Aaron Swartz took his own life yesterday. Today, the Internet mourns, or at least, the parts of the Internet who were aware of him. Nearly everyone online is touched by his work, but most will be oblivious to his passing. It’s starkest on Twitter, where half of the tweets I read are about Aaron, and half are from people who haven’t a clue.
I met Aaron in 2003, at the SXSW EFF party Polycot co-sponsored and organized. The idea that a non-profit and a 3 person web development company could book a club a block away from the Austin Convention Center for a SXSW party shows you how long ago that was. Aaron was speaking about Creative Commons at SXSW that year. I forget how, but we somehow ended up running around together, trying to get the DSL working at the club (we ended up driving to another Polycot’s apartment and snarfing a router, because Texture’s was locked down).
Aaron would have been 16 or 17 at the time, and I remember him hauling around a backpack with his laptop in it that was nearly bigger than him. Aaron was a prodigy, you could tell by being around him that he lived on finding solutions to problems. He was the kind of person you sometimes wish you were, motivated, energetic, brilliant, but also wish you weren’t, because the prospect of it can be terrifying. I wasn’t surprised when he went on to contribute to reddit, and start his data freedom and political justice efforts. He was that kind of guy.
Aaron ran into trouble with the law a few years ago, after dropping a laptop into a data closet at MIT and snarfing down a couple million documents from the pay-per-access Scientific and Academic Journal Archive JSTOR, with the intent of uploading them freely on the internet. JSTOR declined to prosecute, but Carmen Ortiz, the US Attorney for Massachusetts decided to push ahead, charging Aaron with a felony which held a maximum penalty of 35 years in prison and a million dollar fine. The expert witness in the case has some notes. Aaron fell into some pretty deep depression, as freedom loving, introspective intellectuals are prone to, and in the end, took his own life.
This is where Aaron’s story and mine start to mirror each other. Before I got out of my teens, I had my own run in with our nation’s legal system, though mine was more tech business related than internet freedom related. I did something I felt at the time was just, and then faced the possibility of consequences. I can certainly sympathize with the feeling of helplessness you get. Introspective nerds aren’t used to the criminal justice system, and we aren’t used to systems where we don’t understand anything and are unable to make any change. In a computer system or a network you can learn, fix, and modify. The justice system, likely for most of us, just exists as a giant monolithic machine that chews people up. The prospect of getting caught up in a machine like that is terrifying, not to mention just losing a giant chunk of your life and becoming a societal outcast. This can weigh heavily on a person, especially one who thrives on solving new technical problems and feels themselves on the side of freedom and justice. With technology Aaron had agency, he had some power, but even with high profile friends, facing the machinations of the state, he felt he had no recourse.
We all also like to think we’re good people, we hold doors for people, we make room for people in traffic, we pay our taxes, we vote. When we get a chance, we strive to do the right thing. When you’re accused of a crime, especially when you’re doing something you feel is morally right, that can be crushing. Suddenly society looks different. You are, at least in some way, a bad person. You’ve been separated from society, pushed out of the public body like a virus or thorn. It isn’t implicit in every interaction, but you feel it, and it lingers there, at the back of your mind. It takes a long time for that to go away, and in the mean time, if you’re prone to depression, things can get very dark.
In the end, Aaron’s storyline and mine diverge. The charges against me were dropped, and after a few years of legal wrangling where everyone’s lawyers made some good money but the participants just had sleepless nights, the entire thing was settled out of court. In the end, life goes on. Lesson learned. No black marks, no permanent damage, no ticking the ‘convicted of a felony’ box on forms.
Aaron was facing more than that for a more righteous cause, and it got the better of him. In the end we all lose, even the state attempting to impose justice. People like to think that they want freedom and justice, that they’d strive for it and fight for it if they had reason and opportunity, but the price is high, and we are all too comfortable.
World wanderers, we have lost a wise elder.
Hackers for right, we are one down.
Parents all, we have lost a child. Let us weep.