This past weekend a 26-year-old young man in Brooklyn committed suicide by hanging. His name was Aaron Swartz. You may not have heard of him, but this blog post, the Internet, techdom today – all owe him a great deal.
Aaron has been in the tech spotlight for over a decade. He is credited with developing RSS (that little feed you can add to your email client so that you see when a web site has been updated). He worked with Reddit. Recently, he was in the news – and was awaiting trial – for stealing a bunch of articles from JSTOR to put on the net for public access. Apparently not for financial gain.
I don’t understand the technical stuff – but essentially, while Swartz was a student at Harvard (ironically), he used MIT’s network to access JSTOR. He began downloading thousands of articles, changing his IP address each time JSTOR peeps started getting suspicious. He eventually ended up figuring out how to get past the system, put his laptop in a closet in some building at MIT – the same closet a homeless man used to store his belongings – and downloaded millions of articles from the humanities’ database. Parties had settled (JSTOR abandoned civil charges), and everything was wiped clean…until a federal prosecutor decided in 2011 that Aaron deserved further punishment (after MIT contacted the authorities). At the time of his death Aaron was facing up to 50 years in federal prison if convicted of the crimes committed against MIT.
None of the articles I’ve encountered had explicit answers as to how a potential conviction might have affected Aaron’s decision to take his life, but almost all mentioned it. While Aaron suffered from depression, Aaron’s family made specific mention of his legal issues in their public statement: “Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts US attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death.” As of today, 25,000 people have signed an online petition that asks the White House to remove the prosecuting attorney in Aaron’s case. (The charges have been dropped in light of Aaron’s death.)
If Twitter is anything to go by, the tech community is up-in-arms. But I realized today – the rest of the world has stayed pretty much silent. What gives?
We live in an exciting and malleable time, and sometimes I think we forget just how exciting it is. And what kind of implications there are. The Internet has changed everything – information is democratized, and we all have access to it. If knowledge is power, we’ve got a new playing field. Perhaps institutions that are typically in charge (governments, universities, corporations) aren’t too thrilled with it all, for understandable reasons. As a society, we’ve been taught to worry about technological progress, to fear the hacker. He has become different, the “Other.” He is not one of “us.” It’s kind of 1984.
I can’t pretend to know enough about the government’s or MIT’s side to make an educated judgment on what’s happened. I do know that from my perspective – someone who’s interested in tech but doesn’t understand it – there doesn’t seem to be a middle ground. It is often in those instances where there isn’t that middle ground that we should examine society’s narratives and dialogue surrounding the issues in question. If there isn’t a dialogue already, it’s time to start one; wherever we stand, get things out in the open and take the stigma and power out of uncomfortable issues. Right? Wrong? Let’s talk about it.
Bottom line: there is rarely something more tragic than losing someone who has so much left to give to the world. By all accounts, Aaron had only just begun.
Illuminating links to Aaron’s work and thoughts. How he read so many books in one year beats me-
National suicide prevention lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK(8255)