Cory Doctorow, science fiction author and digital activist, discussed “Hackers + Activism: Aaron Swartz, Anonymous and the Ethics of Digital Community” in the First Amendment Forum Monday, hosted by the ASU Center for Science and the Imagination. Doctorow was joined by Dawn Gilpin, assistant professor at the Cronkite School, and Jade Meskill, CEO of Integrum.
The event’s namesake, Aaron Swartz, was an Internet pioneer who was involved in the development of RSS and Reddit. He committed suicide one month ago. Swartz had been under investigation by the government in a case that many, including Doctorow, have said was an example of overly strict enforcement of Internet law.
Doctorow described the big breakthrough of the Internet as the lowering of the “cooperation cost” between collaborators, which has allowed for decentralized collaboration and a new generation of web-based activism.
As an example of the broader effects of information sharing, Doctorow said that in a pre-Internet era, a project like Wikipedia would have to be coordinated by a “fleet of trucks to move file cabinets around the country.” Now, the comparative difficulty for anyone with an Internet connection to view or edit an article is next to nothing.
Doctorow said the hacking group Anonymous was an example of the new power of Internet users — defined not as a group, but as “an activity… that allows you to work together without any obvious coordinating force.”
“If pulling together to make a group is really cheap, and to work on an issue is really cheap, then it doesn’t matter if you know that in the formation of your group are the seeds of its collapse in two months because you only need to hang together for one month for this issue,” he said.
Gilpin warned against the ease of “slacktivism,” where online activists may “feel like they’re doing something when really they’re maintaining the status quo.” The speakers pointed to online petitions as an example because they are easy to sign without further commitment and can be frivolous — like the recent petition for the construction of a Death Star.
“To be able to take risks, to be an activist, is a privilege,” Gilpin said. “You have to have something to lose.”
Privacy in the online landscape was a major theme of the discussion.
“There’s an upcoming generation who really doesn’t care that much about their privacy,” Meskill said. “They’re pretty willing to put things out there and forget the consequences.”
Doctorow disagreed that young people don’t care about privacy and said a variety of factors are leading to widespread misunderstanding of how to protect privacy online.
“I think we have a species-wide problem with understanding, a priori, what the costs of privacy trade-offs will be. That’s because privacy is part of the classic public health problems where you have grave consequences separated by an enormous time and space from decisions.”
Doctorow said young people are unable to get feedback on their privacy decisions fast enough to adapt or improve. He referred to the “Zuckerberg doctrine” of social media, the “absolutely sociopathic idea that people only have one identity, and you are two-faced if you don’t whisper the same thing in your lover’s ear as you say to your grandmother or your toddler.”
In a society of hyperattentive helicopter parents and wiretapping state surveillance, “kids aren’t allowed to care about privacy, they don’t have any devices that allow them to be more private, and even if they cared about privacy they couldn’t do anything,” Swartz said.
The rapidly changing face of technology has also upended traditional ideas of copyright and media. Copyright law reform is a major area of interest for Doctorow, and he said that new possibilities have necessitated clearer copyright laws rather than more enforcement of overly nuanced legislation.
“Yes, it was technically illegal for my grandparents to copy a record album,” Doctorow said. “It was also probably illegal for them to carve their names on the moon with a green laser, but the reason they didn’t do it was that it was impossible.”
The Twitter hashtag #doctorowASU used by the audience was trending in Phoenix by the end of the event. Video of the discussion can be viewed courtesy of the Center for Science and the Imagination. Doctorow is on a national tour promoting his latest novel, “Homeland.”
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