In January 2013, Aaron Swartz — hacktivist, inventor and prodigy — hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment. He was 26. Since his death, the media has tended to interpret Swartz’s suicide as either a limited political critique or an ineffable personal problem. By some accounts, his death was a response to overzealous prosecution under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Others read his suicide as the final chapter of his lifetime battle against mental and physical illness. Both these assessments are problematic for their tendency to remember Swartz for the way he died rather than the way he lived.
The tragedy of Swartz’s death is a reality and a given, but his social contribution — his political activism, body of writing and track record of technical innovation — is living testament to his values. Only by engaging with the impressive body of work that Swartz produced, including his inconvenient critiques of Internet culture and higher education, can we move beyond the effort to “decode” a death and begin to do justice to the intellectual legacy Swartz bequeathed us.
Aaron Swartz’s all-too-short life was nothing if not intensely productive. As a teenager, Swartz was instrumental in developing RSS (Really Simple Syndication) and Creative Commons, a “some rights reserved” copyright framework. At 19, he enrolled at Stanford but dropped out after one year to start his own company, Infogami, which soon merged with Reddit. In 2008, he downloaded and distributed a database of government-owned court documents, known as PACER.
At the time of his death, Swartz was facing federal felony charges for downloading JSTOR’s license-protected academic research journals though MIT’s network. This “theft” was consistent with Swartz’ long-standing desire to promote freedom of information and “liberate” scholarly research from the clutches of for-profit publishers. In his 2008 “Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto,” for instance, he declared a “moral imperative” to resist the “private theft of public culture…in the grand tradition of civil disobedience.” MIT reported Swartz’s break-in to government authorities, and he was charged under the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFFA).
Following Swartz’s death, his family and friends framed his death as a specific political critique, caused by the anachronistic CFFA and prosecutorial overreach in United States v. Aaron Swartz. “Aaron did not commit suicide but was killed by the government,” Robert Swartz said during the funeral service. Later, the Swartz family released a public statement elaborating upon this perspective: “Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy … The U.S. Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims.” Consistent with this interpretation of Swartz’s death, his family has since spearheaded efforts to reform cyber law, including “Aaron’s Law,” which seeks to limit the scope of the CFAA (and is now held up in the House Judiciary Committee). At least publicly, the Swartz family has “made sense” of the suicide in political terms, tapping into public grief to advocate for Internet law reform.
In the 2014 documentary “The Internet’s Own Boy,” writer and director Brian Knappenberger echoes the Swartz family’s perspective, portraying Swartz’s suicide as the product of the United States v. Aaron Swartz. While the film opens with a quote from Henry David Thoreau, the patron saint of civil disobedience, it ends up retreating from the position that Swartz’s actions were crimes of civil disobedience to be claimed and lauded. Through careful parsing of the criminal statute and 13 indictments, Knappenberger sets the stage for future debate to center on how, why or to what extent Swartz broke the law, abandoning any attempt at portraying his actions in terms of civil disobedience.
In order to make the argument that Swartz’s suicide was a response to a specific political injustice, Knappenberger’s documentary and the Swartz family tend to avoid the subject of Swartz’s mental health. Like many people, Swartz was prone to depression. In 2007, for instance, he blogged about his “depressed mood,” times when “everything gets colored by the sadness.” When stories about Swartz’s death focus purely on his political opinions and legal predicament, they miss a chance to discuss (and de-stigmatize) mental health issues, including suicide, among high-performing young people. In fact, the statistics are scary: Major depressive disorder is the leading cause of “disability” among Americans age 15 to 44. The suicide rate among young people under 40 has tripled in the past 45 year, and it is now the second leading cause of death among college students in the U.S.
In her piece “Requiem for a Dream” for The New Yorker, Larissa MacFarquhar highlights Swartz’s emotional issues and ulcerative colitis as important determinants of his suicide. Collaging together excerpts from Swartz’s blog posts and interviews with his friends and family, she attempts to trace his emotional and social development. While her interpretation is engrossing and generally pervasive, it is also inevitably reductive — and there are times when the project of “diagnosing” Swartz’s “illness” relies on a problematically normative idea of physical as well as social “health.” Cultural preoccupation with sadness-as-illness obfuscates the reality that Swartz was — in life and death — responding to objective conditions larger than himself.
Shortly before his death, Swartz wrote a blog post called “Fix the machine, not the person.” “An organization is not just a pile of people,” he said. “It’s also a set of structures … When there’s a problem, you shouldn’t get angry with the gears — you should fix the machine.” It is easy to read this essay as a statement about Swartz’s contested cultural status as a transparency activist and criminal. For Swartz, the “liberation” of academic material was a response to an unfair, for-profit “structure,” which rendered otherwise criminal behavior a “moral imperative.” At the same time, Swartz’s essay also reminds us to consider the possibility, however tentatively, that his death was less an isolated, aberrant act and more as a product of circumstances, a response to “a system” that endures today.
Too often, the effort to “make sense” of a suicide is driven by an impulse to protect our own fragile psychologies and avoid confronting structural problems that feel intractable and inescapable. If we really want to begin to understand what happened to Aaron Swartz — and prevent similar tragedies from occurring in the future — we must choose to actively empathize with his perspective, engaging with the body of work he left behind.
Contact Gillie Collins at firstname.lastname@example.org