Sunday, January 13, 2013

Pulling Out A Single Thread

Do you use an RSS feed?  Are you on Reddit?  Are you among those - myself included - who set to one side the legalize surrounding what is and is not permissible, downloading material from the internet without a thought or care?

If any of these things are true, then the death of Aaron Swartz yesterday should mean something to you.  Taking his own life at the very young age of 26, Swartz had already managed to invent the RSS feed, as well as get in on the ground floor of the social networking site Reddit.  At 19, he heard about independent researcher Rick Perlstein and created a website for Perlstein free of charge.

In July, Swartz was indicted by federal prosecutors in Massachusetts for allegedly illegally downloading millions of documents from the online scholarly journal archive JSTOR.  Defending himself against the charges would have exhausted what resources he had managed to accumulate in his short life.  If convicted, he faced over thirty years in federal prison.

As Charlie Pierce noted in a comment on one thread somewhere discussing Swartz's suicide, perhaps if Swartz had been laundering billions of dollars of drug and terrorist money, he would be OK.  Heck, if he had imploded his company and nearly collapsed the world economy, he could sue he US government, like AIG! Instead, Swartz, acting out of the conviction that intellectual property - in particular intellectual property that was created with public money - is not something from which anyone should derive profit, but rather the property of all people, downloaded millions of pages of documents from JSTOR.  For this, the US Attorney's office in Massachusetts unleashed the hounds on this young man.

Of course, it should also be noted that Swartz was a chronic depressive.  Rick Perlstein notes that Swartz wrote extensively of his identification with the late author David Foster Wallace after Wallace killed himself.  Perlstein, the one among the many who've written about Swartz over the past twenty-four hours who seems to have been most deeply effected by the young man's death, was blunt yesterday: He places the blame for Swartz's death squarely on the federal government for hounding this young man to death.

In response, some have noted that, as a chronic depressive, eliminating personal responsibility in such a fashion removes any agency Swartz himself should have.

Knowing little other than what I've read, I find these arguments of little value (except perhaps to reveal much about those who make them).  What I do know for certain is this: Even though I couldn't have named him before yesterday morning, what I've read in just 24 hours convinces me that all of us have lost, and lost dearly, with this young man's passing.  Whether a tragedy or a crime, his suicide has robbed us of a tremendous human being, a young man who packed more living in his short life than many twice his age.  He gave to man freely; he offered the world the fruits of his intellectual labor not for his own aggrandizement but to make the world a little bit better place.  He was a firm believer in the power of knowledge, that the world runs not on "information" but understanding, and put his tremendous resources of intellect and passion behind those persons and institutions and causes that furthered as broad a dissemination of real understanding as possible.  Reading the many, many things this young man has done made me wonder about the old metaphor about pulling a single thread, then watching the whole piece of stitching unravel.  Swartz's participation in so much of our contemporary wired intellectual life was such that, losing him, we lose a component that holds so much of it together.

We are all the less, whether we knew his name or not, for the death of Aaron Swartz.  Over the next few days, as I digest just some of the amazing things he did, I may revisit not only his accomplishments, but be a tiny part of a growing number of people trying to shine a light on what seems an over-the-top prosecution.  Did this contribute to Swartz's decision to kill himself?  Is he solely responsible for his death, perhaps mitigated by a struggle with depression?  These are questions that, absent clear evidence one way or another, I believe are probably in the realm of unanswerable.  The least service I can provide, I hope, is to make clear all Swartz has done, the good things for which he worked and fought, and the many ways he has made our lives better.

It isn't enough, I know.  But I hope it might be possible to take that thread and, if not reconstruct the whole piece of cloth, at the very least show how it fit in the larger work.

Virtual Tin Cup

Amazon Honor System Click Here to Pay Learn More