Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.
Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Before his suicide was announced on January 12, you may not have heard of Aaron Swartz… but if you’re reading this now, you certainly were affected by the astounding work he did in his 26 years.

A programming prodigy who chronicled his own depression, Swartz helped transform the way people use the Internet while continually expressing a relentless commitment to freeing information.

At the age of 14, he helped develop RSS — originally an acronym for Rich Site Summary and often called Really Simple Syndication — which led to the explosive growth of blogs, podcasts and much of what we now call Web 2.0.

Swartz went on to work with Creative Commons, a nonprofit that seeks to transform copyright for the digital age with a simple form of licensing that has been adopted by the White House, and founded a startup that merged with Reddit (which some call a social news site, but it’s more correct to call it the social news site). A regular at NetrootsNation, he went on found the group Demand Progress.

While studying ethics at Harvard in 2011, Swartz was charged with 13 felony counts for breaking into the JSTOR archive of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) and stealing digital copies of more than five million articles as a protest against the limited distribution of academic work for profit motives.

The unrelenting prosecution he faced for those charges compounded his inner turmoil and led many of of his family and friends — including prominent author and founder of Creative Commons Lawrence Lessig — to accuse it of contributing to his death. As a student, some argued, Swartz had access to the files he was accused of stealing; still he was facing more jail time than those convicted of manslaughter, bank robbery or selling child pornography would generally face.

Swartz’s attorney said that his client had been offered six months in prison as part of plea deal. They rejected it.

Author Cory Doctorow, a longtime friend, speculated that the fear of prison weighed heavily on Swartz. “Imprisonment is one of my most visceral terrors, and it’s at least credible that fear of losing his liberty, of being subjected to violence (and perhaps sexual violence) in prison, was what drove Aaron to take this step.”

But as Slate’s Matt Yglesias’ wrote,”People commit suicide because they suffer from depression, which he did, not because they’re being railroaded by the U.S. Attorney, which he was.”

Photo of Aaron Swartz and Lawrence Lessig by Rich Gibson, used with a Creative Commons license

  • Share this on Google+0
  • Share this on Linkedin0
  • Share this on Reddit0
  • Print this page
  • 0

9 responses to “The Brief, Wondrous, And Painful Life Of Aaron Swartz”

  1. Matt, you are a bit naive, I fear. People commit suicide for both reasons, and one tends to exaggerate the impact of the other in any event.

  2. Jon Lester says:

    A personal friend of mine took his life early last week, so I’ve been very disinclined to weigh in on various appreciations of someone I didn’t know.

  3. sigrid28 says:

    Aaron suffered from depression, but he was no less a victim of what Richard Hoftstadter described at “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life” (1963).

  4. sigrid28 says:

    As an author/educator considered over-qualified in the current climate within higher education, where marketing strategies now dominate, I wish to offer a little tribute to prodigies such as Aaron Swartz, a recent suicide who suffered from depression and also became a victim of what Richard Hoftstadter described eloquently in his Pulitzer Prize-winning work “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life” (1963). I ask with genuine pain and disbelief, what has become of us as a nation when we seek out immigrants far less qualified in both technology and the liberal arts than Aaron Swartz while persecuting our own? To Aaron’s friends and family, I would offer a little homily drawn from one of the most famous works in the English language, “P

  5. Jim Lou says:

    I have no sympathy for Swartz. If he committed a crime then he must be able to pay the price.

    Did he commit the acts that he was accuse of? If yes then what is appropriate punishment?

  6. M Godey says:

    In terms of ethics, things seem so upside down ethics and crime seem to sometimes go together and sometimes not, and as pointed out punishment is as haphazard. Too much value placed in money and stuff to sometimes see clearly.

  7. Lynda says:

    Putting the legal issues aside let me say this about the boys death. My nephew took the same path out in his 25th year. There is never anyway to know for sure what caused him to decide to end his life. I’m sure the same can be said for this young talented man. When my nephew left us my neighbor said something that has stayed with me ever since. She said of suicide that ‘it is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.’ I know what his family is suffering and I hope they come together during this difficult time. The questions of what could I have done, could I have done more and why didn’t we see this coming will never truly be answered. This is truly a sad and tragic ending to a promising life.

  8. jstsyn says:

    And the wall street and bank execs go free.

  9. onedonewong says:

    The guy was a felon and deserved jail time

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.