Aaron Swartz On How To Rise Above The Political Cloaking Of Words

Aaron Swartz at Boston Wiki Meetup in 2009. Photo by Sage Ross, CC-BY-SA-2.0
“Transparency is a slippery word; the kind of word that, like reform, sounds good and so ends up getting attached to any random political thing that someone wants to promote. But just as it’s silly to talk about whether “reform” is useful (it depends on the reform), talking about transparency in general won’t get us very far. Everything from holding public hearings to requiring police to videotape interrogations can be called 'transparency'—there’s not much that’s useful to say about such a large category. In general, you should be sceptical whenever someone tries to sell you on something like ‘reform’ or ‘transparency.’ In general, you should be sceptical. But in particular, reactionary political movements have long had a history of cloaking themselves in nice words.”
In a collection of essays, blog posts and lectures by Aaron Swartz (1986 - 2013) before his untimely death, the IT whizz kid explores the nature of modern politics, education, media, digital piracy, online collaboration, and many more in a book compiled by his friends titled The Boy Who Could Change The World.

In one of his blog posts Aaron Swartz's explores what happens when a good idea or concept is hijacked by those who wishes to circumvent it. He explains that when an idea like transparency is pushed against a government (or a corporation) that does not want to be open about its deeds, that government tends to corrupt the process of transparency and empty it of any effectiveness. Aaron uses the United States government, after the famous Watergate saga, as an example. He writes:
"... After Watergate, people were upset about politicians receiving millions of dollars from large corporations. But, on the other hand, corporations seem to like paying off politicians. So instead of banning the practice, Congress simply required that politicians keep track of everyone who gives them money and file a report on it for public inspection.
"...when you create a regulatory agency, you put together a group of people whose job is to solve some problem. They’re given the power to investigate who’s breaking the law and the authority to punish them. Transparency, on the other hand, simply shifts the work from the government to the average citizen, who has neither the time nor the ability to investigate these questions in any detail, let alone do anything about it. It’s a farce: a way for Congress to look like it has done something on some pressing issue without actually endangering its corporate sponsors."

This corrupting influence is not limited to politics alone. From religious organizations to our workplaces, it is easy for concepts like diversity or rigour to be turned around and used as a whip for those it is meant to help. However, Aaron proposes that the only way forward is for common people not to leave important issues in the hands of the so-called "powerful people". He proposes that through the internet and online collaboration, ordinary folks can work together to enlighten, formulate strategies, and hold politicians to account - a code Aaron Swartz lived by before he took his own life.

The Boy Who Could Change The World is rich, insightful and proffers bold solutions to complex modern problems. The book is full of fresh thinking and has a courageous outlook in a world that can seem depressing sometimes.

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