This week, the New Press publishes The Boy Who Could Change the World: The Writings of Aaron Swartz , a collection of the writings of our late, lamented friend. The collection is introduced by Lawrence Lessig, and I wrote the introduction to Aaron's media writings, which you'll find below.
Like Aaron, I go around a lot and talk to people about stuff that I think is of burning importance: questions about whether the Internet will be a tool for unimaginable surveillance, control, and censorship, or whether it will be a tool for unprecedented democratic deliberation, collective action, creativity, and self-expression.
When it's over, inevitably someone will ask me how I think it'll all turn out. After all, I'm a science fiction writer. Isn't that a bit like being a futurist?
But being a science fiction writer is nothing like a futurist. Or shouldn't be, anyway. A science fiction writer who believes he can predict the future is like a drug peddler who star ts sampling the product—it never ends well. The point of science fiction is to talk about the present—to build a counterfactual world that illustrates some important fact about the present that is so vast and diffuse that it's hard to put your finger on.
When you go to the doctor with a sore throat, she'll swab it and touch the swab to a petri dish that goes into a cupboard for a day or two. When she gets it out again, the stuff that was on the swab will have multiplied into something that is visible with a convention- al microscope, ready for diagnosis. Science fiction writers do that to whole societies. We pluck a single technological fact out of the world around us, and we build a world in a bottle where that fact is the totalizing truth. Through a process of fiction, we take the reader on a tour of this thought experiment that gives him the power to intuit the way technology is flexing our reality, making the invisible visible.
The important fact about the petri dish with your throat gunk on it is that it is not an accurate model of your body. It's an incredibly simplified model of it, inaccurate in a specific and useful way. So it is with science fiction—its value is not in prediction but in description, in making the invisible visible.
Who wants to be a predictor, anyway? If the world was predictable, it would be foreordained, and what we do wouldn't matter. A world on rails is one in which everything we do is futile. Why, if you saw what Dante did to the fortune-tellers in Inferno, you'd—
So then they say, "Fine, fine, you're not a predictor. But what about optimism? Are you optimistic about the future or pessimistic?"
And that's when I really star t to channel my inner Aaron. Because that's exactly the wrong sort of question to ask. Of course I'm pessimistic about what would happen if the forces of reaction triumph and the Net is irreversibly used to wire up a system of totalitarian control that combines Orwell (surveillance) with Huxley (ubiquitous corporate messaging) and Kafka (guilt by Big Data algorithm).
But so what? The fact that I'm still doing something tells you the answer to the optimism/pessimism question. If I didn't think there was any hope of salvaging things, I wouldn't be out there kicking at the walls and shouting from the hilltops. Is that optimism?
I don't know. Call it hope instead.
And on second thought, even if I was convinced that nothing I did mattered, I'd still be out there. Because this world is people I love—my wife, my daughter, other family members, friends, some of you reading these words. And just as I wouldn't stop treading water if I was trying to keep my daughter afloat in an open sea, not until my last breath was gone and my legs wouldn't kick another stroke, even if I knew it wouldn't make a difference, I'd still keep kicking. If I weren't capable of another stroke, I'd still keep advocating for Net freedom even if I knew my efforts wouldn't make a difference.
Don't ask yourself whether the future will be good or bad. Don't ask yourself whether you are an optimist or a pessimist. Ask what you can do to make the world better. Live as though these are the first days of a better nation. Never give up.
The Boy Who Could Change the World: The Writings of Aaron Swartz [Aaron Swartz/New Press]
(Image: The Internet's Own Boy)