“If someone is in need of knowledge and you can provide it, but you don’t, you are guilty of a crime against the human spirit…”
Since Saturday morning I have been deeply affected by Aaron Swartz’s death by suicide at age 26. Because I never met him, this reaction has taken me by surprise, and I am trying to explain to myself why I was on the verge of tears all day and dreamed about him all night.
I think part of it is that he was the same age as many of my graduate students. In the same way that you imagine, “what if that was my child?” after a school shooting, I could almost imagine what the suicide of one of my students would mean to me.
Another part was the point stressed by Lawrence Lessig and Glenn Greenwald in their columns on Aaron: that this person of immense talent and crazy brilliance devoted himself almost completely to public goods— like the RSS 1.0 specs, the Open Library, and the fight against SOPA. He could have tried to develop the next YouTube and sell it to Google for a billion dollars, he had the skills for that, but the only thing that really mattered to him was the fight for internet freedom, which included taking part in democratic politics. That conception of the good, in someone so young, is deeply moving to me.
A third part of why I was so affected by his death is captured in this photo of Larry Lessig meeting Aaron Swartz when Aaron was a teenager. Here is a world renown Stanford law professor listening to a 14 year-old because the 14 year-old could help the professor realize one of his dreams. And he did. Swartz was the initial architect of Creative Commons, the licensing system that has done so much for knowledge sharing on the web. Aaron had lots of substitute parents looking out for him, Lessig included, but he also looked out for them in a lot of the work he did.
Then there is the utter frustration that the prosecutors who have behaved so badly and ignorantly in Aaron’s legal case—United States Attorney Carmen Ortiz and her deputy Stephen Heymann—will never have to pay, they will never face any public accounting, they won’t even have to answer honest questions about how they see their actions now. That’s depressing and infuriating, and it makes me feel powerless and stupid.
On Sunday, MIT announced that it will review its own decision-making in the legal case that arose from events Aaron initiated on its campus. “Now is a time for everyone involved to reflect on their actions, and that includes all of us at MIT,” said its president, L. Rafael Reif in a statement.
I guess that’s the another reason I was so affected by this loss. Reflecting on my actions, I haven’t done nearly enough for the causes I shared with Aaron Swartz. In 2012, I declined to serve on the board of this academic journal because it was not open access. But that is… not nearly enough.
I didn’t know Aaron, though I knew of his legend, but from what I have read about him he was one of those people (Timothy Berners Lee, the founder of the World Wide Web and Richard Stallman, the founder of the free software movement, are both like this) who believe that if someone is in need of knowledge and you can provide it, but you don’t, you are guilty of a crime against the human spirit. (See this.)
The cause of Internet freedom, which is very often a radical cause, is radical in just this sense: let all who are hungry eat. Farewell, Aaron, my child. Your cause is just.
(Photo credit: Rich Gibson.)