The shock of an early death — especially of a celebrated thinker and inventor like Aaron Swartz — is fodder for our collective imagination. Swartz’s suicide catapulted him into the mainstream media and provoked a massive outpouring of public grief online. Those with a stake in how Swartz is remembered — from his friends and family to cultural commentators — have tried to fit pieces of his life together into a post-mortem diagnosis of his legal and psychological limbo.
To a degree, these efforts allow Swartz’ death to eclipse his life and miss an opportunity to engage with the substance of his political thought and technological contribution. Only by contending with the extensive body of writing and interviews that Swartz left behind can we begin to consider the very important questions that he was articulating about why certain institutions and communities, including Stanford and Silicon Valley, are not the panaceas they purport to be.
Swartz never quite fit into the world of higher education, especially at Stanford. Three days into his freshman year at Stanford, Swartz wrote a vitriolic and lonely account of his New Student Orientation activities. He was bewildered by the vague enthusiasm of freshman hallways and the dance move requirements at a token fraternity party. Swartz questioned not only the idiosyncrasies of “teenage” social life, but also the institution of college itself — its rules for admittance, price tag and incentive system. Swartz was tempted by the “idealized world of academia” but “turned off by the conformism, the lack of interest in real work, the politics, the pointless assignments … the internecine squabbles, the overspecialization, the abandonment, the insecurity.” Having dropped out of high school to study on his own, Swartz was committed to questioning received knowledge and authority. He questioned the ethics of a higher education system that seemed to covet privilege and commoditize knowledge. His efforts to promote freedom of access to academic research — by “liberating” JSTOR materials, for instance — reflect this critique. Part of honoring Swartz’s legacy is taking seriously the issues he raised about the kind of community Stanford offers and the relationship between higher education and social justice.
As much as Swartz was deeply disenchanted with the academy, he also resented start-up culture for its greed and superficiality. When Condé Nast (owner of Wired) acquired Reddit in 2006, Swartz moved to San Francisco to work at Wired’s office. As he discusses in his blog, he felt alienated at work, at least partly because of his philosophical differences with Silicon Valley culture: “I showed up here, I simply couldn’t take it. By lunch time I had literally locked myself in a bathroom stall and cried.” Swartz felt startup founders were obsessed with achieving “importance,” which led them to “centralizing things … restraining innovation and leaving [themselves] open to the demands of actual power.” He worried about the social consequences of the technologies that he and his peers created. In a 2010 interview, he described his “slow realization” that “things around me that people had told me were just the natural way that things were … were wrong and should change. Once I realized that, there was really no going back. I couldn’t fool myself into saying I’ll just go and work for a business and ignore all that.”
Swartz was so disillusioned by the “existential terror” of San Francisco and fakery of “Shallow Alto” that he moved to Washington, D.C. and devoted himself to progressive politics. For all his libertarian philosophies of education and innovation, he ultimately invested his time in an unlikely place — the government’s legislative machinery. He started working to “hack” the political system in the name of progressive causes, co-founding the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and spearheading the campaign against The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). Around the time of his death, Swartz was more devoted to working within preexisting institutions than creating the new “disruptive” technology. He had rejected the ethos of start-up culture.
In short, Swartz was never a poster boy for technological utopianism; his thoughts about usefulness of the Internet as an agent of change were nuanced and evolving. As one of the web’s architects, he helped make the Internet into the technology we use today. Still, he was also one of the first people to identify the problems that the Internet created or failed to resolve, having recognized that no technology — including the web — operates in a vacuum. In one of his last interviews, he said, “You know, there are sort of these two polarizing perspectives, right? Everything is great. The Internet has created all this freedom and liberty … Or everything’s terrible. The Internet has created all these tools for cracking down and spying and, you know, putting limits on what we say. The thing is, both are true … and which one will win out in the long run is up to us.”
Part of making good on Swartz’ call to action is figuring out what, exactly, he was saying about the bidirectional relationship between power dynamics online and offline. Where Swartz’s suicide becomes the final lens through which to view his life, we protect ourselves from questions about the unfulfilled promises of technology-based capitalism and role higher education in preserving, rather than challenging, social hierarchies. We deflect attention from the brutal reality that one of the brightest minds of our generation — and a symbol of the power of technology to do good — could not find a home at Stanford or elsewhere. He decided, at least in one moment, that life was not worth it.
That said, Swartz did not leave us to contend with these questions alone. One of his essays is about confronting the uncertainty that scares us:
“Most people treat psychological pain like the hot stove — if starting to think about something scares them or stresses them out, they quickly stop thinking about it and change the subject. The problem is that the topics that are most painful also tend to be the topics that are most important for us: they’re the projects we most want to do, the relationships we care most about, the decisions that have the biggest consequences for our future, the most dangerous risks that we run. We’re scared of them because we know the stakes are so high. But if we never think about them, then we can never do anything about them.”
When public discourse uses Swartz’s suicide as a buffer against the difficult and painful issues that he raised about who we are and how we live, we are indulging in collective cowardice. We are yanking our hand from the stove, and we are exacerbating the tragedy of a brave man’s death. Aaron Swartz deserves better than willful ignorance.
Contact Gillie Collins at [email protected]