The Political Animal

Aaron Swartz and “Hactivision”


When did it happen? When did technology become knowledge? When did code become wisdom? When did Greek gods become geek gods? When did the new product rollout or the tech-conference stage and back screen become lectern and altar, the new stained-glass backdrop for the church of futurism?

An eighteen or thirty or twenty-five year old super programmer, or hacker, is an eighteen or thirty or twenty-five year old super programmer or hacker, not the Übermensch of free flowing data humanizing itself in the transformations of digital hyperspace, the reorganization of energy into bits. To know how to code things, to know how to get things, is not the same as to know things.

I am sorry about Aaron Swartz, sorry for his family, for those who knew and cared for him. Much was lost – great talent and intelligence, a human being with, it seems, some troubles.

This is not about that.

Nor is it about the legitimacy of Swartz’s complaints against JSTOR or the severity of the Justice Department’s prosecution.

This is about revolutions in technology being confused with a revolution in human relations, the ethical conditions of being. Increasingly, the wizards themselves and their cultural acolytes, who think they see the future, cannot see the plain truths before them.

As good a newsman as there is, Warren Olney, promo-ed his To the Point radio program with a reference to Swartz’s “passion for information.” MSNBC’s Chris Hayes stated that

at the time of his death Aaron was being prosecuted by the federal government and threatened with up to 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines for the crime of — and I’m not exaggerating here — downloading too many free articles from the online database of scholarly work JSTOR.

Hayes called Swartz “one of those preternaturally brilliant, precocious hackers,” “a kind of 21st century, nerd renaissance man” who, like Hayes, was a fellow, ironically, at Harvard’s Safra Center for Ethics.

Much of the moral confusion of whole segments of the population derives from their worshipping digital code above the alphabetical, and the ideas that the latter should discriminate before the former acts to disseminate them.

Swartz had a “passion for information.” And Willie Sutton had a passion for money. (He robbed banks, he said, “because that’s where the money is.”) The question is how they got them. Hayes, a very smart man, says that Swartz obtained his information from JSTOR by – he’s not exaggerating – “downloading” it. Download– what a conveniently generic term, covering up the self-delusion by which the user obscures the method and means of the download. It is as if download represents a regressive barbarity of language in which the loss of distinction leaves us only with the non-cyber “take,” and we do not pause to consider how we take – by receipt of being given, let’s say, or in purchase, by pocket picking or at gun point, or, perhaps more apt in Swartz’s case, cat burglary. Demand Progress, an organization Swartz founded, says that it runs

online campaigns to rally people to take action on the news that affects them — by contacting Congress and other leaders, funding pressure tactics, and spreading the word in their own communities.

There is no reference to second-story jobs.

What Swartz did was to use, without the authorization of either MIT or JSTOR, in words from Wikipedia,

MIT’s data network to bulk-download a substantial portion of JSTOR’s collection of millions of academic journal articles.

According to sources all over the Internet, in its statement defending Swartz, Demand Progress saidthat the Justice Department’s indictment of Swartz was like

trying to put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library.

Have we truly entered an age in which so many smart and learned people cannot grasp the simple distinction between checking books out of the library and breaking into the library and taking them? Would the young genius who conceived the better lock pick and committed that transgression be feted as a wise and revolutionary soul? And we see how those who make these slap dash arguments of entitled self-justification deceive themselves by honoring the word and the idea far less than they do data and information. So much information. So little of being informed.

In the Sunday New York Times The Stone feature, Peter Ludlow, a philosopher of language at Northwestern University, fudged the language wearing a scholar’s toque. In “What Is a ‘Hacktivist’?” Ludlow expresses concern about “letting the demonization of hacktivists go unanswered.”

“Lexical Warfare” is a phrase that I like to use for battles over how a term is to be understood.


Over the past few years we’ve watched a lexical warfare battle slowly unfold in the treatment of the term “hacktivism.” There has been an effort to redefine what the word means and what kinds of activities it describes; at the same time there has been an effort to tarnish the hacktivist label so that anyone who chooses to label themselves as such does so at their peril.

In the simplest and broadest sense, a hacktivist is someone who uses technology hacking to effect social change. The conflict now is between those who want to change the meaning of the word to denote immoral, sinister activities and those who want to defend the broader, more inclusive understanding of hacktivist. [Emphasis added]

How simple Ludlow makes the case. How unclear. Simple and broad make for porous definitions. “Someone who uses technology,” for instance – well, that’s me writing these words on computer software. It’s also the cop tasering someone. It’s the “hacktavist” committing a denial of service attack on Bank of America – and I’m not sticking up for them – when you can’t make the online transfer of the funds you need in order to cover that check.

“Effect social change”? That’s a voter, a petition, a demonstration, a civil rights movement in which Martin Luther King, Jr. broke obscene and discriminatory laws in acts of civil disobedience and nonetheless accordingly still went to jail in Birmingham, Alabama. It’s also a revolutionary crowd swarming the Winter Palace and tanks on the streets of Santiago, Chile overthrowing Salvador Allende. These alleffect social change.

Are we clear now on the definition of “hacktavist”?

Since Ludlow marshals his own army in the lexical warfare over hactivist, I suppose, he chooses then to fail to explore more fundamentally the lexical origins of the word. It is itself a hacked term, a portmanteau joining the social and political intentions of “activist” with the meaning of “hack” and “hacker” themselves. A staid old source such as Merriam-Webster (but online!) offers as the fourth, relevant definition of the former

a : to write computer programs for enjoyment

b : to gain access to a computer illegally

Already we see the split in directions. Already we see, too, that the related but variant meanings constitute not an ongoing war, as Ludlow would have it, but a settled peace: two established definitions and the affirmative one actually given precedence over the pejorative. Why is that? It is because conceptually the pejorative meaning is formed from the affirmative. Here is the more cutting edge Urban Dictionary.

1. Hack


To program a computer in a clever, virtuosic, and wizardly manner. Ordinary computer jockeys merely write programs; hacking is the domain of digital poets. Hacking is a subtle and arguably mystical art, equal parts wit and technical ability, that is rarely appreciated by non-hackers. See hacker.

2. To break into computer systems with malicious intent. This sense of the term is the one that is most commonly heard in the media, although sense 1 is much more faithful to its original meaning. Contrary to popular misconception, this sort of hacking rarely requires cleverness or exceptional technical ability; most so-called “black hat” hackers rely on brute forcetechniques or exploit known weaknesses and the incompetence of system administrators.

3. To jury-rig or improvise something inelegant but effective, usually as a temporary solution to a problem. See noun sense 2.

Number 3 provides the link between 1 and 2. The clever, virtuosic wizardry of meaning number 1 leads to the jury-rigging and improvisation of meaning number 3. Jury-rigging and improvisation lead to finding ways to “break into computer systems” in meaning number 2, yet  “inelegant but effective” in 3 denote the aesthetic response that meaning 1 offers as a critique of meaning 2 – the separation of the good hack from the bad, the good hacker from the bad hacker. And the goodhacktavist from the bad one? It’s like the aesthetic quality of scientific theory: the good ones, theorists believe, the accurate ones it is their faith, are simple and beautiful. So, too, apparently believe the hackers. However, there is something more to the distinction, a little time bomb in the definition that blows a hole in personal responsibility: notice that in meaning number 2, bad hacking is breaking into computer systems with “malicious intent.” Notice that in the Merriam-Webster definition above, the distinguishing term is not intent, malicious or otherwise, but “illegality.”

The hactivist’s hack is only bad if it is malicious. If the hacker is teaching his favorite political bogeyman a lesson, or through the bogeyman the rest of us – by pointing out the corporation’s cyber vulnerabilities, or challenging a non-profit’s regulation of its content, or questioning the legitimacy of government secrecy – then all is well. Because the hacker means well. He’s not malicious.

Ludlow is at rather comical pains to make hacktivists warm and cuddly. When he is not looking very deeply into the language he claims to be analyzing, he is recounting his attendance at a

birthday party in Germany for Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who was turning 34. As it happened, Domscheit-Berg had also been the spokesperson for Wikileaks and, after Julian Assange, the group’s most visible person. He had left the organization in 2010, and now he had a new venture, OpenLeaks. The party was also meant to be a coming out party for OpenLeaks.

What does Ludlow find there?

When I arrived at the house the first thing I noticed was a large vegetable garden outside. The second thing I noticed was that a tree out front had been fitted out with a colorful knit wool sweater. This was the effort of Daniel’s wife Anke — “knit hacking,” she called it. And around the small town I saw evidence of her guerilla knit hacking. The steel poles of nearby street signs had also been fitted with woolen sweaters. Most impressively, though, a World War II tank, sitting outside a nearby former Nazi concentration camp for women had also been knit-hacked; the entire barrel of the tank’s gun had been fit with a tight colorful wool sweater and adorned with some woolen flowers for good measure.

One is surprised not read of the knit wool sweaters in their hair. Apparently Ludlow traveled to somewhere outside of Berlin by way of San Francisco 1967, and where the tanks have been beat into key strokes.

It is not merely that a lot of untutored or sloppy thinkers – or lexical warriors – are missing the point, the point of taking responsibility for one’s actions in the collective that is any society and its regulating rules of behavior; we see in the disparity between the Merriam-Webster and Urban Dictionary definitions that the abandonment of responsibility is built in: all that matters for the hacker and his supporters are their intentions, as they judge them, and not any social obligation to abide by laws or – if conscience so directs them – to accept responsibility for breaking laws. They claim not only the right to determine on their own what laws, what regulations, what terms of service, what secrets are legitimate, but freedom from review, from judgment by others, from facing the price of transgressive acts.

Some defenders of Swartz have argued that JSTOR itself declined to pursue charges against him. Does a business owner’s decision, for whatever reason, not to pursue civil action against an individual for breaking and entering into his property absolve the individual of criminal violation? Some of Swartz’s defenders have criticized MIT, from some vague sense of intellectual solidarity, for not also speaking in his defense. In defense of what, Swartz’s hijacking of MIT’s data network in order to break through the JSTOR’s access walls?

The cocoon of like-minded, ill-considered, self-justifying and aggrandizing rationalization of this culture is a site to behold. But it’s not a vision of the future. It’s the same old blinders.


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Culture Clash

Higgs Boson, or What’s the Meta in Metaphor for?


Let’s get God out of the way to start. The Higgs Boson particle/field is not the God particle. (I keep telling everyone – the neutral B-meson is the God particle.) In part because of that name, and, certainly, the momentous confirmation at the largest site of physics experimentation in the world of a near sixty-year-old mathematically theorized element of the Standard Model for explaining the universal forces (whew!), the general public has taken a greater than usual interest in the doings and don’tings of particle physics.

Has come, then, the question from parts far and wide, “Do you really understand what this thing is?”

This, too, is unusual, because generally speaking, when people talk about particle physics at the breakfast table or over their martinis, it is pretty commonly accepted as being not worth the effort to mention that they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Why, now, the big deal?

Well, God, I guess.

But let’s, as I say, forget about God. Let’s consider “understanding.” (Not “peace” and “love,” for now – just understanding.) What do we mean by that word?

Among the more read and discussed expressions of mystification over the Higgs Boson have been several by Robert Wright, at his Atlantic blog. The Wall Street Journal even took one of them up as the basis for its own call for humility. Wrote Wright, and the WSJ in citing him,

In sum: I personally continue to have no idea what the Higgs boson is. And I think the physicists who ‘understand’ what it is can do so only because they don’t have the layperson’s compulsion to think about the world in ways that are ultimately metaphorical. Or, at least, these physicists have dropped the idea that to truly understand something is to have a crystal-clear metaphor in your mind, a metaphor that doesn’t break down at any point and doesn’t contain internal contradictions. For them, apprehending a purely mathematical description of something is tantamount to comprehending it.

Now, again, this normally is not an issue. Have Wright and the rest until now lived contentedly in complete knowledge of what a charmed quark is, but are only now finding themselves fully up against the brick wall of understanding in their attempt to fathom the Higgs Boson? No, and my interest here is not in enlightening anyone about HB, but in challenging a rather dim presentation of what knowledge is, including the usual cheap devaluation of metaphor.

Knowledge – or the word that Wright carelessly uses in its stead, understanding – is not one thing only.  Many thinkers have subdivided it. One fundamental division from the last century, from information science, is known, in ascending profundity, as DIKW: data, information, knowledge, wisdom. Some formulations exclude wisdom. Some replace it with – hey! – understanding.

(The exclusion of wisdom sometimes is not casual. Data – as they say about dying and living – is easy; wisdom is hard. Let’s just get rid of it…)

Then there is, from the field of education, Bloom’s Taxonomy of educational objectives, which presents its own hierarchy of ascending degrees of knowledge. In Bloom’s pyramid, as we see, “knowledge” so called is actually the lowest order cognitive skill.

I can say for instance – probably you too – that I “know” the formula for atomic energy. Sure: E=MC2. Ha! But do I – to move to the next level – comprehend it. (There is no question, take my word for it, whether I can bring any applied knowledge – next level up again – to bear on whatever it is I know. I cannot produce atomic energy.) The answer depends on what we mean by “comprehend” and is one of the two points at which I think Wright makes himself dull.

Do I, any more than Wright, and likely you, comprehend the mathematics behind the formula? I do not. To the extent that ultimate reality – the constituent structure of the universe, and the inciting event that caused that structure to arise – is expressible in numbers, only the mathematicians and physicists who have the math comprehend the deepest levels of what we know of it.

If that is what we mean by comprehend…

If we are modern day Pythagoreans, sworn to the mysteries of our secret society and convinced that the universe is really numbers, a numerically encoded Matrix presenting itself in appearance, as astral bodies, frequencies and rays, attractions and repulsions. As if, in analogy, we were to present this

and say that is what a human being is in his or her totality.

There are many scientists who believe so.  Lawrence Kraus, most recently, publically does. To explain the physical origin and workings of the universe, goes this way of thinking, is to explain the universe. All the rest is contingent human creation and, thus, a form of meaning we make only for ourselves, and not, therefore, an integral element of reality contributing to its greater account. That belief is a subject for another day, but such an assertion about reality is an entirely unsupported claim, and not thereby dispositive – no proof one way or the other – and a faith in itself if clung to absent a different kind of humility than the kind of which Wright spoke.

There is manifest and abundant evidence of features to our reality beyond the merely physical. For most of human existence, people have made of those features a sandbox for castle creation, the wonders of an imaginary architecture. That history then leads the more literal, less figurative minded among us to dismiss those elements as mere fancy, or worse. Data does not give them foundation, support their ultimate truth, and we have no reliable standard other than the data. There is, too, no reason other than the mere assertion of God‘s existence and nature to expect the universe to meet our expectations – not even that of the scientists, that the universe is, finally, orderly and mathematically beautiful. God, Einstein famously said, speaking of something other, does not play dice with the universe.

So maybe, contra the Eleusinian mysteries, the parables of Jesus, the visions of Plato and Hegel and the ratiocinations of Kant, not to mention the insights of the Buddha and the ineffable flights of poetry – maybe the real elect among us are, lo, the physicists, and the answer to it all, all our coming and going, a series of mathematical calculations, and that, friends and family, is finally the accounting of what we can call wisdom in the world.

Could be.

And all the rest merely the most enduring matinee, with a late, late curtain, any of us could ever have imagined.

Or maybe, let us consider, metaphor is not just a curlicue of the imagination, a rhetorical ornament of language, a human trill between data points. That is the common derogation. Affirming to a non-literary colleague not long ago my general antipathy for political poetry – because of its usual attachment to the politics in negligence of the poetry – my untutored fellow understood me to lament a lack of metaphor. She thought I meant that political poetry is not pretty enough, and metaphor is a ball gown for a literary coronation. That is what most people think who are not readers, or only passingly so, of poetry and literary prose.

What, though, if unlike Wright, we did not believe of physicists that, along with the math, they can understand Higgs Boson

only because they don’t have the layperson’s compulsion to think about the world in ways that are ultimately metaphorical. Or, at least, these physicists have dropped the idea that to truly understand something is to have a crystal-clear metaphor in your mind, a metaphor that doesn’t break down at any point and doesn’t contain internal contradictions.

I rather do not think that most people believe that “to truly understand something is to have a crystal-clear metaphor in your mind.” Most people, I think, believe what Wright seems to – that metaphor constitutes in varying degrees (depending on how clear or breakable is the figure of speech) some rude pretense of understanding. A fake kind of knowledge. “I mean, sure, I understand the words, sentence by sentence …” says Wright. But he still doesn’t get it, he says.

As long as we think of metaphor as a colored glass through which to see reality prettily and differently from what it really is, we limit what metaphor can be, which is itself another way of knowing. It is true that metaphor can be no more than just that filigree to place around an object. It can be bad, often is. There is lots of mistaken math, too, and high flying scientific theory that does not pan out. The bad does not obviate the good. What, though, of thinking about metaphor as a pick that cracks open the object and reveals it? What if it is a Buddhist koan intended first to confound, a Zen master’s slap to the face meant to startle? That is, for instance, what catachresis is – a jarring, paradoxical, even senseless metaphor, an unknown meteor crashing out of your head instead of the gentle rain of an oft-told tale on your noggin, lulling you to sleep.

Wright offers in another post,

For example, Garance writes that bosons are a special kind of particle: two of them can inhabit the same space at the same time. Now, that by itself just doesn’t make intuitive sense. We don’t think of two rocks as being able to inhabit the same space–or two pebbles or two grains of sand. Garance acknowledges the problem and suggests we think of bosons not as particles but as “entities”. Sorry–doesn’t help. To the extent that I can envision something as generic as an “entity” at all, I think of it as a “thing”–and in my intuitive universe two “things” can’t inhabit the same space.

Here he seems purposely to be boxing himself in. He cannot conceive anything other than the way it already is in the world? He has never seen a double exposure in a photo, a dissolve and superimposition in a film? He cannot imagine the sub-atomic level (come on, Bob, be that microscopic eye zooming in) at which it is revealed that matter is mostly empty space? Cannot pretend, then, the particles of each thing might occupy the empty space of the other? Never listened to a Firesign Theater recording? (How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All.)

He never lived in contradiction, with what Keats called negative capability?

Mere metaphor is a one-trick pony, a blind man holding an elephant’s trunk. The best metaphor, metaphor that enlightens, does not simply offer observation of the world; it puts us in relationship to it, and no account of reality that does not include us and our consciousness of the world, of our being in it and in relation to it, is remotely complete.

The map is not the territory.




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