industry; began to realize that MIT produces lots of knowledge but very little wisdom.

Thanks goes out to Justin for taking part in questions about his writing and the life of Aaron.

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