Aaron Schwartz committed suicide on January 11. He was 26 years old and had battled severe depression. He was also one of those breathtaking geniuses whose mind roamed across worlds, from technology to history, ethics and the frontlines of advocacy. One admirer likened him to a pure blast of light, because he was that clear and that riveting—a supernova. But we let him slip through our fingers, and I’m wondering why this has to be.
What he had already done in his short life is the start of the argument, because we always want to know whether remedial action is justified by the facts. Here are Aaron Schwartz’ facts.
At 15, he joined the development group that invented the RSS feed. No need for an intervening action like email, pressing a share button, or doing anything beyond plugging into it: an RSS feed automatically connects you to streams of updated information. It may be the most efficient vehicle for the mass transmission of new information that has ever been conceived.
At 19, he provided the web framework for Reddit, an enormously vibrant social bulletin board where the network of subscribers determines the relevance, and therefore the visibility of articles on the site’s front and subsidiary pages. Not entirely without justification, Reddit describes itself as “the front page of the internet.”
For Aaron, it wasn’t just technology, because he was fascinated by almost everything. He is rumored to have quoted (from memory) key lines in the Pentagon Papers when, as a college freshman, he challenged his Stanford professor’s rationale for the Vietnam War. In 2006, 7 and 8 he blogged about the 100 of so books he read every year–about con men, causality, comic books, political fundraising, poetry–urging his followers to read some but not others, or maybe just a brilliant opening chapter. He was hungry for knowledge and the useful things you can do with it.
Aaron also loved people, which is how he got into trouble after all. It wasn’t just about his love affair with ideas. He really wanted the rest of us to have that love affair too, as unfettered and freewheeling as possible.
In 2010, he downloaded millions of academic articles from a restricted online database, making them publically available for the first time. While the database provided the articles free of charge to MIT students and researchers, Aaron wanted everyone to have access. His actions casued the database to crash and violated the terms of service for his use of it.
Federal prosecutors intervened, charging him under a technology statute with a laundry list of felonies, including theft, damage to computer networks, and wire fraud. The trial in his case was scheduled to begin next month. If found guilty on all counts, he faced a prison term of more than 30 years for crimes that had no real victims.
Aaron told prosecutors (and indeed everyone listening) that he was terrified of going to prison. Connected as he was to all those information streams, he believed that being cut off would amount to a kind of death sentence. Then there was his depression, and its physical consequences. But the prosecutors refused any deal that did not include at least some imprisonment at a maximum security prison—a particularly cruel twist, since they are the only prison facilities that provide the types of medical treatment he would have needed while incarcerated.
Not surprisingly, most of the press coverage around Aaron’s death related to the fairness of his prosecution. But its underlying facts also tell us, loudly and clearly, about his belief in humanity, and another story about him easily tells us as much.
Aaron had bad eyesight. But in a funny paradox of genius, he thought the world was really as unfocused as it appeared until someone suggested he try contact lenses. It’s what happened next that’s most revealing. (Rick Perlstein also quotes this posting from Aaron’s blog in his eloquent farewell.)
I had no idea the world really looked like this, with such infinite clarity. . . Everyone kept saying ‘oh, do you see the leaves now?’ but the first thing I saw was not the leaves but the people. People, individuated, each with brilliant faces and expressions . . . the sun streaming down upon them. I couldn’t help but smile. It’s much harder being a misanthrope when you can see people’s faces.
This startling, contentious and often depressed soul could, at last, “see” who he was doing it all for.
There was a terrible and fragile beauty to Aaron Schwartz, but our world could neither answer his cries for help nor, in the end, protect him. Unfortunately, the scenario is pretty much the same for others like him, when they leave the spaces they once spilled out of and we confront the sudden voids they left behind.
We know that none of them went quietly. Not Aaron, or writer David Foster Wallace (2008), or CalTech physicist Andrew Lange (2010). We could hear their demons long before they succumbed to them.
It’s during this noticing that we, as a society, should find a way to interrupt what is almost sure to happen. The loss of what these individuals could have thought, created and changed is simply too great to do otherwise.
There were many people who knew Aaron Schwartz, cared about him, championed his causes, and wrote essays when he was no longer among them. From all accounts, he had a concerned and connected family. But none prevented what happened, and perhaps none of them could. However, this is not a business for insiders. The best interventions usually come from the outside.
We protect spectacular feats of nature in our national parks, our material history in museums, and the culture’s most beautiful ideas in our libraries. By contrast, the wellsprings of creativity that individuals like Aaron represent—and that nourish us all— pretty much have to fend for themselves when it comes to their survival. Their existing safety nets are almost never enough. So their rescuers woud come without the agendas of friends, rivals or loved ones, whatever they might be. They would come only to improve the grip on life itself.
My proposal doesn’t involve powers of attorney, only an offer to “be there” as long as required and whenever needed. More RSS feed than hotline, the check-ins and updates would ideally flow in both directions. Maybe the organization could help you make a ruckus when you’re being bullied (as Aaron surely was), or have someone with you everyday when you take your meds. We’d pay for it the way we pay for other protecting institutions. The rescuers would have great commitment and expertise.
I don’t know how we’d choose the Aarons who would benefit, (How smart? How productive?), or how to fend off the charges of elitism. Some of the Aarons, maybe most of them, would refuse to cooperate, at least initially. When would the attempted rescues stop? What about the insurance?
I don’t know a hundred things about how this would work. What I do know is that the cost to us is too high to tolerate this kind of repeated sacrifice. What I know is that more is required—however precious to us their final bursts of light.
See how these names are feted by the waving grass,
And by the streamers of white cloud,
And whispers of wind in the listening sky;
The names of those who in their lives fought for life,
Who wore at their hearts the fire’s center.
Born of the sun, they traveled a short while
towards the sun,
And left the vivid air signed with their honor.