Think about these things, reader. Don’t sigh and turn the page. Think that I have written them and you have read them, and the odds against either of us ever having existed are greater by far than one to all of the atoms in creation.
We said after the Holocaust we’d never forget; we said it after Darfur. We probably said it after the mass rapes of Bosnia and Rwanda, but maybe that was more of a “we shouldn’t forget,” since there was so much global guilt that we just sort of sat back and let similar tragedies occur since and only came to the realization later — we forgot.
Could we have forgotten that the unfolding human catastrophe in Syria exists before it’s even over?
Over the past few weeks, the drip of news stories talking of “skivvers” laughing at the hard-working as they claim their benefits has leaked across the newspapers of Britain.
Today Prime Minister David Cameron gave a speech on the new tough approach to curbing the payouts received by migrants, apparently coming here to merely enjoy the British state’s generosity (there is in fact no such thing as Government plans roll out across the country.)
What’s most disturbing in this story is the fact that Cameron is waging war against a largely imagined war. The rhetoric has been turned up fiercely on Eastern European migrants, after an influx of Polish migrants when they were allowed to move under European law freely. Of the two million Eastern European migrants that have settled in Britain after the 2004 joining, only 13,000 have actually registered for job seekers allowance.
Other hackers have killed themselves, too. Before there was Aaron Swartz, there was Ilya Zhitomirskiy, a 22-year-old founder of the social-network site Diaspora*, frequently described as the “anti-Facebook” because it gives users control over their personal data rather than packaging it for advertisers. Before Ilya, there was Len Sassaman, a brilliant cryptographer who helped make Internet communications anonymous, especially when governments or powerful corporations might want to nose in on them. Before Sassaman, there was Christopher Lightfoot, who was revered for his daring, Swartz-style bulk downloads of British government data. And before Lightfoot, there was Gene Kan, who made a name for himself in the peer-to-peer movement—the technology used to swap music and video files outside the reach of their copyright holders.
The particulars of each case were different, of course. Like Swartz, Sassaman had the occasional run-in with the government over his online exploits. Kan seemed to briefly make his peace with the powers-that-be by going to work for Sun Microsystems, the Silicon Valley giant. And, in any case, who can really say why anyone might take that tragic, irreversible step? But all in their own way came across as highly concentrated distillations of computer hacker culture: precocious, technically brilliant, bracingly idealistic. All were prone to disillusionment when reality fell short of their vision for it.
The piece ends on a tough question — whether we should put such child prodigies on a pedestal. “We want people doing this work, of course—in many cases, we need them doing it,” Noam Scheiber writes. “It’s just far from clear that we want them doing it before they can drive a car or buy a beer. In Aaron Swartz’s case, too many adults refused to see that a child isn’t a messiah or even a leader of men, however brilliant he may be. A child is just a child.” Thoughts? Agree/disagree?