Anyone just tuning in to the sensation created by Aaron Swartz’s death might easily think he’s the Internet’s Joan of Arc.
Last month, the 26-year-old prodigy programmer, activist and blogger hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment. He was a “wizardly” figure, according to The New York Times, a Stanford dropout and a Harvard University fellow, lauded foremost for his creation of the RSS feed, a Web syndication program that allows Internet users to subscribe to information.
Swartz’s passion and purpose was that everyone should have access to information and ideas — without having to pay for them. To that end, he once hid out in an M.I.T. utility closet, broke into the school’s computer network and downloaded millions of files from JSTOR, a nonprofit organization that sells subscriptions to scientific and literary journals. His act was born of principle, but nevertheless illegal: He was indicted on federal charges of wire fraud and computer fraud, which carried potential penalties of up to 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines.
But Swartz’s stunt also provoked a big question that continues to resonate: Is knowledge a right or a privilege?
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Since his suicide on Jan. 11, the Internet has erupted with outrage. Scores of passionate eulogies have portrayed Swartz as a gallant hero, some of which is justified: The world has lost “a prodigal mind,” “a brilliant programmer” and “a passionate advocate for social justice.” But much of it also seems misguided: “Why Did the Justice System Target Aaron Swartz?” read a headline in Rolling Stone. According to that article, Swartz’s friends and family believe he was “driven to his death” by an unfair lawsuit and an uncompromising prosecutor.
“How the Legal System Failed Aaron Swartz — And Us,” echoed The New Yorker, whose writer Tim Wu went so far as to implicate the whole of American society in Swartz’s death: “We can rightly judge a society by how it treats its eccentrics and deviant geniuses — and by that measure, we have utterly failed,” he wrote.
What we have failed at, rather, is distinguishing between deviance and sedition. Like Julian Assange, Swartz was a steward of the free-information movement, a group of technology activists with anarchist ideas and methods who sought to make Web content freely available — copyrights be damned. Swartz even founded the online advocacy group Demand Progress, which led the charge against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a Hollywood-backed bill that would have restricted access to copyrighted content. This endeared him to the digital generation but made him a bane of Hollywood.
“I don’t understand it at all,” one industry heavyweight told me. “When has a suicide ever been attributed to anything other than a mental or emotional instability? The government prosecutes people all the time who don’t kill themselves — the Hollywood 10, to name one example. Or 10 examples.”
Unlike James Dean, Swartz was a rebel with a cause. He was no idling, addlepated teenager suffering from listlessness and moral confusion; he was a deeply engaged dissident with apparently few qualms about breaking the law. A victim of his own ideology, he is more mascot than martyr. A sweet-faced youth icon for a shadowy movement.
The looming criminal case may have cast a dark shadow over a delicate soul that suffered from serious depression. But was the government being too callous in mounting a case against him? Or are Swartz’s followers, aggrieved and naïve, unwilling to acknowledge that political dissent has its price?
Information activists should read up. Literature is filled with myths and tales about the dangers of pursuing knowledge. It melted Icarus’ wings. It drove Adam and Eve from Eden. It is no accident that the very first story in the Bible teaches that the human pursuit of knowledge is answered with punishment.
“For in much wisdom is much grief,” Ecclesiastes tells us. “He that increases knowledge increases sorrow.”
What Swartz knew, and which, perhaps, his supporters do not, is that knowledge is painful and consequential. The biblical Tree of Knowledge is referred to as the tree of knowledge of good and evil. There is no neutral knowledge; it always leads somewhere. Ignorance is the only true bliss.
In Swartz’s legacy is a tragic but powerful lesson. He loved knowledge; he sought knowledge; he suffered from knowledge. It is an unfortunate truth that the more you know, the more truth you seek, the more the world becomes strange in its lack. Swartz sought to fill that void with more and more information, more access. The government, with its mandate to protect, manages the unknown with laws of control.
Law and philosophy came into conflict within Swartz’s soul, and he suffered terribly. “Everything gets colored by the sadness,” he wrote in a blog post about his battle with depression. “At best, you tell yourself that your thinking is irrational, that it is simply a mood disorder, that you should get on with your life. But...[y]ou feel as if streaks of pain are running through your head, you thrash your body, you search for some escape but find none.”
Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel once taught that when faced with the choice between the Tree of Knowledge or the Tree of Life, Adam and Eve chose wisdom over immortality.
In his way, Swartz made the same choice. May his soul be bound up in the bonds of eternal life.