These are heavy topics for me… heavy for most of the people who end up reading this. I’m constantly watching current events so I can write something that challenges all of us. This one hurts: not because these apply to me directly, because they apply to all of us indirectly. None of you can say that you’ve never encountered depression, bullying or suicide at any point in your life. I’d wager that most of you have experience with at least two of those, maybe even at the same time. Unfortunately, this post talks about all three because of a single victim, pushed too far.
Aaron Swartz was a 26-year-old internet genius that did more for your online freedoms that you will ever know. He obtained a high level of fame at 14 when he helped define the RSS (really simple syndicate) specification still used by millions of websites worldwide. Since that time, he helped build the massive dumping ground of opinions called Reddit, worked on the development of the Creative Commons copyright licenses, and founded DemandProgress.org. I will never do his work justice, so here’s an excerpt from his family’s official statement:
Aaron’s commitment to social justice was profound, and defined his life. He was instrumental to the defeat of an Internet censorship bill; he fought for a more democratic, open, and accountable political system; and he helped to create, build, and preserve a dizzying range of scholarly projects that extended the scope and accessibility of human knowledge. He used his prodigious skills as a programmer and technologist not to enrich himself but to make the Internet and the world a fairer, better place. His deeply humane writing touched minds and hearts across generations and continents. He earned the friendship of thousands and the respect and support of millions more.
It’s hard for me to comprehend the situation: someone younger than me, more accomplished than me has gone before me because of an ongoing battle with depression and a bullying government that overstepped ethical boundaries. His never-ending lust for free information got him into trouble with the federal government more than once. He was most recently under investigation for stealing journal articles from MIT, whose desire to continue litigation became less clear over time. To our government, that didn’t matter.
Aaron had come under fire previously by working to make US law history free to everyone. A program called PACER allows people to pay for access, but Aaron helped create a program called RECAP that hosted much of the purchased information for free. He and many other activists used countless amounts of time and money to free a large percentage of that data from the government’s pay wall. Even though big brother never brought him down, they smeared his name and constantly harassed him… they just wouldn’t let up. Most of the speculation surrounding his suicide points to a government that bullies those who fight for free information.
Even though MIT backed away — they didn’t clarify their position well — the prosecution kept prodding, bullying Aaron until the very end. His only real crime was a love of free information, but he made many enemies along the way… and they kept pushing until it looked like he would spend years in jail. Lessig summarizes this problem best here:
In that world, the question this government needs to answer is why it was so necessary that Aaron Swartz be labeled a “felon.” For in the 18 months of negotiations, that was what he was not willing to accept, and so that was the reason he was facing a million dollar trial in April — his wealth bled dry, yet unable to appeal openly to us for the financial help he needed to fund his defense, at least without risking the ire of a district court judge. And so as wrong and misguided and fucking sad as this is, I get how the prospect of this fight, defenseless, made it make sense to this brilliant but troubled boy to end it.
Cory Doctorow, a friend of Aaron’s, wrote this post over at Boing Boing. In it, he expressed the simplest question that will haunt him forever: did Aaron even know that his friends would drop everything and help him in a time of need? Instead of telling someone of our love, we assume they feel it. We can’t assume such things! At some point, they’ll need help and they won’t call us.
Because whatever problems Aaron was facing, killing himself didn’t solve them. Whatever problems Aaron was facing, they will go unsolved forever. If he was lonely, he will never again be embraced by his friends. If he was despairing of the fight, he will never again rally his comrades with brilliant strategies and leadership. If he was sorrowing, he will never again be lifted from it.
Such a brilliant mind would surely be aware of his options, right? That’s almost certain… but such a brilliant mind is also painfully conscious to the burdens any request for help lays upon friends. Aaron already shared much good with the world, but a mind so riddled by depression would easily choose the ultimate sacrifice over the burdening of friends. Most of us who’ve been hurt by suicide feel a sense of anger, that the person was selfish in some way, but depression amplifies negativity and isolation. Eventually, martyrdom begins to look like rainbows and roses.
Depression, bullying, and suicide — unfortunately, Aaron’s story encounters all three topics. I didn’t know him personally, but I know his work and greatly appreciate everything he’s done for our freedoms. There is a lot of work left that he couldn’t finish, so spend some time look into his projects and see if your talents fall in line with any areas of need. I will miss him, all of us will.
I started this series with Aaron’s story because it hits home for me. I’ll be writing about each topic separately in the weeks to come. I have a lot to say, but I wanted to respect Aaron without my beliefs riddled throughout.
RIP, Aaron Swartz.