I’m fed up with the Aaron Swartz hagiography and subsequent bullshit garment-rending from people who didn’t know him well, or at all. I’m still reading fresh examples of anguished wailing and blogging and Twittering about the guy. But to me, he seems unworthy of the sainthood that’s being thrust onto his corpse.
I don’t think I ever met him (I might have, at an O’Reilly conference in San Jose years ago); I may or may not have ever corresponded with him many years ago, and I can’t be bothered to look through my email archives to check. I know I read a bunch of his words at one point, possibly on a mailing list or on his blog. But I had no personal connection with him, as far as I can remember.
I knew of him, but mainly because of his well-known, well-honed talent for being an arrogant jerk to many people, often to people who had extended a helping hand to him at one time or another. I’ve been hanging around the geekosphere long enough to have heard of one or another of the many spats Swartz triggered when he viciously turned on somebody.
I knew he was a smart kid. So did he. Boy, did he know it. And he loved to share that knowledge, via his palpable contempt for, well, just about everyone who didn’t agree with him (read this account by his partner, who denies Swartz killed himself due to depression, to get a feel for just how arrogant and contemptuous he was about most people).
Because I’d read his words, and seen how he lashed out at people, I had him pegged in my mind as “Really smart but asshole kid who might grow up someday and learn to be a smart adult, but for now, ignorable.” But even years ago, I thought he was special, and didn’t really expect that to happen. I expected him to turn out like Eric Raymond or Richard Stallman, get a sinecure from some open-source group, and live out his days haranguing the rest of us about how disappointed he was that we didn’t live up to his lofty standards.
I wasn’t the only one who felt that way; after learning of his death, I said to Dori, “Hey, remember that Aaron Swartz kid?” She replied, “Yeah, what stupid thing has he done now?” I said, “Well, it looks like he killed himself.” Dori doesn’t lack compassion, and of course she had no idea that something bad had occurred. The point I’m making is that Dori, who pays way more attention to geek society than I do, was also primed to think that he was likely to do something foolhardy or attention-seeking. Because to the casual observer, that was the way he lived his life.
I’d heard of his caper with PACER, when he released a significant portion of US case law to the public, because he was morally offended that it was behind a paywall. It’s speculation, but that was most likely the same stunt he was trying to pull again when he got busted after downloading a large amount of academic journal articles from JSTOR, another paywall. (Aside: I agree with Swartz that this data should be publicly available; I disagree with his methods).
He knew that what he was doing with the JSTOR data was criminal, or at best unauthorized; he tried to hide his identity while doing it. But Swartz was offended, so even though he had previously been around the block with the law after the PACER caper (he was investigated then, but no charges filed), he decided his moral outrage trumped the petty laws of the stupid. So he took what he wanted, because he wanted to, and because he could. This is the moral calculus of a child or a criminal, not an adult.
Then he got caught. And this time he drew a prosecutor who clearly decided to make an example of this arrogant kid. I completely agree with those who think Swartz got a raw, unfair deal. The prosecutors abused their discretion. Prosecutors who want to impose harsher penalties for Swartz’s alleged crimes than for murderers or rapists have lost their own moral bearings.
From reports, Swartz didn’t think he had done anything wrong or criminal, and more or less expected to be let off the hook for his actions. In his experience, people had always recognized his brilliance and let him off the hook before. When that didn’t happen, he was bewildered and defiant. It’s possible this was the first time he was faced with the real possibility of serious consequences for his choices. According to Wikipedia, the prosecutors were seeking a plea bargain that would result in a six month jail sentence.
Swartz’s many apologists are, if effect, arguing that his actions should be completely excused because he was morally in the right. I’ve seen the more fevered comparing his actions to Martin Luther King. This is a nearly obscene comparison. King repeatedly risked his life for the civil rights of his people, proudly stood as the leader of his movement, and took responsibility for his actions. Swartz surreptitiously downloaded a bunch of data from a closet, tried to hide his face when he slipped away with the loot, and wasn’t willing to pay any penalty.
I remember many of the civil rights activists in the Sixties breaking unjust laws for their moral convictions. The ones we revere today didn’t say, “I’ll do the right thing as long as I get no punishment.” They knew the risks, took them, and stood tall when they faced the consequences. Those were acts of true courage.
Swartz’s defenders say the prosecutors killed him, but that’s not what happened. He was not killed by the state. Swartz hanged himself before his consequences had even been decided. The woman who lived with him, who knew his mental state better than any of the rest of us, says he was not chronically depressed, and she does not believe he suffered from mental illness. We’ll never know the exact reason for his suicide, but it seems more likely than anything else that he killed himself to avoid going to jail for six months, and therefore he was too cowardly to face the harsh results of his actions.
My personal view is that killing yourself and leaving your body to be found by your lover is a profoundly horrible, selfish, and unforgivable action, and one that deserves our disgust, not our compassion. I’ll reserve my compassion for the woman whom he presumably loved, but he knew would find his corpse.
The Saint Aaron bandwagon so many people have piled onto nauseates me.
He wasn’t a saint.
His moral judgments were not superior to everyone else’s.
He did not die for anyone’s sins.
He wasn’t depressed and mentally ill. His death has no lessons for us in that area.
He was a very smart kid who got himself in over his head, was overcome by fear, and killed himself. That’s a shitty thing. But his death, though regrettable, is meaningless for the rest of us. When you hear differently, you are being sold somebody’s agenda. Beware.