Aaron Swartz: Idealist, Innovator—And Now Victim
Lucky is the man who does not secretly believe that every possibility is open to him.”
Walker Percy, in Lost in the Cosmos, argues that there are two personas that transcend the self: the Artist and the Scientist. The Scientist transcends by understanding the world; the Artist by understanding the self. Percy also warns that this can be dangerous—that all too often the Artist, having momentarily transcended the self with the authorship of a beautiful work, burns up upon “re-entry” into the real world, resulting in flameouts and suicides.
Every once in awhile, I come across someone who reminds me how wrong Percy was. Aaron Swartz was one of those people: His work in both software development and political activism made a clear case that there are no fine lines between the Artist and the Scientist. A brilliant mind coupled with a brilliant spirit, like Swartz, can be both.
But unfortunately, Percy wasn’t completely wrong. All too often, the Artist, when crossed with the harshness of reality, decides suicide is the only reasonable way forward. On January 11, 2013, Aaron Swartz took his own life at the tragic age of 26.
While I never met Swartz, he played a pivotal role in my life, as well as of many others. Those in the field of software development whose interests span beyond purely financial ones will understand the argument that good software has an aesthetic beauty that goes beyond the software itself. Good software is poetry, and Swartz was the Emerson of software. At 14, he helped create the now ubiquitous RSS format, which this site along with countless other news syndicates use to this day. He helped create the popular site reddit, and an influential web framework, web.py, that had a crucial role in my study of the Python programming language.
Beyond technology, Swartz was an innovator in politics. He pushed progressive political policies, founding Demand Progress, a grassroots organization that advocates for civil liberties, civil rights, and government reform. Swartz was also an influential part of the free culture movement, which seeks open licenses for creative works, through organizations like Creative Commons. His work through these organizations also helped bring down Congress’ attempts at destroying the Internet’s open culture through the SOPA and PIPA bills.
Swartz’s tragedy appears to have begun two years ago, when he was allegedly caught running a server at MIT that was downloading academic publications en masse from JSTOR, a journal aggregator. Swartz returned the documents, and while JSTOR requested charges to be dropped, the Department of Justice pushed forward with data theft charges. In a press release on the case, Ms. Carmen Ortiz, the Managing District Attorney, wrote that “stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars.” This was no slap on the wrist; Swartz was facing 35 years in prison, about 10 years longer than the maximum sentence for violent rape in Massachusetts, where the “theft” occurred.
The trial against Swartz, which was scheduled for April, seems to have played a significant role in his suicide. In a statement released by Swartz’s family, they remarked that his death “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. The U.S. Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims.”
Too many things went wrong in the circumstances leading to Swartz’s death. After the initial flurry of coverage, the Internet community all too quickly forgot about the case against their dark knight, myself included. Then there’s the larger issue of how we handle mental health in the United States. Mental illness is still too strongly stigmatized, and coverage from health insurance companies still too sparse. Swartz was not given the support he clearly needed.
These issues are disturbing in themselves. But it is the Department of Justice that deserves the most scrutiny and reproach today. The difference between these other contributing factors and the DOJ’s alleged role in Swartz’s suicide is that the former was borne out of apathy, and the latter out of malice. One took inaction, the other required a very deliberate action whose intention was to break Swartz so he would never challenge the system again. They were, of course, ultimately successful.
Lawrence Lessig, the Harvard law professor, wrote in a piece on Swartz that he “is gone today, driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying. I get wrong. But I also get proportionality. And if you don’t get both, you don’t deserve to have the power of the United States government behind you.”
How can this happen? I would argue it's what happens when the incentive structure within the justice department is geared toward political aspirations, rather than the public good. It’s what happens when justice is executed primarily through plea bargaining, rather than through the fairness of due process. Today, an over-zealous justice department destroyed a young hacktivist who had achieved so much and promised so much more. Who knows who they’ll break tomorrow, after, of course, we forget about Swartz once again.
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Photo courtesy of Sage Ross.
Yusuf is a chef, avid ukulele player, and hip-hop artist. Unfortunately he does all of those poorly, so he sticks to his day job writing software. Prior to The Muse, Yusuf has worked as a developer at companies both big (Microsoft, IBM) and small (dotCloud, Transloc), and as an Associate Product Manager at Google. Find him on github, hacker news, or say hi on Twitter.More from this Author