Very interesting article that appeared in the NYMag about Aaron Swartz.
The precocious coder, hacker visionary, and “pirate” was already a tech legend by the time he’d turned 17. But in the weeks since his suicide last month, at 26, his friends and comrades have tried to turn him into something else—a martyr.
- By Wesley Yang
Years before he hanged himself in his Crown Heights apartment, the hacker, writer, and activist Aaron Swartz used to debate with his then-girlfriend Quinn Norton whether the Internet would mourn him if he died. It was Swartz’s stubborn belief that no one would notice or care if he died young, as he often thought he was fated to do. Like many young men of great promise and fluctuating moods, Swartz was an unstable compound of self-effacement and self-regard—among the most empowered, well-connected young people in America, yet convinced that his very existence was a burden to others, even those who loved him. Back when Aaron was 20 and the journalist Norton was 33, before they had crossed over into a complicated romantic affair, Norton brought Swartz with her to a tech event in Berlin, where he and her ex-husband, the tech writer Danny O’Brien, played a game in which they tried to “kill” themselves on Wikipedia, seeing how long they could remain dead before some volunteer editor restored them to life. Neither could remain dead for more than ten minutes.
There is a category of young person able to do things like contribute to the building of the Internet in their teens, or sell their tech start-ups for millions of dollars when they are 19, or rally a million opponents to a major piece of legislation when they are in their twenties. Usually such people are not the same young people who write on their blogs that they are too frightened to ask for a glass of water on a plane, or that “even among my closest friends, I still feel like something of an imposition, and the slightest shock, the slightest hint that I’m correct, sends me scurrying back into my hole.” Swartz was preternaturally adult when he was still a child and still a precocious child after he had grown to adulthood—“so vulnerable and fragile,” his friend Ben Wikler said. “He put up shields in all the wrong places.” He had done more in 26 years than most of us will do in a lifetime, but often avowed to others, and most of all himself, that he had done nothing of any worth at all.
By the time he was 17, Swartz had already secured a permanent legacy written in code. When he was 13, he was co-authoring a version of RSS, a system that allows streaming of news from across the Internet onto a single reader; in his later teens he helped to build and sell Reddit, a news message board that has grown into one of the world’s most heavily trafficked sites, and created the coding backbone of the Creative Commons licenses that allow artists and writers to claim or waive certain rights to control their works or share them online—the coin of the realm for a growing community of progressive activists known as the copyleft movement, devoted to building an economy of culture based on sharing.
But he was also an ailing person in great physical and emotional pain—a sufferer from ulcerative colitis and suicidal depression, which he described so vividly on his blog (once with enough specificity that a Reddit colleague had the police break down Swartz’s door). Norton spent much of 2010 keeping Swartz away from suicide, telling him, she told me, “This, the way this feels, this is gonna calm down. Like when you get a little bit older, this is gonna be okay. It’s not ever gonna go away completely, but it’s gonna be something you can manage.” As he confessed on his blog in late 2007, he was not merely ailing, he was also ashamed to bear the stigma of his illnesses, and the shame made it difficult to treat both of his conditions. “To some degree I was kind of like, ‘Stop making me deal with this,’ ” Norton told me. “ ‘Stop making me the only one who knows.’ ”
The progressive activist Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, who began dating Swartz in the summer of 2011, after he and Norton had broken up and just before the federal indictment for hacking MIT’s JSTOR academic-article database that would define the last year of his life, knew a more securely grounded boyfriend than Norton had—one who was beginning to learn that “direct confrontation was often not the best way,” that participating in electoral politics might be more effective than in-the-shadows hacktivism, and who was doing the dishes for the first time in his life. He had assured her that the depressive episodes described in his blog were a thing of the past, and she says that nothing in his conduct gave her cause to doubt it. The first time she ever worried about his depression, she told me, was on the morning of January 11—the day she would discover him hanging from his belt in the apartment they shared.
Legal theorist Lawrence Lessig with Aaron Swartz at the launch party for Creative Commons in 2001, when Swartz was 14.
(Photo: Rich Gibson/Wikimedia Commons)
The sanctification of Aaron Swartz began immediately—first online, then off. He had become a millionaire from the sale of Reddit to Condé Nast, but then turned his back on Silicon Valley for good to become an intellectual adventurer, teaching himself economics, sociology, history, and psychology by dropping into the lives of experts, as he well understood that any minimally informed admirer can do. He still worked on projects to organize and make available information online, but was increasingly intent on finding the secret to mobilizing masses to political action. Swartz was one of the early catalysts for the campaign that stopped the Internet regulation known as the Stop Online Piracy Act (and its corollary, the Protect Intellectual Property Act), which its opponents believe would have effectively allowed private companies to censor the Internet. During this campaign, which was waged while Swartz was still facing indictment, he emerged as a leader who occupied a position of unusual credibility and authority. And it was this transition, from a builder of platforms for machines that do precisely what you tell them to do to freelance scholar-activist poised to intervene in the messier realm of democratic politics on behalf of Internet culture, that made so many think of him, even at 26, as the kind of person who, as the writer and activist Cory Doctorow wrote when he died, “could have revolutionized American (and worldwide) politics.”
At his funeral in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, where he was born and raised, the hundreds of mourners were a mix of members of family and Aaron’s far-flung networks, including some towering figures who had known Aaron since he was a chubby kid. There was Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web, and the Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig, eminence among Internet legal theorists, each channeling the cosmic sorrow and worldly rage already circulating online before a packed crowd of mourners clad in black, the men wearing kippahs.
First, there was remembrance of the person Swartz had been, full of adoration and tenderness and a kind of exasperated love for how preternaturally wise he could be and how mundanely stupid. Then there was remembrance of the circumstances under which he died—as an accused felon prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney of Massachusetts for the crime of downloading too many (4.8 million) academic articles from an online archive hosted by MIT, an extravagant gesture motivated by the cause of using technology to liberate culture from corporate ownership. After two years of exhausting negotiations, which had taken him no closer to an acceptable plea bargain, Swartz was three months from the start of his trial when he preempted it, and his legal plight loomed large in the way all of those around him understood his death. “Aaron did not commit suicide,” said Robert Swartz, Aaron’s father, “but was killed by the government.”
In rhetorical salvos like these, at the funeral in Highland Park and at the vigils held in Cambridge and New York and San Francisco and Washington, D.C., Swartz emerged as a human repository of the Internet’s virtues and its unrealized fantasy of social transformation. Again and again, his friends made the point that Swartz’s open-access activism was merely the prologue to his truly immodest ambition to “hack the whole world,” and to realize his dream of “a world without any injustice or suffering of any kind.” His closest friends and family were keen to reject any effort to “pathologize” Swartz’s condition, though he had himself described it as sickness. “Aaron was depressed because God is depressed,” said Lessig at his funeral. “Look at this world and what we have done—who wouldn’t be depressed?”
“I’ve heard a lot of people talk about Aaron’s impossibly high standards and youthful enthusiasm and naïve brilliance,” said his friend and executor, Alec Resnick. “I can’t help but think that the whole point of people like Aaron is to show us how low and base and hidebound our expectations are.”
Those expectations were largely formed by his early life as a young prodigy raised among idealists. One day, when he was 3 years old, as Robert Swartz recounted to the funeral audience, Aaron asked his mother: “What was this ‘Free Family Entertainment in Downtown Highland Park’?” “She asked him, What was he talking about?” A volley of laughter issued from the audience. “He said, ‘Mom, it says here on the refrigerator.’ He had taught himself to read.”
He built a working ATM in the third grade—it distributed coupons and tracked student accounts. He created a Wikipedia-like site at 13, leading to introductions to Berners-Lee and others who shared the view on Internet advertising he shared then with the Chicago Tribune: “That’s not what the Internet was made for,” he said. “It was based on open standards and freedom, not ads.” He dropped out of high school after the ninth grade, and spent his days in conversation with grown-up technologists, missing out on the numbing busywork and status anxiety that fills the days of American high-school students—depicted so memorably in the Highland Park films of John Hughes. “High school had been the most unpleasant experience of my life,” said his father, who was supportive of Aaron’s decision. “If things come easily to you, and you understand things quickly, you spend a lot of time in school bored out of your mind.”
Swartz speaks against the Stop Online Piracy Act during a New York rally in January 2012.
(Photo: Daniel J. Sieradski/DPA/Corbis)
Robert Swartz is a compact, robust man with a ruddy face; he was a longtime owner of a small tech company and is now an intellectual-property consultant to, among other places, the MIT Media Lab. The company—which produced a Unix-like operating system—was named after his father, an entrepreneur and a nuclear-disarmament and peace activist who founded the Albert Einstein Peace Prize Foundation.
In interviews, Aaron Swartz described his childhood as lonely and his suburb as a place without a center. In one of his early blog posts, Swartz had described Highland Park, not uncharitably, as one of the places where the parents were educated and well-meaning, and had looked upon the struggles for justice of the sixties with sympathy, though they did not themselves participate. It was a perfect place from which to escape into cyberspace; at a vigil at Cooper Union, Norton recounted a memory of Swartz singing Pete Seeger’s “Little Boxes” to her daughter.
After e-mailing Lawrence Lessig a suggestion on how to design certain Creative Commons licenses in 2002, Swartz went to work with him on it, beginning one of the many long and complicated mentor relationships that seemed to fill Aaron’s life. He enrolled briefly at Stanford University, incubator of tech entrepreneurs, despite never having finished high school (he was rejected from Berkeley), but left after a year for Paul Graham’s unstructured tech think tank Y Combinator, having found Stanford intellectually unchallenging. By day four, Swartz had already concluded that Stanford was a kind of “libertarian nightmare world.”
In the winter of 2007, after spending time with Norton in Berlin, Swartz’s colitis flared up. He holed up in Boston for a week, awol from Reddit, which he had already stopped treating like a serious commitment—he was fired when he eventually did show up at the offices in San Francisco. That week in Boston, he posted a fictional account of a suicide, which described among other things his hatred for his chubby boy’s body.
In 2009, Swartz took a monthlong vacation from the Internet—one of the first he had ever experienced. He wrote about it on his blog, which, when it wasn’t summarizing a social-scientific controversy, or criticizing the work or motivations of previous collaborators, was exploring the conflicted inner life he was so good at keeping from others.
“I am not happy,” he wrote. “I used to think of myself as just an unhappy person: a misanthrope, prone to mood swings and eating binges, who spends his days moping around the house in his pajamas, too shy and sad to step outside. But that’s not how I was offline. I loved people—everyone from the counter clerk to the old friends I bumped into on the street.”
Toward the end of the post, Swartz reflected on the extraordinary life he has lived, one made possible by the Internet, and his willingness to seize its possibilities.
“I realize it must seem like the greatest arrogance to think one could escape life’s mundane concerns, like asking to live on a cloud, floating above the mere mortals,” he wrote. “But it was that arrogance that made me think I could contribute to adult mailing lists when I was still in elementary school, that arrogance that made me think someone might want to read my website when I was still just a teen, that arrogance that had me start a company as a college freshman. That sort of arrogance—not bragging, but simply inwardly thinking I could do more than was expected of me—is the only thing that’s gotten me anywhere in life. ”
“One of the things that makes him the Internet’s boy is he was already living in the future that I hope we get to,” said Norton. “Where everybody has the permission to act and be important and where hierarchies don’t prevent people from doing things or believing in themselves and just having a fucking life. We get a huge number of messages that we are not allowed in the world. We occupy social laws of living, and we are not allowed to leave them. And all we ever have to do is walk out. And I think one of the most extraordinary, moving parts of Aaron’s life, his story, is that he just didn’t accept the limits that we put on ourselves.”
In a blog post a few months later, Swartz engages in a brief philosophical inquiry into how a person can live a moral life. “The conclusion is inescapable: we must live our lives to promote the most overall good. And that would seem to mean helping those most in want—the world’s poorest people.” He would go on to specify which moral actors he found the most admirable. “Our rule demands one do everything they can to help the poorest—not just spending one’s wealth and selling one’s possessions, but breaking the law if that will help,” he wrote. “It seems like these criminals, not the average workaday law-abiding citizen, should be our moral exemplars.”
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