The prophet Aaron Swartz

Writers write on this Internet Freedom Day, and so I write.

In 1985, an unknown songwriter named Julie Gold birthed a tune that would become one of the classics of a generation. Always a favorite regardless of who recorded the song, it wasn’t until Bette Midler’s version in 1990 that most of us heard “From A Distance.” Do yourself a favor right now, and click on the link below and watch and listen.

The hook of the song is the powerful and emotional refrain that, from a distance, “God is watching us.” This song came to mind over the past week and wouldn’t let me go as I read about and pondered the death of Aaron Swartz, the techno-prodigy-rockstar who took his own life at the age of 26. Never before have I witnessed the denizens of the network come together in harmony around the death of a pioneer-legend, and it has been a rare kind of corporate look into the soul of Western humanity. It reminds me very much of the counterculture soul of the 60s, and perhaps that’s why I feel so deeply emotional over this tragedy.

It’s because Swartz’s life wasn’t so much about his immense talent as it was about how he used his talent, for the liberty of all. As Jay Rosen pointed out beautifully, Swartz could have been a billionaire but chose a different path.

He could have tried to develop the next YouTube and sell it to Google for a billion dollars, he had the skills for that, but the only thing that really mattered to him was the fight for Internet freedom, which included taking part in democratic politics. That conception of the good, in someone so young, is deeply moving to me.

I didn’t know Aaron, though I knew of his legend, but from what I have read about him he was one of those people (Timothy Berners Lee, the founder of the World Wide Web and Richard Stallman, the founder of the free software movement, are both like this) who believe that if someone is in need of knowledge and you can provide it, but you don’t, you are guilty of a crime against the human spirit. (See this.)

The cause of Internet freedom, which is very often a radical cause, is radical in just this sense: let all who are hungry eat. Farewell, Aaron, my child. Your cause is just.

I feel similarly touched by this, but my thoughts are drawn more to those of the spirit of humanity upon which Jay touches. We’re coming up on the 52nd anniversary of the inauguration of John F. Kennedy as president. I remember his speech well, and the charismatic and forceful way in which it was delivered. Communism and the bomb were common enemies, and Kennedy had a wonderful way of threatening our foes while at the same time putting his arm around them. Of course, the speech is remembered most for its conclusion:

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.

My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

The counterculture movement in the U.S. was energized that day, and it has lived on in the likes of people such as Aaron Swartz. The press saw it as one thing back then, but those of us engaged in its mission were aroused and inspired by President Kennedy. We were devastated by his murder in 1963, but the cause — as he framed it — lives on even today.

I have to hold back much of what I feel in the wake of Swartz’s death, for to do otherwise would open the door to a form of criticism that I don’t wish to entertain right now. Some day, perhaps, but not now. We ARE spiritual beings, however, and suffice it to say that God IS watching us (from a distance and from within) and talking to us at the same time. Life (with a capital L) talks to us in many ways, and the prophets of history have all paid a stiff price for the privilege of carrying the message.

Prophets were and are interesting and unusual people. They’re not necessarily the kinds of folks that you’d want to bring home to mom with a big grin, saying, “Hey, everybody, here’s my friend, prophet Harry.” The status quo doesn’t generally care for prophets, preferring profits instead. Yet, our history is filled with the wisdom of those who’ve “touched” the raw creative energy that is Life and tried to pass what they found along to the rest of us. Usually, however, we seem unable to “listen” or breathe in that which they are trying to impart. Argue with me if you wish, and if it’s necessary, call me a nutcase, but Aaron Swartz was a prophet, and I know that for two reasons. One, his knowledge was almost otherworldly and could only have come from that same raw source of creative energy, what Richard Adams called “The Unbroken Web.” Those who touch this have always been in our midst, and they’re always a bit “different,” for a venture near the edge cannot help but influence the lives of those who’ve been there and often with tragic results. Two, he eschewed the trappings of the world to teach us that there was serious evil in our midst, although we didn’t, couldn’t, or wouldn’t recognize it. Most of all, the way he gave of himself was godlike, and so I am deeply touched by this man and this event.

The difference between a criminal and a prophet is often in who’s telling the story.

Your concept of evil is based on your world view. Look around. Whether it’s a hypothetical “perfect” girlfriend for the “perfect” football player, a maniac mass murderer loose in a movie theater or elementary school, or our Congressional representatives playing with destroying the economy, it’s safe to say that not only is there something terribly wrong with us, but we seem powerless to do anything about it. Our networked world won’t stand a chance, if every node on the network is in it only for themselves.

Can we learn to ask not what Life can do for us but what we can do for Life? Aaron Swartz thought so.

The postmodern world of which I write is one of participation. Whereas modernity celebrated the ability to study, chart, reason, and, in so doing, understand the unknown, postmodernists develop their understanding on top of all that by including what they’ve experienced. Therefore, the mantra of postmodernism is “I participate or experience, therefore I understand.” God in the postmodern world is removed from His formerly hierarchical throne — a place where He speaks to people through the priests of the hierarchy — and is spread across all of humanity in a form that Biblical scholars would call “the Holy Spirit.” If there is to be a vast spiritual awakening in our world, it’ll be everywhere and in the streets, not in the superchurches of America’s suburbs.

We will be hypernetworked if and when the awakening happens, and it won’t take place unless the network is free.

Thank you, Aaron, for your tireless efforts to that end.

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