Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand is famously credited with the saying "information wants to be free", but it was hacktivist wunderkind Aaron Swartz who took his quote as marching orders and set out to actually make it free – with both troubling and thought provoking results. The new book The Idealist: Aaron Swartz and the Rise of Free Culture on The Internet by Justin Peters reads like a highly contextualized biography of Swartz and the history and circumstances that led to his tragically taking his own life in 2013 rather than face what most characterize as an overly aggressive federal prosecution for anonymously downloading massive amounts of academic articles from the JSTOR database. Peters veers off from the Swartz storyline multiple times to give context and a sense of history to the complex history of intellectual property in the US, something that he is criticized for in Stephen Witt’s NYT Sunday Book Review of the book. But I loved the veering off and the lively and accessible prose that Peters uses here. Aaron Swartz believed deeply in the power of open access to information as the central idea that makes our democracy so powerful. I will leave it to readers of this book to make up their own minds about the status of that ideal today and what they are willing to do about it. Highly recommended!
For more about Swartz and his story, I recommend the great documentary The Internet’s Own Boy.