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.