Aaron Swartz: He Inspired Me to Think in Public

Web pioneer and writer Aaron Swartz committed suicide yesterday. He was 26. Cory Doctorow’s obit is excellent, and the last sentence in Larry Lessig’s post is incredibly sad.

Many know Aaron for his breadth of political, legal, and technology interests and accomplishments.

Myself, I think of Aaron in a narrower, more personal sense, even though we weren’t close friends. I think of him as someone who wrote fearlessly and thoughtfully about trying to understand the world around him in his late teenage years. When he began his short lived stint as an undergrad at Stanford, he blogged jaw-droppingly honest minute by minute accounts of his experiences. Sitting in classes, going to parties, talking to people in dorm rooms. It was an extreme example of transparency, of living out loud. Here’s one example; here’s another. (It appears his old archive has been re-organized so it’s hard to find the gems but I’ll dig them out.) He also wrote confidently about books and politics and ideas and movies and whatever else was on his mind.

At the time, I was also a teenager and also getting into the writing thing. He was an age-similar role model. He taught me that one could be young and yet still have a voice in the blogosphere. I saw him grapple with the comments and criticisms on his blog and I learned the value of thinking in public.

All told, I read Aaron’s blog for almost a decade. I last met up with him in 2004 to chat about the pros and cons of dropping out of school, but we’d been in touch sporadically by email and blog comments since then.

In fact, Aaron invited me to connect on LinkedIn just last week. Today, he’s gone.

Aaron was a David Foster Wallace fan. In the weeks after Wallace tragically took his own life, Aaron said he re-read every single word DFW had ever written.

Everything is on fire. Slow fire.

19 Responses to Aaron Swartz: He Inspired Me to Think in Public

  1. Despite his intellectual firepower and demonstrated brilliance, Swartz’s writing shows him to have been a very confused young man.

    I was sympathetic to his data liberation campaign, but really, masking his face with a bicycle helmet and downloading 4.8 million articles and other documents from JSTOR’S silo using a wiring closet at MIT was an incredibly stupid thing to do. I marked it as bizarre behavior at the time.

    A commenter at Aaron’s blog used the expression, “pathological reductionism”, albeit in another context, that I think aptly describes the real “disease” he suffered from. Chronic depression would almost necessarily follow from this mental habit.

    Lessig’s lament, “We are all incredibly sorry to have let you down”, is infuriating. Aaron Swartz let us down by killing himself.

  2. Now Swartz’s family is blaming the criminal justice system for his death:

    “Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy,” Swartz’s family said in a statement Saturday. “It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death.”

    Horseshit.

    The criminal justice system may be rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach, but Swartz had a history of deep depression and provocative behavior and ended up killing himself.

    He should have consulted Lawrence Tribe before he pulled his maneuver at MIT– he probably would have got some advice similar to this:

    ” …there are times when a dose of realism is needed to leaven the spirit of innovation.”

    And that picture of him in the NYT with a saintly nimbus around his head was too much.

  3. Martin says:

    @Vince Williams: Surly he had a history of depression. But without these wrongful charges he might not have gotten to a point where he couldn’t see an alternative to suicide.

    Anyway the US legal system seems to be profoundly wrong in some regards.

    I’ve neither known Aaron personally, nor have even heard of him before his suicide. But I read a lot written about and written by him in the last couple of days and for me it seem blatantly clear that he was to to selfless and emphatic for this world, which makes me deeply sad.

    • Martin says:

      Sorry for the typos (I’m not a native speaker and the Vince’s comment made be a bit angry).
      *Surely he had…
      *…he was too selfless…

    • Swartz is being eulogized by media people who don’t have a clue about his real contributions to technology, and it shows in what they write.

      Here are a couple of excerpts from an essay Swartz wrote called My Life Offline about taking a month offline, posted on 24 July 2009:

      “One thing is clear, though: my normal life style isn’t healthy.”

      “I am not happy. 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. And I loved to go for walks and exercise in the gym and — even though there was no one around to see me — groom. Yes, groom: shower and shave and put on nice clothes and comb my hair and clean up my nails and so on, all things a month ago I would have said went against my very nature, things I never did before voluntarily.”

      I don’t believe that Swartz re-read every single word David Foster Wallace had ever written, but even if he read just a large number of them, I would expect doing so to have a bad effect on the psyche of such a disturbed person. DFW’s work is absolutely among the worst a depressive person could choose to read, besides being a terrible influence on young people generally.

      Both these guys consciously followed a path that led to their destruction, and wrote about it.

      Neither Swartz nor Wallace had a clue how to be happy, and it showed glaringly in so much of what they wrote.

      • Martin says:

        >>Neither Swartz nor Wallace had a clue how to be happy, and it showed glaringly in so much of what they wrote.<<

        I don't know where his depressions came from so I can't make qualified statements. Instead I'll write about sth that might or might not be connected to his depression.

        Aaron Swartz was unhappy with quite a lot of things in society. His critical thinking is something I admire truly. With his open and idealistic approach to make the world a better place he was vulnerable. His far too short life had meaningful impact on the world.

        I don't have a clue about what happens after the end of life. But I'm quite sure if we had more people like him heaven would be a place on earth.

  4. Jenny Bhatt says:

    I did not know Aaron Swartz personally. Had known OF him over the years, particularly when all the SOPA politics were unfolding.

    Whether we, the media, his family, etc., lionize him or vilify him, 2 immutable truths stand:

    1) That this was a bright spark that died out too soon.

    2) And, whatever his actions, his motivations came from a genuine and selfless place and did not cause the kind of harm that other emotionally-challenged young men have recently caused.

    These 2, in my book, should be enough for us to pay due respects and mourn just a little.

    The larger question to me is whether he was being helped in the way that he needed. Not that professional help could save DFW in the end either.

    Just profoundly sad.

  5. I hope you will excuse the long comment– this is important stuff.

    Orin Kerr has posted a reasoned and insightful summation of his take on the case.

    I agree:

    “Swartz had announced his commitment to violating the law as a moral imperative in order to effectively nullify existing federal laws on access to information. When someone engages in civil disobedience and intentionally violates a criminal law to achieve such an anti-democratic policy goal through unlawful means — and when there are indications in both words and deeds that he will continue to do so — it is proper for the criminal law to impose a punishment under the law that the individual intentionally violated. (Indeed, usually that is the point of civil disobedience: The entire point is to be punished to draw attention to the law that is deemed unjust.) As that appears to be the case here, I think some punishment was appropriate.

    “The prosecution’s plea offer of 6 months in jail and a felony conviction may have been much more than was needed to persuade Swartz not to engage in unlawful and anti-demoratic means to pursue his policy goals in the future. If so, then I think it was too severe. But it depends on how much punishment was necessary to deter Swartz from using unlawful means to pursue his policy goals. In my view, that’s the question that we need to answer in order to say what punishment was appropriate in Swartz’s case.

    “So what was Swartz’s plan? From what I can tell, Swartz was a remarkable and unusually focused person, and there are substantial reasons to think he acted with a pretty specific plan in mind. Although he never went to law school, Swartz was a serious legal nerd. He hung out with lots of lawyers, and he was passionately involved in debates on legal topics. He went to the Supreme Court argument in Eldred v. Reno as Larry Lessig’s personal guest when he was only 15 years old. More recently, he was deeply involved in the recent debate over SOPA. He was quite informed about the law and interested in it. I know from an e-mail he once sent me that he was a “big fan” of my work — his words — which suggests he was pretty deep in the details of laws like the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, under which he was ultimately charged.

    “In 2008, Swartz published an essay that he labeled the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto. In the essay, Swartz argues that there is a moral imperative to engage in civil disobedience and break laws that limits access to academic articles and to make those articles available wherever they are restricted. Engaging in civil disobedience can nullify the law by making it impossible to enforce, Swartz suggests.”

    And here’s a quote from that essay:

    “There is no justice in following unjust laws. It’s time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture.”

    Back to Orin Kerr:

    “If I’m right about what Swartz was trying to do, then I think some kind of criminal prosecution is appropriate in this case. The evidence suggests to me that this was not a one-time mistake or an impulsive decision. Rather, Swartz was acting very deliberately with a quite far-reaching goal: he was intentionally breaking the law in the short run to achieve a long-run goal of nullifying the protections of a set of democratically-enacted laws that he opposed.”

    And finally, the gist (for me) of Kerr’s whole post:

    “…it is not particularly surprising for federal prosecutors to use those tactics. What’s unusual about the Swartz case is that it involved a highly charismatic defendant with very powerful friends in a position to object to these common practices. That’s not to excuse what happened, but rather to direct the energy that is angry about what happened. If you want to end these tactics, don’t just complain about the Swartz case. Don’t just complain when the defendant happens to be a brilliant guy who went to Stanford and hangs out with Larry Lessig. Instead, complain that this is business as usual in federal criminal cases around the country — mostly with defendants who no one has ever heard of and who get locked up for years without anyone else much caring.”

    Amen to that.

    However righteous his cause, Aaron Swartz was a privileged, relatively affluent white man with powerful connections. Again, the entire point of civil disobedience is to be punished to draw attention to the law that is deemed unjust, and as far as I can see, Swartz did not have the courage of his convictions.

    As we used to say with clenched fists thrust into the air:

    “Power to the people!”

    • Ben Casnocha says:

      Thanks, Vince. Very helpful and interesting.

    • Martin says:

      >>Orin Kerr has posted a reasoned and insightful summation of his take on the case.
      I agree:
      “Swartz had announced his commitment to violating the law as a moral imperative in order to effectively nullify existing federal laws on access to information.”<>“anti-demoratic means”<>“If I’m right about what Swartz was trying to do, then I think some kind of criminal prosecution is appropriate in this case. The evidence suggests to me that this was not a one-time mistake or an impulsive decision. Rather, Swartz was acting very deliberately with a quite far-reaching goal: he was intentionally breaking the law in the short run to achieve a long-run goal of nullifying the protections of a set of democratically-enacted laws that he opposed.”<<

      One of his wrongdoings was trespassing. He should have gotten some kind of penalty for that. But that's not a felony and has nothing to do with computer laws.
      Think of a hypothetical democratically-enacted law that allows people to torture other people for no reason.
      Of course I can't stop people from putting the word “democratically-enacted” before such a law, but just because someone uses the term “democratically-enacted” doesn't mean that the thing he's talking about is fair or good. Such a law might be “democratically-enacted” by a mixture of corrupt politicians, politicians who actually don't know at all what they are voting about, as well as being laws which might have been appropriate in the past, but which are certainly untimely now.

    • Martin says:

      My post at 9:51 pm got somehow corrupted (might be because of the lesser/bigger-quotation marks). So I’ll repost it without those additional quotation marks:

      Quote: Orin Kerr has posted a reasoned and insightful summation of his take on the case.
      I agree:
      “Swartz had announced his commitment to violating the law as a moral imperative in order to effectively nullify existing federal laws on access to information.”

      Woah. Orin Kerr and you are missing the point completely. The trial would not have been about something Aaron has written sometime somewhere, but about what he has done regarding JSTOR and if there was something wrong with what he has done from the legal perspective.
      One of the main problems is that the computer laws are stupid, because they use words which aren’t defined anywhere. In case the prosecutor doesn’t like you he/she can misuse his/her power and charge you for violating a lot of blurry written absurd laws.
      Another problem is the unfair plea bargaining system – Please read this article: link to forbes.com

      Quote:“anti-demoratic means”

      What does this woman talk about? It’s outrageous.

      Quote:“If I’m right about what Swartz was trying to do, then I think some kind of criminal prosecution is appropriate in this case. The evidence suggests to me that this was not a one-time mistake or an impulsive decision. Rather, Swartz was acting very deliberately with a quite far-reaching goal: he was intentionally breaking the law in the short run to achieve a long-run goal of nullifying the protections of a set of democratically-enacted laws that he opposed.”

      One of his wrongdoings was trespassing. He should have gotten some kind of penalty for that. But that’s not a felony and has nothing to do with computer laws.
      Think of a hypothetical democratically-enacted law that allows people to torture other people for no reason.
      Of course I can’t stop people from putting the word “democratically-enacted” before other words, but just because someone uses the term “democratically-enacted” doesn’t mean that the thing he’s talking about is fair or good. Such a law might be “democratically-enacted” by a mixture of corrupt politicians, politicians who actually don’t know at all what they are voting about, as well as being laws which might have been appropriate in the past, but which are untimely now.

      • Martin, you are way off-base, and responding emotionally with no coherence.

        Please read the post I linked to, and not just my quotes from it before you denigrate Orin Kerr’s assessment of the legal aspects of the case. You should know that Kerr is a male professor of law at the George Washington University Law School, and a leading scholar in the subjects of computer crime law and internet surveillance.

        If you really want to understand his analysis, please read the post I linked to, and also read part 1 on the law, about which you demonstrably don’t know much.

        I don’t have the time or energy to argue with someone who wants only to impose his point of view.

        • Martin says:

          „Martin, you are way off-base, and responding emotionally with no coherence.“ – Yes, it’s true that I were responding emotionally.
          „Please read the post I linked to“ – This was part of my emotional responding. I actually did not take the time to look a the link you provided before my last post. Anyway I read part one now.
          „ male professor” – Sorry for that glitch of mine.
          „professor of law at the George Washington University Law School, and a leading scholar in the subjects of computer crime law and internet surveillance.“ – One might think that he should know what he’s talking about. Unfortunately it turns out his reasoning doesn’t come from a logical and technical point of view…

          „but the JSTOR software is configured to block efforts to download large groups of articles.“ – As far as I know that’s not true. Are there any sources to prove this claim?

          I strongly suppose Aaron violated JSTOR’s Terms of Use. Violating terms of use doesn’t seem to be a felony to me. But be aware: I’m sure you violate the terms of use of a lot of companies without even being aware of it. JSTOR could have insisted on compensation for damages, but they didn’t.

          „Swartz responded by changing his IP address, and it took a few hours before JSTOR noticed and blocked his new IP address. To try to stop Swartz from just changing IP addresses again, JSTOR then blocked a range of IP addresses from MIT and contacted MIT for more help. MIT responded by canceling the new account and blocking Swartz’ computer from accessing the MIT address by banning his MAC address, a unique identifier associated with his laptop.“
          Changing MAC addresses and IP addresses is perfectly legal. The only thing that’s wrong is that he broke JSTOR’s Terms of Use. By the way: MAC addresses aren’t really unique, just nearly unique.

          „Swartz broke into a closet in the basement of a building at MIT“ – That’s something he should have been sentenced for. One question to determine the seriousness of this point: Was it locked?

          „The false pretenses are provided by the false identification and spoofing of Swartz’ IP address and MAC address.“ – That line would be something to laugh about if things weren’t so sad.

          „The Wire Fraud statute, 18 U.S.C. 1343, prohibits a scheme to gain “property” by false pretenses.“ – There were no false pretenses, changing IP addresses and MAC addresses do not qualify as such.

          „unauthorized access“ – He was entitled to download content from JSTOR.

          „JSTOR has a password-protected database“ – That’s a Red Herring. The database isn’t password protected for university users.

          „(d) Computer Damage. The final charge brought was exceeding authorized access and thereby impairing the availability or integrity of information in ways that cause more than $5,000 or loss or involve more than 10 computers, in violation of 18 U.S.C. 1030(a)(5)(B) and 1030(c)(4)(A)(i)(I) & (VI).“ – Except for he did not exceed authorized access.
          As written before JSTOR didn’t want to prosecute Aaron. It’s just strange the government pushed him into committing suicide. Ask people who know something about IT and you’ll find that this stuff doesn’t make sense. Of course you can believe everything your government does and says, it just won’t always be good and true. For example take a look at the story of this whistle blower: link to en.wikipedia.org

          All these charges sound Kafkaesque to me. It’s disgraceful that such a selfless and bright mind as Aaron wasn’t treated fair. There’s no excuse for this and never will be. Everyone responsible for this kind of treatment should be ashamed.

  6. Jenny Bhatt says:

    Vince – I also appreciate your points. In particular, your latest note and the last paragraph re. civil disobedience and courage of convictions are spot on. I don’t condone or defend anything – I don’t know enough to do so. But, it is still all very sad – whether the world failed Swartz or he failed himself.

    • Thanks for your reply, Jenny. Yes, it is very sad. Aaron Swartz seemed like a lovable guy– never dreamt he would one day kill himself when I read of his exploits. He did strike me as cocky and arrogant, but that was part of his charm.

      It was only after he died that I dug into his archives a bit and got an inkling of the force of his psychic turmoil. He would write so casually about it, and commenters would respond to the most alarming statements of disconnect as if these were just heart-felt dispatches from the creative self.

      Potential suicides usually, in my experience at least, telegraph their existential distress. I thought Swartz was shouting it from the rooftops, but no one heard him.

  7. Aaron Swartz was an extraordinary guy and what happened to Aaron was shockingly bad.

    The prosecutor went way overboard.

    His contribution to society will be remembered for long time.

    He will be missed by all his regular readers and friends. RIP.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>