Knowing too much

opinion
January 17, 2013
This article was published more than 2 years ago.
Est. Reading Time: 4 minutes

Kacper Niburski / Silhouette Staff

If you are reading this article, then you already know. You’ve always known. You were raised knowing. When you asked a question, it was found in slow evaporation of ignorance. When you uncovered a mystery of the Universe, it was behind the whispered curiosity if something as whimsical as a truth could ever possibly exist. Even now as you surf through the vestigial media of the past – a newspaper – you understand.

Hell. That’s why you’re here. That’s why you stay here. Because from a very young age when you asked why the sky was blue or how rainbows formed or if Santa really fit in the chimney, you learned that knowledge is power. Information is power. And you’ll be damned if anyone told you otherwise.

But even you, dear reader, have had some doubts. You’ve seen first hand that sometimes it only matters who you know, not what you know, and you comfort yourself with the fact that that this is something you know very well. Besides that, the inane facts you’ve learned over the years feel static without some active creativity behind them. Without constant stimulation, they flare and wane, eventually sitting idle in a cerebral black hole alongside your grandma’s birthday and basic algebra.

You’ll be the first to admit that some days, knowledge seems a fad no more permanent than a slinky. This is not entirely your fault, however. It stems from the fact that the power knowledge brings with it isn’t yours to begin with anyways. In fact, it never was. It was, and remains to be, with those who hold the information. For they, and only they, can express the undifferentiated mass of everything we’ve learned and everything we haven’t in a way that’s accessible for everyone.

While this seems falsely utopian in nature, listen: underscoring the tacit feeling that we’re all in this – whatever this thing is – together is the drive that we’re learning about “this” so others don’t have to. For no matter how selfish our desires may be, we are not that which comes and goes. We are footprints, handprints, writings and vocal traditions. We are stencils on caves and the unmistakable smells of calcium carbonate on a chalkboard. We are stories told around campfires. We are laughter and tears and happiness and sadness. We are the Bible and the Quran. We are the Rig Veda. We are Macbeth. We are Catch-22. We are a history that stretches from the Serengeti to the Tundra that has gazed upon the stars at night and has soared with the likes of them too.

And it is in these stars floating around a world we did not create, a body we did not ask to be born into, and a Universe that seems just as much as a hilarious accident as we are, where humanity’s legacy stems. There among the celestial bodies waltzing in the seamless black blanket of the sky, our knowledge expands only to find its limit. It is contained in our Universe defined by some edge, and we, so far as we know, are the only ones who are conscientious of that fact.

Yet even with this knowledge, even with this power, we have become victims of our brilliance. Aaron Swartz, an unparalleled programmer and Internet activist who took his life on Jan. 11, knew this well.

Cursed with an open mind coupled with an unrelenting passion for the betterment of humanity, he understood that only by possessing such inborn intelligence and such a wealth of knowledge could we have devised systems that hurts more than heals, that widens the wealth gap between otherwise equal humans, that works to punish the poor and those who challenge the powerful, and that locks the very cultural information we have been born into behind an array of corporate interests and private wealth. In short, he knew the pain of being human.

In an attempt to rectify this pain, he tried to change the world. Besides creating Reddit and Really Simple Syndicate, both of which have become foundations of the Internet, his work was dedicated to make the world a better place for us all.

While his most recent selfless act has been marred in complexities, it shouldn’t be the case. Any way it’s told, he remains the Robin Hood of information by attempting to bring the academic world out of the puppetry of private greed. By accessing four million documents on JSTOR, a nonprofit academic online library within MIT, he was charged on twelve accounts of felony and could have faced up to thirty-five years in jail.

Murder, slavery, and pedophilia have shorter terms.

Yet the senseless severity of the punishment brings to light the very needed discussion on cyber legislation, something being seen widely as a threat in the political world. No matter what comes from this, however, I will remain to be incredulous. Trying to bridge the Old World with the New results in the massacre on the scales of Columbus. One side loses, the other wins. Always. My only hope is that it’s the New World ushered by the Internet that will win out again.

Aaron hoped as much. In 2008, he wrote, “With enough of us, around the world, we’ll not just send a strong message opposing the privatization of knowledge – we’ll make it a thing of the past.” I’ll add a secondary wish that privatization on information will become vestigial knowledge reserved only to frighten children on the failings of humankind.

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