Rituals, risk, development & Aaron Swartz – in response to Owen Barder

Owen Barder just wrote a very interesting post on Aaron Swartz’ legacy and how his work is linked to international development and future debates especially in the area of ICT4D (Development and the Death of Aaron Swartz).
Owen reminds us that open access publishing & data, implementing IATI, open source coding and software and opposing ACTA (or SOPA) should be on top of our technology development agendas.
I agree with Owen, but I am more cautious in linking these processes to the work of Aaron Swartz. In short, many of these issues have been and are likely to continue to be discussed within the ritual frameworks of development and research policy-making. Owen concludes that there is still a ‘long, hard fight against those who want go control information and use it to exercise power’, but at the moment I see very few ‘fighters’ out there that would follow a path even remotely similar to Aaron Swartz’, a path that involved personal risk, non-conformity to traditional institutions and ultimately serious legal issues. Not exactly features of most of us who work or research ‘in development’.

As much as I agree with Owen, I would go further than making data, articles or information public, but also tackle the less visible and powerful barriers, the rituals of knowledge production, the tacit ways in which policy is implemented and the traditional fashions of how large aid organizations (non-)communicate (e.g. by setting up a seminar with NGOs and their board and ask for critical questions in writing prior to the registration process:
Simulating civil society participation, European Investment Bank edition
Contemporary development professionalism has stifled innovation and, what I find equally important, passion – which large aid organization would even allow a 26-year old to take a lead in an innovative project? And where are passionate researchers and activists that would end up in battles with powerful mainstream institutions like the MIT or JSTOR?
Many are busy sitting on ‘advisory committees’, organizing a conference or are stuck ‘indoors’ (including airports, hotels, resorts, offices, board rooms) otherwise. Even if every development research journal would be openly available tomorrow and every major organization would embrace IATI within 6 months chances are that this would change very little or would have only a small impact on accountability, transparency and innovative thinking outside the boxes. It would be nice, of course, and everybody would agree how nice it is and then go back to their organizational ‘1.0’ island.

Many of the ‘fights’ we seem to have in development seem to resemble shadow boxing rather than real fights (and I don’t mean or encourage physical violence, of course). But ‘fight’ implies more than a debate that ends up in a high-level meeting where unelected representatives of large organizations sign a declaration or discuss a pre-, post- or whatever-2015 ‘agenda’ or slowly supplement one model of academic publishing with another. ‘Fight’ implies an antagonism that does not leave everybody happy or creates a discursive, consensual non-place where everybody agrees that more work/research/meetings need to be done.

But is there a tipping point for incremental approaches to change and reforms once ideas have been adopted, mainstreamed, included in check-lists and operational policies? Right now, very little is emerging ‘bottom-up’ or in a grey space between legal, illegal and pushing the boundaries of what these concepts mean in the digital age. When jobs, careers and long-term projects are involved there is little space for radicalism or personal risk.

One impetus right now seems to be trying to circumvent these structures and ‘doing it yourself’ in one way or another. That’s one route, but the ‘trickle up’ effect is smaller and slower than we sometimes think and potentially distorted by our innovative, critical filter bubble that tends to surround us.

If Aaron Swartz’ work is relevant for development, it is the very essence that we need to re-learn to ‘fight’ rather than being guided by the guarded professionalism that has taken over many parts of the ‘aid industry’, carefully judging what is ‘feasible’, who we can talk to, how far we can challenge those ‘in power’ as to not ‘alienate’ them too much.

I would be very scared, too, if the US government came up with 13 felony charges against me that could lead to many years of imprisonment, but we have to think about ‘fights’ that may go further than the debates right now and hopefully do not end up in prison or unemployment for those who challenge the rituals and pursue more risky paths.


  1. Hi Tobias

    Thank you for this very interesting post.

    I agree that we should not exaggerate the sacrifices made by people working in aid and development. But I think you may perhaps be underestimating the extent to which many development workers endure significantly lower pay than they could earn elsewhere, worse living and working conditions, and in many cases significant personal risk. The risks undertaken by people working in countries in conflict seem to me broadly commensurate with the personal risks undertaken by Aaron Swarz.

    More generally, there are many digital activists, especially in the public sector, who have taken some risks with their career to push the boundaries of openness and public engagement. This article today by Mike Bracken - on a UK government website - seems to me a good example of sailing quite close to the wind:

    You are right to ask: "which large aid organization would even allow a 26-year old to take a lead in an innovative project?". It reminds me that I was 26 when the Management Board of H M Treasury agreed to my then radical proposal that I would set up the UK Government's first ever website, to publish online all the documents for the UK budget, because I (and they) believed this should be freely available to everyone. The Treasury is not an aid agency, but it is a government department. I hope that today's 26 year olds are getting the support and space that I was given.



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