Cory Doctorow's new book Homeland is the sequel to his popular YA book Little Brother, which again features teenage activist Marcus Yallow, this time in a WikiLeaks-like plot as he is pursued by government agents and tries to find the courage to match his convictions.
For an afterword, bringing the fictional events of the book into their real world contexts, Doctorow turned to his friend, the activist Aaron Swartz. As has been heavily reported elsewhere, Swartz committed suicide earlier this month.
Below, we reprint Swartz's powerful afterword in its entirety. First, we asked Doctorow about what it is like to read the stirring words of his late friend - especially its painful last line.
Why did you ask Aaron to write an afterword for Homeland?
When I finished the sequel to Little Brother, I knew right away that I wanted an afterword from Jake Appelbaum, who is one of the unsung heroes of government transparency and personal anonymity and who has been victimized by the US government for his work on WikiLeaks.
And I knew I wanted an afterword from Aaron Swartz, who had the best techno-activist instincts of anyone I knew, and who I'd know since he was a little kid, and who was also being savagely victimized by the US government for his principled work.
I'm devastated about what happened with Aaron. I asked him to write me a afterword in the form of a letter to a kid like himself, but who was 14 in the year 2013. What he gave me was a call-to-arms that made me want to rush to a barricade, and left no doubt that we both hoped for the same thing from this book: that it would inspire a generation of activists who wouldn't take 'no' for an answer when it came to freedom in the information age.
How important are the philosophies of his actions for the intended audience of your book? How would you summarize those philosophies?
Aaron didn't care about the freedom of information. He cared -- and I care -- about the freedom of people. I don't give a damn if 'information wants to be free' -- but I'll go to the wall for the people who use information to demand their freedom.
Aaron's work -- and the words he wrote for me -- are clear on this.
The scientific documents he allegedly took from JSTOR were public knowledge in every sense but one. They were publicly funded, produced for public benefit, and were critical to the informed choice of the public. But they were not *accessible* to the public. It's easy to understand why this offended Aaron. It offends the hell out of me.
Homeland is a book that is meant to give kids a sense of the wider questions of technology, one that gets them to understand that architecture is politics: the design of the technology they use constrains or enables the future they can build with it. Unless they seize the means of information, they will be penned in by it.
In my ideal world, the kid who closes the cover on Homeland will rush to a search engine and figure out proxies, free/open operating systems, freedom of information requests, local makerspaces, campaigns for political accountability like Rootstrikers -- the whole package.
When I was a kid, you needed to know stuff to do stuff. You had to have the facts in order to act on them. Now all the facts are one search-engine query away, but unless you know that they're there, you'll never search for them. And unless you know how to think critically about the process by which those documents are indexed and ranked, you won't be able to turn them into action.
The first step to seizing the means of information is to know that there is a means of information, that it matters, and that it can be yours.
How does it feel for you to read his afterword now?
I can't read it without crying.
It fills me with dread and sorrow and hopelessness.
I've re-read it dozens of times since Aaron died, and every time I read it, I have to deliberately, through an act of will, recommit myself to the principles he sets out in it. And then I do, and I resolve to talk about Aaron and what he did and believed in, and never forget it.
Afterword by Aaron Swartz
Hi there, I’m Aaron. I’ve been given this little space here at the end of the book because I’m a flesh-and-blood human and, as such, I can tell you something you wouldn’t believe if it came out of the mouth of any of those fictional characters:
This stuff is real.
Sure, there isn’t anyone actually named Marcus or Ange, at least not that I know, but I do know real people just like them. If you want, you can go to San Francisco and meet them. And while you’re there, you can play D&D with John Gilmore or build a rocket ship at Noisebridge or work with some hippies on an art project for Burning Man.
And if some of the more conspiracy-minded stuff in the book seems too wild to be true, well, just google Blackwater, Xe, or BlueCoat. (I myself have an FOIA request in to learn more about “persona management software,” but the Feds say it’ll take three more years to redact all the relevant documents.)
Now I hope you had fun staying up all night reading about these things, but this next part is important, so pay attention: what’s going on now isn’t some reality TV show you can just sit at home and watch. This is your life, this is your country — and if you want to keep it safe, you need to get involved.
I know it’s easy to feel like you’re powerless, like there’s nothing you can do to slow down or stop “the system.” Like all the calls are made by shadowy and powerful forces far outside your control. I feel that way, too, sometimes. But it just isn’t true.
A little over a year ago, a friend called to tell me about an obscure bill he’d heard of called the Combatting Online Infringement and Counterfeit Act, or COICA. As I read the bill, I started to get more and more worried: under its provisions, the government would be allowed to censor websites it didn’t like without so much as a trial. It would be the first time the U.S. government was given the power to censor its citizens’ access to the net.
The bill had just been introduced a day or two ago, but it already had a couple dozen senators cosponsoring it. And, despite there never being any debate, it was already scheduled for a vote in just a couple days. Nobody had ever reported on it, and that was just the point: they wanted to rush this thing through before anyone noticed.
Luckily, my friend noticed. We stayed up all weekend and launched a website explaining what the bill did, with a petition you could sign opposing it that would look up the phone numbers for your representatives. We told a few friends about it and they told a few friends and within a couple days we had over 200,000 people on our petition. It was incredible.
Well, the people pushing this bill didn’t stop. They spent literally tens of millions of dollars lobbying for it. The head of every major media company flew out to Washington, DC, and met with the president’s chief of staff to politely remind him of the millions of dollars they’d donated to the president’s campaign and explain how what they wanted — the only thing they wanted — was for this bill to pass.
But the public pressure kept building. To try to throw people off the trail, they kept changing the name of the bill — calling it PIPA and SOPA and even the E-PARASITES Act — but no matter what they called it, more and more people kept telling their friends about it and getting more and more people opposed. Soon, the signers on our petition stretched into the millions.
We managed to stall them for over a year through various tactics, but they realized if they waited much longer they might never get their chance to pass this bill. So they scheduled it for a vote first thing after they got back from winter break.
But while members of Congress were off on winter break, holding town halls and public meetings back home, people started visiting them. Across the country, members started getting asked by their constituents why they were supporting that nasty Internet censorship bill. And members started getting scared — some going so far as to respond by attacking me.
But it wasn’t about me anymore — it was never about me. From the beginning, it was about citizens taking things into their own hands: making YouTube videos and writing songs opposing the bill, making graphs showing how much money the bill’s cosponsors had received from the industries pushing it, and organizing boycotts putting pressure on the companies who’d endorsed the bill.
And it worked — it took the bill from a political nonissue that was poised to pass unanimously to a toxic football no one wanted to touch. Even the bill’s cosponsors started rushing to issue statements opposing it! Boy, were those media moguls pissed...
This is not how the system is supposed to work. A ragtag bunch of kids doesn’t stop one of the most powerful forces in Washington just by typing on their laptops!
But it did happen. And you can make it happen again.
The system is changing. Thanks to the Internet, everyday people can learn about and organize around an issue even if the system is determined to ignore it. Now, maybe we won’t win every time — this is real life, after all — but we finally have a chance.
But it only works if you take part. And now that you’ve read this book and learned how to do it, you’re perfectly suited to make it happen again. That’s right: now it’s up to you to change the system.
Let me know if I can help.