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Thoughts following the death of Aaron Swartz

Thoughts following the death of Aaron Swartz

I didn’t know Aaron and I have no special knowledge of his life or death. We were only fellow travelers, but I admired him a great deal and still do. Like he surely was for many people, in many ways he was the sort of person I hoped I could be but could not. I am writing this because, first, I feel I know something of the project he believed in and, second, my own experience with suicide makes feel compelled to say something about it.

Years ago, when I was a sophomore in college, my friend Nelson Pavlosky and I obtained an e-mail archive detailing flaws in voting machines manufactured by Diebold Election Systems. We got it from another activist leader on campus, Micah White. Diebold attempted to suppress the information in the documents using claims of copyright infringement. With the help of the EFF and a law clinic at Stanford, Nelson and I successfully sued them. The case resulted in a finding of liability for their frivolous copyright claims against what was found to be a legitimate distribution of information in the public interest. There was a flash of attention following the lawsuit and, with the help of Professor Lessig, our Swarthmore college group sparked an organization called Students for Free Culture.

I quickly realized I had no idea what I was doing and did not know how to lead anyone or even what I wanted to do with myself. I lacked Aaron’s brilliance and courage; after graduation I was quickly overtaken by my own difficulties. I ended up in San Francisco working in the environmental movement. I was glad to contribute my skills despite the mundane nature of the technical work involved. I found that there are structural connections between the problem of the environmental commons and the problem of network commons. Both are threatened by a market logic of enclosure and exploitation that creates grave negative externalities and undermines the benefit of the commons to humanity as a whole. But during this time I also found myself struggling with a lot of pain, physical and otherwise, and I didn’t get much done outside of my job. I regret that I have not contributed much to the Free Culture movement since the lawsuit.

In contrast with my flash in the pan, Aaron was a shining light. His rare combination of technical genius, communication ability, and social perceptiveness made him a true unicorn. But he must have been fighting through depression, and that’s one thing I want to talk about.

I think it’s true that people who commit suicide ultimately do so for deeply interior reasons that no other person can really understand. I was very close to my mother, but when she killed herself three years ago I knew that I could never truly know “the” reason. But there were still reasons I could know. She was a person driven by a desire to do right by other people. Her work as a therapist in private practice was important to her and she operated on generous terms. In the year leading up to her death, however, our family’s circumstances resulted in the loss of her business. My father’s job, working as an attorney for UAW union members, disappeared with the decline of the union itself. My parents lost health benefits. My mother had to try working for a hospital and found that the severe lack of resources in the world of mental health treatment made it intolerable. I know that in her final months, the inability to continue her life’s work, the feeling of being thwarted, must have contributed to her distress. Her purpose in life was about helping others; in the end she could not help herself without it.

Some people believe that suicide is an act of cowardice or selfishness. I reject this view absolutely and find it offensive. Neither my mother nor Aaron was a coward. Their lives reveal no selfishness. No one I’ve seen has said this negative stuff about Aaron and that is a good thing.

The more common belief is that suicide is the product of a disease, an unfortunate result of a “chemical imbalance” that was not successfully treated. I believe that this view is less wrong but it is incomplete, and it does not do justice to the experience of people who commit suicide. Of course, we should not stigmatize people with depression or suicidal thinking — we should help them any way we can, with drugs, therapy or whatever works. But depression is as much a disease of our society as it is a disease of individual people. Its increasing prevalence has to make you wonder: why now? What is wrong with this world that requires us to intervene so drastically on so many people’s lives just to convince them to keep participating in family, society and the economy?

In my mother’s case, her depression was connected to a grinding incompatibility between her compassionate desire to help other people on a person-to-person basis and the direction that our mental health system has taken — devaluing psychotherapy because drugs are cheaper for the “consumer” and more profitable for corporations. Recent scientific questions about the efficacy of SSRI antidepressants and ever-more evidence for the real power of talking to someone will not, I am sure, stop the expansion of drug-based treatment at the expense of therapy. Nothing will stop it because the market is blind to the externalities it is creating. They’ve even widened the market for the atypical antipsychotics — extremely powerful drugs — to include five year olds who throw temper tantrums. Let me be clear: I’m not against medication in principle, and my mother wasn’t either. She was a practical person and believed in using whatever method would make someone better. She was on an antidepressant when she died. But the idea of depression as a chemical problem that can be fixed with the right pill is wrong. My mother’s death was not really because of neurons gone haywire. It was meaningfully connected to the conflict between her positive ideals and the insane priorities of our society.

The insane priorities of prosecutor Carmen Ortiz, and the clueless idiots who wrote the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and JSTOR, and MIT and everyone else involved in pushing Aaron up against the wall very clearly contributed to whatever inner struggle he was facing. Danah Boyd and Glen Greenwald, among others, have already done a better job than I can describing the injustice they perpetrated. These actors, too, were slavishly devoted to a ridiculous market logic of enclosure and blind to the externalities involved. There is no reason, given the success of the open access model, why every journal article should not be free to every human on Earth. These people should be ashamed. I do not think we should explain away Aaron’s death and their guilt with the idea of depression as a disease. Suicide is not an act of selfish cowardice nor is it just the result of an illness. It is a desperate refusal to suffer the world as it is or seems to be. Perhaps it can be the final act of defiance in the life of a person who has long since taken up arms against a sea of troubles, ready to oppose and end them. The Tunisian fruit-seller who touched off the Arab Spring was not merely a sick person. Aaron wasn’t either.

For all of us who are making the Internet, along with the law and norms that go with it, let this be a reminder that this isn’t a game. I’m with Jim Gilliam; the Internet is my religion. For me, the fight to stop enclosure logic from ruining the Internet is directly connected to the struggle to keep that same logic from destroying the environment and civilization itself. The network, the law, government, society as a whole — they are all one big machine that’s made of people. We cannot free ourselves from its problems as individuals. (If a genius like Aaron cannot escape them, what chance do I have?) However, we who make the Internet and its culture, we at the frontier of change, have an opportunity to rewire the workings of the machine — to create the architecture of human solidarity or lack thereof. We can influence whether the network enables collective solutions to our problems and supports the flourishing of every person — or instead locks us into a giant game of prisoner’s dilemma that pits us against each other and appropriates our gains in productivity for a narrow few. We need to take this seriously, and we need to include a broader constituency of people in our work. We also need to build institutions and take care of each other. We can’t let the burden of our social responsibility rest solely on the shoulders of extraordinary individuals like Aaron.

Playfulness is an essential part of our culture of innovation, but with respect to the moral implications of our task, the time has come to put away childish things. Silly techno-libertarian ideas about the inherently liberatory nature of the current shift are, well, silly. Information doesn’t want to be free; people do. But I don’t think the eco-doomers are right either. We are not guaranteed salvation nor are we condemned; instead, the adventure is on to build a machinery of love to replace the machinery of enclosure and exploitation. That’s what I believe Aaron was doing. If what you are making now is not the machinery of love, stop. Make something else. When you remember Aaron, remember that only revolution is revolutionary.

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