The UnderBelly of the Digital Era


We are bombarded with messages that we live in an age of unlimited access to information. Wandering through public spaces, like airports and malls, easily remind us of this, as we observe people laden with smart phones, pads, and laptops, constantly connected to work, the news, and home. Many of us feel like we are well informed about our world. However, we also should pay attention to the casualties of this time.

Take, for example, the brief life of free information activist and computer prodigy Aaron Swartz. Justin Peters, in The Idealist: Aaron Swartz and the Rise of Free Culture on the Internet (New York: Scribner, 2016), provides a grim portrait of the young activist who committed suicide in his late 20s. As Peters explains, his book is a “provisional narrative introduction to the story of free culture in America, using Swartz’s life as a lens on the rise of information sharing in the digital age” (p. ix). Peters provides a good overview of intellectual property and the challenges to it by the rise of file sharing. There is nothing extraordinary in this aspect of the book, except for Swartz’s undoing when he began downloading thousands of files from JSTOR via MIT computers, leading to his indictment by the United States Attorney’s office: “The story of Swartz’s life and the circumstances of his death are recent inflection points in a contentious debate over the means by which information circulates in society and the laws and technologies that speed or delay its progress. Aaron Swartz has become an avatar for a movement, his actions and presumed intentions an argument that the government ought to pass laws that promote, rather than inhibit, the digital dissemination of knowledge” (p. 11). Peters handles Swartz’s story with sensitivity, teasing out a variety of implications for what it reveals about us in this digital era: “The Internet is both a conduit for idealistic fantasies and a tool that can be used to supplement them. It is the real world that often creates resistance” (p. 267).

There are other problematic aspects of this age and its reliance on digital technologies. In an op-ed in the February 23rd New York Times, Arnold Weinstein, a professor of comparative literature, laments that the arts and humanities “can no longer compete with the prestige and financial payoffs promised by studying the STEM fields,” disciplines that offer precise information on practically everything. But, often and inadvertently, they distort our perceptions; they even shortchange us.” Weinstein, especially commenting on our fixation with data, seeks to make the point about the limitations of such a perspective: “Finding an address is one thing; finding one’s way in life is another. Even our smartest computers or most brilliant statisticians are at a loss when it comes to mapping our psychic landscapes.” It is the arts and humanities that assist us to go inward. We learn from the “human record that is available to us in libraries and museums and theaters and, yes, online. But that record is not calculable or teachable via numbers or bullet points.” This is why studying literature and the arts is not a “luxury item” in an expensive education.

Preparing to be an information professional, for example, requires exposure to issues such as this. – ethics, values, culture, the law. Staring at and using a computer require us to be critical of how we should use or not use it.