My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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processing the loss of Aaron Swartz

The last 24 hours have been an emotional roller coaster. I woke up yesterday to find that a friend of mine – Aaron Swartz – had taken his life. My Twitter feed went into mourning – shock, sadness, anger, revenge. I spent the day talking with friends who were all in various states of disarray. I watched as many of them poured out their hearts on their blogs, a practice we’ve all been doing for over a decade. And yet, I couldn’t find the words to express what I’ve been feeling. When I tweeted yesterday about being angry, well-meaning friends and mental health experts who didn’t know Aaron wrote to me about how I couldn’t be responsible for someone’s depression. This made me want to scream. I decided to write this blog post instead. It is raw and imperfect, but that’s where I’m at right now.

For better or worse, I’ve known a lot of people over the years who have committed suicide. I’ve watched people struggle through serious depression and then make that choice. Having battled my own demons, I understood. Part of why Aaron’s death hit me like a rock is because this time it was different.

There’s no doubt in my mind that depression was a factor. I adored Aaron because he was an emotional whirlwind – a cranky bastard and a manic savant. Our conversations had an ethereal sense to them and he pushed me hard to think through complex issues as we debated. He had an intellectual range that awed me and a kitten’s sense of curiosity. But when he was feeling destructive, he used his astute understandings of people to find their weak spots and poke them where it hurt. Especially the people he loved the most. He saw himself as an amateur sociologist because he was enamored with how people worked and we argued over the need for rigor, the need for formal training. He had no patience for people who were intellectually slower than him and he failed to appreciate what could be gained by a university setting. Instead, he wanted to mainline books and live in the world of the mind.

I’ve known Aaron for nine years and I both adored him to pieces and found him frustrating as hell. In recent years, our connection grew more sporadic because I loved the ups but really struggled with the downs. But when the arrest happened, I grew very worried about him. We decided never to talk about the case itself, but amidst brainjams, we’d joke about him finally getting his degree in jail as a way to relieve the pressure. I promised to curate an educational plan built off of great pieces of scholarship and told him I’d send him a printout from JSTOR each day. I knew he was struggling, but he was also a passionate activist and I genuinely thought that would see him through this dark period.

What made me so overwhelmingly angry yesterday was the same thing that has been boiling in my gut for the last two years. When the federal government went after him – and MIT sheepishly played along – they weren’t treating him as a person who may or may not have done something stupid. He was an example. And the reason they threw the book at him wasn’t to teach him a lesson, but to make a point to the entire Cambridge hacker community that they were p0wned. It was a threat that had nothing to do with justice and everything to do with a broader battle over systemic power. In recent years, hackers have challenged the status quo and called into question the legitimacy of countless political actions. Their means may have been questionable, but their intentions have been valiant. The whole point of a functioning democracy is to always question the uses and abuses of power in order to prevent tyranny from emerging. Over the last few years, we’ve seen hackers demonized as anti-democratic even though so many of them see themselves as contemporary freedom fighters. And those in power used Aaron, reframing his information liberation project as a story of vicious hackers whose terroristic acts are meant to destroy democracy.

Reasonable people can disagree about tactics and where and when a particular approach pushes too far. Like Lessig, I often disagreed with Aaron about his particular approach to freeing the world’s information, even if I never disagreed with him about the goal. And one of the reasons why so many hackers and geeks spent yesterday raging against the machine is because so many people in power have been unable to see past the particular acts and understand the intentions and activism. So much public effort has been put into controlling and harmonizing geek resistance, squashing the rebellion, and punishing whoever authorities can get their hands on. But most geeks operate in gray zones, making it hard for them to be pinned down and charged. It’s in this context that Aaron’s stunt gave federal agents enough evidence to bring him to trial to use him as an example. They used their power to silence him and publicly condemn him even before the trial even began.

Yesterday, there was an outpouring of information about his case, including an amazing account from the defense’s expert witness. Many people asked why people didn’t speak up before. I can only explain my reasoning. I was too scared to speak publicly for fear of how my words might be used against him. And I was too scared to get embroiled in the witch hunt that I’ve watched happen over the last three years. Because it hasn’t been about justice or national security. It’s been about power. And it’s at the heart and soul of why the Obama administration has been a soul crushing disappointment to me. I’ve gotten into a ridiculous number of fights over the last couple of years with folks in the administration over the treatment of geeks and the misunderstanding of hackers, but I could never figure how to make a difference on that front. This was a source of serious frustration for me, even as SOPA/PIPA showed that geeks could make a difference.

So here we are today, the world lacking a prodigious child whose intellect scared the shit out of everyone who knew him. He became a toy for a government set on showing their strength. And they bullied him and preyed on his weaknesses and sought to break him. And they did. All for the performance of justice. All before he was even tried in a society that prides itself on innocent until proven guilty. Was depression key to what happened on Friday? Certainly. But it wasn’t the whole story. And that’s what makes it hard for me to stomach.

There is a lot of justifiable outrage out there. Many people want the heads of the key administrators who helped create the context in which Aaron took his life. I completely understand where they’re coming from. But I also fear the likelihood that Aaron will be turned into a martyr, an abstraction of a geek activist destroyed by the State. Because he was a lot more than that – lovable and flawed, passionate and strong-willed, brilliant and infuriatingly stupid. It’ll be easy for folks to rally cry for revenge in his name. But not much is gained from reifying the us vs. them game that got us here. There has to be another way.

What I really hope comes out of this horrible tragedy is some serious community reflection and a deep values check. Many of the beliefs that Aaron stood for – the liberation of knowledge, open access to information, and the use of code to make the world better – are core values in the geek community. Yet, as Biella Coleman astutely dissects in “Coding Freedom”, this community is not without its flaws. Nor was Aaron. He did things his way because he believed that passion and will and action trumped all. And his stubbornness made him breakable. If we want to achieve the values and goals that are core to the geek community, I don’t think that we’ll ever make a difference by creating more martyrs that can be used as examples in a cultural war. As we collectively mourn Aaron’s death and channel our anger into making a difference, I think we need to look for an approach to change-making that doesn’t result in brilliant people being held up as examples so that they can be tormented by power.

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87 comments to processing the loss of Aaron Swartz

  • Danah, yours was the very first post I saw about his death yesterday. I’m grateful you chose to share your thoughts on this today because this story is much bigger than I knew.

    The line that really shook how I think about what’s going on is how hackers believe themselves to be modern day freedom fighters. I agree and it really changes the frame of how I u see stand the state of information and government.

    You were angry and rightfully so. I just wanted to say thank you for enlightening me.

  • Mori

    One fear is that no matter how much we call for activists and hackers to become more reasonable, to see “alternative” methods to achieving their goals – what if those with power tighten the noose until there are no reasonable paths left open? Has this not been the pattern with every encroachment of genuine tyranny? The uncomfortable question we must ask ourselves may be this: when has the situation of a society deteriorated to the point that those who use “questionable” methods are not misguided so much as merely ahead of the curve?

    We try to be optimistic and believe that things aren’t that bad yet. That there’s still a way out of this mess, basically, that doesn’t require that we do things which we have been conditioned to believe are morally grey. Maybe there is a way, still. I would hope there is. Because otherwise, many of the people whom we have made a show of supporting in principle while condemning their actions, could turn out to have been just plain freedom fighters all along. And none of us could recognize the truth in front of our faces.

  • Chris

    danah: This was thought-provoking, and — I hope — influential. I literally do not know what to think about your last sentence, and I suppose this shows thoughts — inchoate at the moment — being provoked, for which I thank you.

    If the govt tormented this man because they objected to his means, then I suppose it is possible for other means to be chosen in the future. OTOH, if they objected to his *ends*, then it would seem that no approach to change-making will prevent future torment/suppression, because the very goal – a changed system – is itself taken as a threat. Just throwing this out there – I suppose where one comes down on it depends in part on how malevolent they take the powerful actors supporting the status quo to be, and how “rigged” they believe the system itself is to perpetuate that which needs changing.

  • Ludo

    “””a cranky bastard and a manic savant. Our conversations had an ethereal sense to them and he pushed me hard to think through complex issues as we debated. He had an intellectual range that awed me and a kitten’s sense of curiosity. But when he was feeling destructive, he used his astute understandings of people to find their weak spots and poke them where it hurt. Especially the people he loved the most.””” <— Felt like you were describing me, so I hope you understand that with people like this it is never easy for them to open up even to the people they care for, so that in itself should be a something to remember, as for that just keep in mind all the positives, because you were important enough to see that side of him.

  • What a beautiful and helpful expression about Aaron & the world. Thank you, Danah. <3

  • danah -

    This is a terrific piece. I will do my best to get people in the administration to read it.

  • I’m starting to get the feeling Aaron will be remembered as a sort of latter-day Alan Turing figure, an essential genius hounded to death by the powers that were.

  • ariel

    Information is power. Bradley Manning, Julian Assange, Aaron Swartz

  • This is so maddening! If he had been a bankster the government would have left him alone.

  • gregorylent

    there is a growing sense that government sees citizens as its enemy. and that careers are enhanced by this attitude. that can only create problems.

  • Thanks so much for your thoughts!

  • I agree with GregoryLent above when he says “there is a growing sense that government sees citizens as its enemy.” except I would more specifically name the corrupt and outdated judicial system as the aggressor here. When we see brilliant young men persecuted by the system for silly things like hacking Sonys play station or liberating documents from a paywall something is wrong. Something is very wrong when the average life of American can lead them into decades of jail time.

    While part of me does not want Swartz to be a martyr – he is SO much more than that – I dont think theres any reason to call for the anger to subside. The anger is justified, and it has been earned over these last few years.

  • Shava Nerad

    I suspect that the 30+ year jail time had more to do with SOPA/PIPA than it had to do with JSTOR.

    http://www.technologyreview.com/news/426857/aaron-swartz-hacks-the-attention-economy/

    This is what used to be called public relations, right? Propaganda. The difference now is that groups of everyday citizens can do it. I think that’s a big part of what we saw with the fight over SOPA. It was not about legal strategy or lobbyists. It was about how do we use these techniques to get people’s attention? Wikipedia went dark for a day, Tumblr asked all their bloggers to phone Congress—I think they had over 86,000 calls that one day. There was a guy who built a tool that would automatically dial each member of Congress and the head of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). If you wanted to inform everybody of your position, he could do it with a couple of clicks. What’s different about this fight is that a whole community took up the banner and tried to raise attention, and that it’s all organized over the Internet.

    I’m third generation activist in this country — my grandfather watched folks like Eugene Debs go through this. My dad worked with MLK and the SCLC. The players change, the song remains the same.

    The immune system of the status quo protects itself from change agents by throwing them in the oubliette, the forgetting place, if it can.

    JSTOR’s said it doesn’t care, so why do the feds?

    MIT probably only cares because if they say they don’t, vendors will cut the libraries off from subscriptions that students and researchers/faculty/students need for vital work. Rock and a hard place. They probably couldn’t actively support Aaron.

    You don’t put someone away for three decades for downloading files. But you might put someone away for the rest of their life for being a credible threat.

    That means we need to pick up that load.

    I’m organizing a vigil outside the federal courthouse in Boston 2pm Tuesday and another meeting some evening later in the week TBA at MIT. I’m starting teaching organizing again.

    We have to get out from behind the keyboards. Geeks are good at fixing things. Let’s fix this.

    Out of the comfort zone. Usually I say, “Don’t mourn, organize,” but this week I’m making an exception and multitasking.

  • Donna

    “And the reason they threw the book at him wasn’t to teach him a lesson, but to make a point to the entire Cambridge hacker community that they were p0wned. It was a threat that had nothing to do with justice and everything to do with a broader battle over systemic power.”

    This resonates with me because I have been wondering how the Bradley Manning case might connect to the DOJ’s excessive pursuit of Mr. Schwartz. He was reportedly a “Manning supporter.” If the DOJ imagined a stronger personal connection — or a connection as has been speculated between Manning and the loose group you refer to as The “Cambridge Hacking community” the DOJ might well have seen themselves pursuing a national security thread, yet able to make a case against a target of investigation only on other grounds.

    I am not suggesting the judicial behavior would be justified but it would not be as ridiculously odd as the pursuit of Mr. Schwartz for liberating academic papers from JSTOR after JSTOR itself had settled. Perhaps you have found the key to the DOJ thinking, however perverse. That key to understanding the political dynamic has been missing in all that I have read to date.

    Please accept my sincere condolences on the loss of a friend. He seems to have had many of them, and many more admirers. Sadly, all the love and respect surrounding him did not erase the pain he evidently needed to bring to an end.

  • James Salsman

    Much of the blame lies not in Boston or the White House, but with Eric Holder’s new standard operating procedure of trumping up charges in every case and trying to freeze assets. Defense attorneys who insist on representing clients who would make competent pro se defendants at trial, able to advance absence of malice (scienter) and other nullification arguments which are not allowed by lawyers, also deserve blame here.

  • In a world full of sociopaths who get away with everything, one brilliant kid gets hammered.
    I agree — to pathologize this, to reduce it to ‘depression,’ is not just politically crude; it’s humanly crude.
    Aaron swartz feels familiar to me even though i don’t live in his world and he clearly surpassed most people i’ve ever known — but i’ve known lots of brilliant kids,and often their pain is palpable, and often they make mistakes — but they didn’t have the world coming down on their heads.
    – for god’s sake, his biology was still solidifying — his frontal lobes hadn’t fully kicked in: who has judgment at that age?
    Presumably if you’re reading this, we’ve all been smart kids — so we know what that kind of scathing scorn and contempt was like at that age, for anyone who seemed not to get it. That’s the age of arrogance — and so what if he was all those things!
    This isn’t to make aaron swartz into just another bright guy who was brought down. But like all tragedies, we can see him in each of us.
    And by the way what is wrong with seeing aaron swartz as a martyr? There’s an implication that to make him a martyr is to make him a tool for others’ use.
    But let’s approach this from another angle:should we say that joan of arc was not a martyr because she was flawed?not completely rational? And yes, used as tool of other people’s agendas? I’m not putting up aaron swartz as a candidate for sainthood; but if a martyr can be a symbol of the suffering people can inflict on other people in the name of power — and if that can be any sort of barricade against that inflicting — then yes, he was a martyr.

  • Liz McLellan

    It seems to me it was about so much more than his “depression”….which was a convenient exploit for the Obama administrations Justice Department.

    I have been sicksad over this… More and more I feel that we are as a nation collectively and literally destroying our most vitally engaged citizens…and young people.

    I would like to see a citizen defense fund created in Aaron’s name – for the defense of internet activists. If more people had understood his contributions – perhaps he would not have felt so alone and out gunned in this fight.

  • Thank you for sharing this. I found this the most appropriate of all that I have read regarding this. Having never truly known him, you made him human as only someone close to him could.

    Thank you.

  • CLN

    I don’t really understand the point of view of most of these posts.

    First of all it sounds like this young man had real psychological problems quite independent of his criminal prosecution, which after all had not yet reached the trial stage. It’s not clear that he was “broken” by the prosecution though we do have an acquaintance’s word for it. I could be wrong but it looks like people are opportunistically using his suicide to amplify their indignation when in fact his most serious problems may have been personal.

    Second there’s the question of why “geeks” think they should get a pass for committing their politically motivated crimes. Swartz apparently had a pattern of participating in digital thefts. He knew he was committing crimes, and he knew that people in the recent past had received harsh sentences for these crimes. Did he want to be a martyr? Did he believe it was just for him to do whatever he wanted on behalf of his rather simplistic political agenda, regardless of the law of the land?

    This relates to the implication that there is something outrageous about symbolic prosecution. Is there? It serves a practical purpose. When a new class of criminal laws are passed or a crime wave is supposed to have a emerged, prosecutors seek to make exemplary punishments. They’ve done it with mobsters, crack dealers, Wall Street traders, human traffickers. Why not with digital crime? (Of course many of you will respond that digital crime is not real crime, but we have laws in this country and your opinion does not make the law.)

    I think there is a tragic quality to this story, but like all tragedy it’s not a story of a good person beset by external evils, but of an exceptional person whose virtues bring with them certain vices to which he is blind and which lead to his downfall. In this case Swartz like so many hacktivist types (Assange comes to mind) mistake their technical competence for wisdom, and think their ability to solve technical problems gives them an omniscient understanding of the political problems of the US and the world and how to fix them. What Swartz lacked was the moderation to see that he was not as wise as he thought he was, and the instinct to stay away from people who would only encourage him in his delusions.

  • Lucretia

    Thank you Danah.
    At the end of the day, the same people who invoke the phrase “our founding fathers” without realizing that they were committing criminal acts against their own government in the 1770′s, will spend much time focusing on Aaron’s guilt or innocence and not on the reasons behind his actions.
    The word “depression” keeps getting bandied about in this online discussion of this brilliant young man, but the word “despair” needs to be introduced as well.
    Those who dismiss the element of despair that goes with being not just prosecuted, but persecuted, have never witnessed the power of the state being used to “make an example” of someone.
    My heart and prayers are with Aaron and everyone who knew & loved him.

  • Matt Stoller

    Thank you for this lovely piece. I have one objection.

    But I also fear the likelihood that Aaron will be turned into a martyr, an abstraction of a geek activist destroyed by the State. Because he was a lot more than that – lovable and flawed, passionate and strong-willed, brilliant and infuriatingly stupid. It’ll be easy for folks to rally cry for revenge in his name. But not much is gained from reifying the us vs. them game that got us here. There has to be another way.

    But Aaron is a martyr, the state made sure of that when it destroyed him. And the state made sure it was an us versus them battle when it began attacking “us”.

    I loved Aaron. But he would recognize that this is about power. He would also recognize that you’ve asked for people to disarm in the face of what just happened. No, no, and no.

    That said, this is a beautiful post and I thank you for it.

  • km

    You see things and you understand. Your a wallflower.
    RIP Aaron

  • Kurt Wimmer

    Danah, I am so sorry for your loss, and so touched by your words and passion. Aaron’s death is a horrible loss. Thank you for this post.

  • J.R.

    What we need here is for the laws and policies to change that made it possible for this tragedy unfold.It up to us to make that happen.

  • CP

    I’m with CLN. The naivete about politics and power and the double standard suggested by this post, most of the responses, and a number of other recent posts I’ve read is simply bizarre. Since when has the American justice system, or any justice system, for that matter, ever treated individuals as “person[s] who may or may not have done something stupid”? The wisdom of one’s actions is almost entirely irrelevant–unless, perhaps, one belongs to a privileged group, in which case a prosecutor, judge, or jury might, for a moment, consider whether it matters why you embezzled money or committed insurance fraud. Generally, however, such considerations are only made–when they’re made at all–after you’ve been convicted of a crime. To all but the most deluded observers, moreover, the notion that a government will do everything in its power to eliminate a perceived threat seems about as revelatory as the notion that the Earth revolves around the sun. More troubling still, however, is the fact that many seem to think that Swartz’s brilliance entitled him to behave as he saw fit, or, perhaps more precisely, that a brilliant person who does something stupid deserves a slap on the wrist more than, say, a person of average intelligence.

  • danah,

    Thank you for your heart, thought and especially nuance here. My condolences to you and everyone suffering this loss. I hope there are ways to deal with power through openness and connection. Isolation has such a deep marriage with depression: in people and systemically.

  • KLR

    I’m with CLN and CP as well, and I’m genuinely perplexed by the coverage of this story and many of the comments here.

    First, the discussion of the legal situation lacks any perspective. Only people who spend all their time focused on technology policy would interpret this as a story specifically about technology crimes. Compared to the rest of the western world, the US has longer sentences for crimes across the board. Every day, people get sentenced to many years in prison (and it’s disingenuous of Lessig to suggest Swartz would have gotten anything close to decades in prison for these charges) for nonviolent drug offenses, get life imprisonments for mere possession of child pornography often downloaded without plausibly motivating any child abuse, and so on. This does not happen to the same degree in the UK, France, or Germany. I don’t mean to sound insensitive to the recently departed here, but he was a very privileged person who had significantly more opportunity to comply with the law than many. Civil disobedience can be great, but regardless of whether it is or not in any particular case, it usually comes with penalties. It’s very hard to see Swartz as a victim of the United States Attorney’s Office nearly as much as whole swaths of poor people and African American communities, for example, are victimized by laws and by simple situation. Again, perspective is important. What’s happening here seems very much like an insular group of bloggers, who happen to be connected with some journalists, understandably upset about the death of their friend and lashing out. But that is irresponsible, and I don’t just mean politically; it is very likely also unfair to the family, who are probably not in a great position at the moment to assess how public they’d prefer their son’s death to be.

    Second, and related, the message of Lessig and of many others seems to be “don’t turn the death of my friend into a discussion of mental illness; turn it into a discussion of my pet causes.” But it obviously has a profound connection to mental illness and also to the social and psychological pressures that people who seek “fame” in the technology community seem routinely to experience. That is a far better subject for critique, in response to this kind of heartbreaking tragedy, than the US’s sentencing laws. There’s a whole online subculture that feeds off people’s insecurities and need for attention, their desire to feel “influential” or “famous” in a tiny but vocal community of like-minded people. I am virtually certain that that subculture hurt Swartz as much as any prosecutorial discretion did here. It is worth mentioning that a vanishingly small number of criminal defendants in the US commit suicide, despite whatever injustice they feel about their charges and despite any accusations of prosecutorial overreach.

    Third, there is a significant overemphasis in the press of the “debate” among a relatively small but vocal community of people like the blogger on this page and the community at Hacker News. The NY Times confidently reported today that Swartz’s death triggered a widespread debate, when the political debate really is just among people who were already activists, most of whom knew Swartz personally. Just because someone is friends with journalists and people like Lessig does not imply that that person’s tragic death is the subject, much less the proper subject, for a public debate, unless of course what we’re really talking about is a self-styled internet “high society” that wants to turn one of its own into a martyr. But that would be terribly manipulative and shortsighted, and it is hard to see how it could possibly be a praiseworthy method for achieving social change.

    Fourth, but less important, as with many deaths and many suicides in particular, there is very little realism in the discussion of the recently dead. As most people do, Swartz touched many. That should be praised and discussed, but the rest should not be inflated. It would be insensitive to point out particular inaccuracies in the coverage of him, but a big part of me does think that truth is more important than whitewashing memory. Remembering people for what they were is a far better honor than remembering grandiose caricatures of them. The blogger on this page has done a better job than most at this, but there is still a moss hanging over the piece that makes it seem doubtful that identical praise would have been offered a week ago. To mention Swartz in the same breath as Turing dishonors both.

    The response I urge is private grief and personal reflection, though perhaps that is suited to a different age in which the goal of motivated young people is not to attract as much personal attention on the internet as possible.

  • I read about him when he was the hero in the stopping of the SOPA act. Take a wild guess what caused the Govt to want to squash him. They used cannon-fire to kill a butterfly.
    But what struck me hard was the similarity of blog posts that him and me have written. It struck me as if he and me were channeling the same thoughts and feelings over the years of active blogging (2007-09). His posts about depression were similar in tone as mine. His post about man as a machine was same in theme. Even his Dark Knight posts or his illness post (upset stomach/cold) struck me as a mirror to whatever nonsense i had written. It feels surreal and strange. I regret that I got to know him only after he is no more on earth.

  • streamfortyseven

    “Mourn the dead, and fight like hell for the living.” – Mother Jones

    I’ll bet you a nickel the prosecutor saw this post on his weblog and that’s why they piled on those nine additional felony counts in September 2012 – and after that he only made two more weblog posts – one in October, and the last in November, where he’d been doing one or two per week before: http://www.aaronsw.com/weblog/verysick

    I suppose the best way to honor his life is to continue his work: http://www.filmsforaction.org/takeaction/in_memory_of_aaron_swartz_here_are_14_ways_to_fight_back_against_the_intellectual_property_racket/

    I never knew him. I wish I had, and it’s one hell of a loss to take. It makes me wonder what the hell I’m doing practicing law – mostly criminal defense, by the way.

  • Jarhead

    My sincere condolences on the loss of your friend. His death and your Blog has sparked my intellectual curiosity to learn more about him and the movement that he was a part of.

  • pir

    hi. you don’t know me, but i knew aaron too, though we were not friends, and i feel galvanized and angry as hell by the injustice of it all, and sad because he was a great guy, and it just… sucks that he is gone. thank you for this post. i do have some issues with it; i hope you don’t mind me writing about them here. if it seems disrespectful at this time, feel free to delete, and i apologize.

    “because so many people in power have been unable to see past the particular acts and understand the intentions and activism.” — i think the people in power understand the intentions and activism quite well. that is WHY they come down like a ton of bricks on people such as aaron. it’s a message to us, an example of what they’re willing to do to us. and we’re late to the game; they’ve been doing it to other people with less privilege for a long time already. we need to wake up right quick, because the US is on a dangerous trajectory.

    “But I also fear the likelihood that Aaron will be turned into a martyr, an abstraction of a geek activist destroyed by the State. Because he was a lot more than that” — of course he was so much more than that. all martyrs are more than the symbolic value we bestow on them, otherwise they would probably never have become martyrs. and we’re not turning aaron into a martyr; the US government did. and you know what? if that galvanizes more people to get off their butts and become activists for progressive causes, good. do you think aaron would mind that? i don’t think so. in fact i imagine he’d be happy if geek activists broadened their horizons beyond their own, relatively privileged ranks. it’s not like judicial travesties begin and end with geeks. geeks are only just noticing. quite naive, really, but let’s shake ourselves off and move forward.

    “What I really hope comes out of this horrible tragedy is some serious community reflection and a deep values check.” — i don’t think the geek activist community needs the deep values check here, not in regards to freedom of information; our flaws lie elsewhere. you say the obama administration has been a soul-crushing disappointment to you. yeah. same here. it hurts so much more than what the bush administration did, because we mistakenly thought these people were, if not progressive, at least in general on our side. but they’re not. those so-called democrats, they are who’d need to do a deep values check, but i am no longer holding my breath. the reason you can’t seem to make a difference in talking to them is that they do not actually share your/our values. and it’s IMO a severe mistake to turn to appeasement for fear that otherwise aaron won’t be the last brilliant-and-fragile mind to be sacrificed, because no matter what we do to make nice, they’ll just tighten the rules, and aaron won’t be the last anyway. let’s not forget that these are the same people who kill young minds (in brown, non-privileged bodies) with every drone strike, all of them unsung on the internet. and you want us to to stop using methods which, though vaguely legislated as illegal to protect monetary interests, do NOT kill or harm any person, or even destroy property? hell, no. aaron was deeply interested in history; we all should be, because this has happened before, and it will happen again (and i swear to your deity of choice i did not just quote BSG).

    i am deeply sorry for aaron, for your loss, for our loss. but this is no time to lay down the measly weapons we have. and if i fear anything, it’s that aaron’s acts will be pathologized. depression is NOT the key here; abuse of judicial power is.

  • CP – There’s always law and morality. I’d say what Aaron did was moral. An act of digital civil disobedience. I never met him, but I doubt he expected to his actions to not have consequences.

    What people are pointing out is that the government’s response wasn’t proportional.

    Aaron didn’t physically hurt anyone, intimidate anyone or even really damage any property. Maybe, and this is open to question, his actions cost JSTOR some lost fees. But JSTOR (the party supposedly harmed) wasn’t interested in pursuing criminal charges. Given their recent actions, it’s even likely they agreed with Aaron on some level that open knowledge is a benefit to all. So on what moral authority was the government acting in this case?

    My guess is that the government is afraid of losing control to hacktivists. So they decided to bring the hammer down on Aaron. Set an example. This might (or might not) be practical (from their point of view, where order is the most important thing). But it wasn’t moral to try and impose the level of punishment usually reserved for murderers on someone only ever accused of leaking scientific papers.

  • Hi, danah – thank you for speaking out and for your explanation of why you may have been silent earlier. I did not know Aaron, only of him, and feel guilty that I had not followed up on his story. I truly thought there was no way that the feds could make this case stick.

    Regarding Aaron as martyr – I think there is truth in Matt’s comment. It is not often – is it ever? – that power is shared through connection. The more entrenched the powerful interests, the less likely.

  • Yes, it was great that you wrote this, in that most of the world, me included, knew nothing about this, and your post had enough juice to make it to my computer. While this post is better than nothing, it will not get the job done. Our corrupt government and financial system need to be literally replaced, not just scandalized.

    If you were afraid to step forward yourself, it is your responsibility as a citizen to quietly raise an army. It could be an army of hackers, or it could be an army of voters. As long as we stand by in fear and let our Constitutional and Civil Rights be trampled upon, things will not improve and will, in fact, over the long-term, deteriorate. We need to completely replace the corrupt-to-the-core, bought-and-paid-for Democratic and Republican Parties with independent citizens, create a more participatory citizen-based government (where a smaller government literally serves us and not vice versa), regulate the financial institutions and keep them out of politics, and go back to having a free press where news is required to be factual and unbiased (clearly separated from editorial, which can be biased). Then, things will get better. Feel free to check out the website DemocracyParty.org and put in your two cents.

  • This is such a sad event. Hard to respond coherently and make a glimmer of something positive out of it.

  • LME

    Eloquent post, illuminating many important aspects of this set of events. To CP, CLN, KLR, and others who have presented the point of view that the Justice Department did not abuse judicial power and the prosecutor’s analysis that “stealing is stealing” is at the heart of this case, I say Lessig’s point about ‘proportionality’ is obviously true, and your limited understanding of what is at stake embodies the danger of our further devolution into a Corpocracy. If you’re OK with Corpocracy, because after all, if you’re a winner in that system it’s hard to turn down the rewards, try reading Cloud Atlas to get an idea of the world you are creating for everybody else, and ultimately yourself.

  • Paul

    Thank you for this, Danah. This expresses my experience of Aaron better than I know how to. I’m glad that I’m seeing the streams of love for him shining thru all this meaning-making that people are doing, perhaps to buffer the simple human shock of such a loss.

    From things he said, you seemed to hold him as a beloved friend, a difficult and rare thing in this world. Thank you for that. I hope he let you know how important that was to him.

  • Danny

    I am a fellow 18 USC § 1030 (“computer crimes”) defendant and followed Aaron’s case closely in an attempt to gain a sense of camaraderie with someone in a similar position as I.

    It’s difficult to convey the feelings I know Aaron must have been experiencing. The thought processes that are necessarily evoked when Federally indicted – particularly in an intelligent, well-meaning-albeit-ornery guy like Aaron (and, I like to think, myself) – rev day after day to the edge of unbearable as the trial/sentencing dates approach.

    It truly is a living nightmare to be faced with decades of incarceration over an act of activism or mere misguided curiosity.

  • KeepAmericaFree17

    Too bad Aaron wasn’t a bankster, or a corrupt lobbyist or friend of Obamination and Eric “Fast & Furious” Holder.

    He’d still be alive today.

    More people like Aaron will be murdered so long as Americans continue to do nothing.

  • Activists are going to need access to an organized network of supportive mental health professionals. These are the people who push the boundaries of a society toward the horizons of evolution, growth, transformation. It is critical that we who work in mental health be there for them. That’s what I wrote about the day I learned about this tragedy.

  • David

    Thank you for your beautiful writing and insight into this tragedy. You have helped me process this significant and painful event in a very big way.

    I wish you peace, calm and clarity as you continue going through your reflections on Aaron and the issues that surround his untimely passing.

  • Dan McCleary

    Thank you, Danah. I am so sad and angry about this, and it really helps to read the words of people who knew him.

  • mike miller

    KLR,CP,KLN. Why not use your real name or are you just paid shills defending the DOJ’s vendetta against freedom of information. How can you defend the rule of law when it seems that as time goes on it punishes people that speak the truth and protects those that propogate lies and disinformation.

  • Geoff

    “Rage, rage against the dying of the light”

  • Jim Hendler

    Slowly letting myself read the many tributes to Aaron. Thanks danah, yours is one of the best so far

  • The Fair

    Thank you for sharing. So sad.

  • Steve An

    Danah,

    Very poignant and thought provoking on all counts.

    Peace Aaron and many belated thanks.

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