Jewish Journal

Aaron Swartz: martyr or meme?

by Jonah Lowenfeld

March 4, 2013 | 3:10 pm

Aaron Swartz, internet developer and entrepreneur, killed himself in January. Journalists are still grappling with why he did it, and what it could mean. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

When programmer and Internet activist Aaron Swartz killed himself on January 11, the outpouring of grief from those who knew him and appreciated his work was immediate and intense.

Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Law professor who befriended Swartz years before his suicide, wrote that overzealous prosecutors drove him “to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying.” Swartz’s partner, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, told a reporter that she blamed a “vindictive” legal system for the 26-year-old’s death. And Swartz’s father, Robert, put it most bluntly, when he told the mourners at his son’s funeral in a suburban Chicago synagogue, “Aaron did not commit suicide — he was killed by the government.”

But in an article in the current issue of the New Yorker, staff writer Larissa MacFarquhar dismantles the myth surrounding Swartz. Near the beginning of her article, she flat-out rejects the narrative presented by Swartz’s nearest and dearest, calling it strategic and disingenuous:

Since his death, his family and closest friends have tried to hone his story into a message, in order to direct the public sadness and anger aroused by his suicide to political purposes. They have done this because it is what he would have wanted, and because it is a way to extract some good from the event. They tell people that the experience of being prosecuted is annihilatingly brutal, and that prosecutors can pursue with terrible weapons defendants who have caused little harm. One of the corollaries of this message is that Swartz did not kill himself; he was murdered by the government. But this claim is for public consumption, and the people closest to him do not really believe it. They believe that he would not have killed himself without the prosecutors, but they feel that there is something missing from this account—some further fact, a key, that will make sense of what he did.

MacFarquhar’s article is worth reading in full, in part because the writer doesn’t stop with the obvious question about any suicide – “Why?” No, MacFarquhar’s article is most notable for connecting the theories behind Swartz’s particular suicide to the implications his friends, family and followers have been trying to attach to it. The picture it paints of Swartz is very different from the wunderkind who many would like to christen as the Internet’s martyr. Indeed, he might turn out to be just another Internet meme.

Swartz’s biography wasn’t well known before his suicide. The young genius was involved in the development of a number of web-based sites and technologies, including RSS and the social news site Reddit, and later became involved in Internet activism, promoting free access to information.

It was in this last role that Swartz crossed the law. In 2011, he was arrested, and a U.S. attorney charged him with having illegally download millions of files from the nonprofit academic database JSTOR. The action was described by many as an act of civil disobedience, and Swartz was charged with crimes for which he could have faced 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines.

Many writers have mined Swartz’s lifetime of blog entries and numerous public statements to uncover clues about the inner life of this apparently tormented individual. A former girlfriend, tech reporter Quinn Norton, recently published an account of her own involvement in the prosecution against Swartz in The Atlantic.

But in MacFarquhar’s telling, Norton and others who were among Swartz’s hagiographers in the aftermath of his suicide collectively present Swartz not as the icon of the Internet, but as a person with weaknesses commensurate in size to his substantial gifts.

MacFarquhar makes pretty clear that while Swartz may have said he wanted to help people, he fundamentally did not understand them. And despite fashioning himself as an activist, Swartz’s success in changing society appears to have been rather limited.

Among the projects with which Swartz has been credited was the effort to turn back the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). That bill, which was crafted with the support of Hollywood, died after a Silicon Valley-backed public outcry reached a fever pitch. But it would be a stretch to say that Swartz played anything more than a supporting role.

(As a side note, two of the Web-based organizations that arguably led the public fight against SOPA were Wikipedia and change.org – and, according to MacFarquhar’s article, Swartz had started web sites based around similar ideas before either one had been founded. Neither of Swartz’s endeavors was successful.)

Still, for those within the community of hackers and information activists, Swartz’s accomplishments have become cemented in lore. MacFarquhar quotes from a blog post written by John Atkinson, who did not know Swartz. Atkinson wondered why the young man’s death had affected him so profoundly:

“Aaron Swartz is what I wish I was,” he wrote. “I am a bright technologist, but I’ve never built anything of note. I have strong opinions about how to improve this world, but I’ve never acted to bring them to pass. I have thoughts every day that I would share with the world, but I allow my fears to convince me to keep them to myself. If I were able to stop being afraid of what the world would think of me, I could see myself making every decision that Aaron made that ultimately led to his untimely death. This upsets me immensely. I am upset that we have a justice system that would persecute me the way it did Aaron. I am upset that I have spent 27 years of my life having made no discernible difference to the world around me.”

Which brings us back to the effort, in the aftermath of his suicide, to turn Swartz into a political martyr. The factors that drove Swartz to suicide appear, in MacFarquhar’s telling, to have been quite varied. Nonetheless, his supporters initially claimed that it was the U.S. government drove him to suicide.

In a sense – though they’d never say so – these activists are trying to turn Swartz into a modern-day Walter Benjamin. Today, the 20th-century philosopher and literary critic is widely cited, credited with laying the groundwork for fields like film theory and other forms of art criticism. But during his lifetime, outside of a small cadre of very influential colleagues, Benjamin was barely known. Like Swartz, Benjamin was a committed critic of the modern world, and Benjamin’s unfinished masterpiece – a project examining the development of 20th-century Paris as seen through the arcades built during the 19th – could be seen as a precursor to the blogs and social media Web sites of today, in that it exists only in pieces, with snippets of Benjamin’s own writings interspersed with quotations from other writers and artists. And Benjamin, like Swartz, was pursued by an oppressive regime that eventually led him to commit suicide at a young age.

But that was in September 1940. Benjamin -- who was, like Swartz, Jewish -- was trying to flee occupied France, where the Vichy regime would ultimately hand over 75,000 Jews to the Germans for deportation to death camps. When his group was turned back at the Spanish border, Benjamin took his own life.

Swartz may have been facing jail time, but he wasn’t facing Nazi extermination camps. Perhaps, then, a better model for mourning Aaron Swartz might be found in a more recent suicide: Kurt Cobain.

The two men aren’t at all similar: Cobain was as broadly famous as Swartz was unknown; Cobain’s oeuvre of work was worth millions even after his death while Swartz dedicated his efforts to making all such work freely available.

But their suicides are. Friends of both Cobain and Swartz said that they had seen signs of suicidal impulses in advance, and both were described after their deaths as being prophetic, or somehow ill-fitted to the world in which they lived, especially when lavished with such success and adulation.

Cobain’s songs may still be on the radio, but his lasting impact on the world is hard to discern. After his death, devotees armed with markers turned a park bench into a makeshift memorial. Years later, a sign was placed near the edge of the town where he was born.

Will Swartz’s suicide’s impact be more lasting? In the immediate aftermath of Swartz’s death, it seemed possible. Internet activists around the world tried to advance their own agendas -- about making more of the world’s information publicly accessible – in Swartz’s name. Now, a few months later, as a more complicated story about Swartz emerges, maybe it’s time to consider remembrances of a more mundane – and less politically driven – variety.

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