dim light under the panopticon (thinking about Aaron Swartz)

I have been reading this New Yorker article on Aaron Swartz, which is quite justly making the rounds of the internet this morning. And of all the threads that twine through it and around me and make me think, the one I want to talk about is this: context.

It jumps out at me, over and over, that what Aaron Swartz did in a data closet at MIT was not merely licit in his local social context, but was outright condoned by its norms. The sort of thing people laugh and wink about, or even give you social capital for. Had his actions stayed in their context they would have passed silently away, maybe even been a good story to tell at parties. It must have been breathtaking when they proved to exist outside that context. When strangers’ norms applied. When some other context claimed jurisdiction, and pushed back.

Of course we have all had times when actions or remarks we performed in, and for, one social context leaked to another, where they were not received as our intended audience would receive them, where someone pushed back. And I suspect the more disenfranchised you are, the more you find yourself having to exist simultaneously in multiple social contexts, to live in or look for the Venn-diagram space you can navigate among them.

But I think, too, this is one of the fundamental conditions of the digital age, an accelerant we’re not, as humans, cognitively equipped for. We all, insofar as we live out loud, live in multiple contexts now. And they are contexts we do not know; contexts removed from us by space or time or social boundaries. Our actions can be taken from our contexts in ways we did not even know existed, can resurface in ways we cannot even imagine — because no one of us can imagine the ways that billions of people, using technologies perhaps not even yet invented, can see us.

I think my daughter’s generation will be better at this than we are. I think they will of necessity come up with ways to forgive, to look the other way. To recognize we live in multiple contexts, each with different standards of appropriateness, rules, incentives. Because we do and we have to and if we try to live in such a way that anything we ever do or say will be safe in any context it could ever come to light in — people we don’t know, norms we don’t know, exposed by technologies we don’t know, perhaps without our knowledge or consent — we’ll all be utterly paralyzed. Incapable of choice. And (more comfortable on the individual scale, but worse on the societal one) colorless. We’ll leach ourselves of personality or difference in horror that any of our jagged edges should ever prove to cut some way we can’t handle.

I am aware that technologies not yet invented will expose me in ways I cannot dream. That information buried now inside of images or sound will become ever-more searchable, that nontextual indexing and inputs will make new ways to ask and answer questions, that the tools for interrogating big data in human-friendly ways will be more developed and then democratized and then ubiquitous, that our interfaces will go from bricks in our pockets to implants in our bodies, from things we must use in some socially conspicuous way to things we can use with unseen signals, the twitches of electricity along muscle fibers.

I’ve been exposed. I’ve been online since 1991, a small and quiet internet, all anonymous corners and openness and exploratory wonder, an internet of MUDs and mailing lists and gopher, invisible colleges and friendly people and pseudonyms and ytalk and places I could find connection the world around me did not readily offer. I put a lot of myself on the internet before there was Google, before I’d thought to dream about discoverability. A smaller, quieter, wilder, more anonymous, less personalized, more individual, safer internet. And when I was a teacher almost twenty years later some students of mine using a technology that had not existed at the time I lived that life so quietly out loud found bits of me from when I was their age and proceeded to treat me the way middle schoolers treat nerdy introverted teenage girls who situate themselves within the sphere of deviance. I know what context leaks are like.

And yet…and yet. Here I am. I know it will happen, again and again and again, in spaces I can’t dream of, in ways that feel just as threatening and vulnerable. Maybe in ways with higher stakes. And I could be quiet about everything, be nothing but pseudonyms and PGP and cash-only transactions and barely leaving the house, could look for ways to protect myself from all the threats known and unknown, could try to imagine and defend against them all. Be paralyzed. Be colorless.

Or I could do this thing where a lot of me is in public, more than I would have imagined I’d be comfortable with. Because I do benefit from it, do thrive on making connections to people in known and unknown contexts, do have things to say. And choose to close my eyes. It’s a little lie I tell myself. A big lie. But it lets me function.

My daughter’s generation will develop better social technologies for handling context, because they are growing up in a world where they have to. Maybe not good social technologies, because I don’t think human social brains are equipped to be good at this, but better ones. And we will find their norms puzzling and dangerous. Kids these days. Don’t they understand? See the threats we see? We’ll be off to the side, uncomfortable.

But those norms, if they work, they’ll be built around another of the things people have been saying in the Aaron Swartz story all along, people who knew him, people who are wiser than I: only connect. Take care of each other. Be kind and forgive. Don’t be colorless — don’t file off all your jagged edges lest they sometime someone hurt or offend — please, don’t be colorless. We’re fragile and strange, and my favorite people tend to be more fragile and strange still, and we’ll hurt each other and misunderstand, but let’s try to give one another the benefit of the doubt over that, to find forbearance, to love one another not in spite of but for our fallibility, to stumble toward our little bits of the light together, holding out our hands for one another.

3 thoughts on “dim light under the panopticon (thinking about Aaron Swartz)

  1. The older I get and the most contexts I find myself unintentionally inhabiting the more grateful I am to my elders for teaching me the value of self-awareness and integrity. Because when I do find myself misunderstood or outside the bounds of the norms of a separate context, there is so much comfort in knowing that I do not misunderstand myself. And should someone from across contextual boundaries want to challenge or question my utterances or behaviors, I generally feel fairly prepared to do that.

    I can only hope that as we grow in these new ways that there will also be an abundance of forbearance, love and forgiveness for those times when people will not reach across the boundaries to ask or engage.


  2. That last paragraph sums up why I am open about depression – it’s those days when I feel all jagged around the edges, like a wounded animal (today being one of them), I need to connect the most. And those that can accept it are those that comfort me the most.


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