Why Aaron Swartz felt forced to kill himself
By Jessika Endsley
Aaron Swartz was a computer programming prodigy and internet activist born in 1986 in Chicago, Illinois. He was involved with the development of Reddit, launching the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, and founded the group Demand Progress, among many other great contributions to the Internet and the freedom of it. After incessant harassment due to his illegal downloading from JSTOR, Aaron committed suicide in Brooklyn, NY in 2013, leaving the shocked world with a strong sense of injustice. His story has had a profound effect on many who had never heard of him prior to his death. Many have speculated about how Aaron's suicide came to be, and how it could have been prevented, and who is to be ultimately blamed for it. An overwhelming majority of the people touched by Aaron's life and his death view him as a hero, and, more importantly, as a martyr.
Aaron Swartz was immersed in the world of technology and Internet culture at a very early age. During his early teen years, he had created the Info Network, worked with the committee responsible for RSS web feed format, and was an author of Creative Commons. His parents took him out of school after 9th grade after expressing his desire to leave high school; he stated online, "I want something new, something worthwhile, something better." Spending any more time in high school would have wasted his potential and his parents surely saw this as he did. He certainly did accomplish many things in his short life, working with other technological masterminds on various projects. He attended Stanford University, where Aaron's passionate, exacting, and somewhat difficult personality traits came out more clearly. Without these very strong, uncompromising traits, Aaron Swartz would have simply been another intelligent guy rather than living and dying as the world-changing activist he was. Aaron only stayed at Stanford a year due to finding the atmosphere generally incompatible for his genius mind "It's got some great professors and I certainly learned a bunch, but I didn't find it a very intellectual atmosphere, since most of the other kids seemed profoundly unconcerned with their studies." Swartz showed some disdain for others' lack of enthusiasm for knowledge and may have even felt a bit alienated due to his strong, natural inclination for acquiring it.
Leaving Stanford worked out well for Aaron Swartz. He soon started Infogami which was merged with Reddit at a later date after being purchased in 2006 by Conde Nast, owner of Wired magazine. Aaron moved to to San Francisco with his company but quickly discovered that he disliked working there. "Since I moved to San Francisco I literally haven't gotten anything done...By lunch time I had literally locked myself in a bathroom stall and started crying. I can't imagine staying sane with someone buzzing in my ear all day, let alone getting any actual work done...Nobody else seems to get work done here either." Swartz expressed disdain for the grey-ness of the office, for the noise, for the communication styles, and was disheartened by how little he had been able to accomplish. Aaron was fired when he returned from a trip to Europe, and speculated that it was due to his incompatibility with the office environment. But Aaron had acquired a small fortune already and quickly moved on to work on the launching of Jottit. He was very young, very rich, and very intelligent, and still entirely driven to make information free and accessible to all.
Aaron Swartz' personality and Life Online/Offline
In interviews with friends as well as by observing comments in his own blog, a portrait of the young man that was Aaron Swartz can be painted for those who will never get to meet him. Aaron did not have a strong like for social companionship and had an intense preference for what was novel and intellectually stimulating. He valued facts, intelligence, and new, dynamic ideas and disliked any urgings to participate in what did not matter to him. "Kat and Vicky want to know why I eat breakfast alone reading a book, instead of talking to them. I explain to them that however nice and interesting they are, the book is written by an intelligent expert and filled with novel facts." Despite the fact that he did not wish to constantly engage with others, he did unabashedly broadcast thoughts on his blog and was committed to his humanitarian cause. Swartz did not place emphasis on his own social life, even after he gained success financially. "I'm so shy I don't even hang out with the people I know now," he was quoted saying. He gave details of a Halloween experience involving the odd dynamics between his male friends and strange groups of females, noting that he felt nauseated by the end of the night from witnessing such confusing behavior, although he withheld any judgment. Aaron also expressed that he did not understand the need to make the act of sex into something that is an "identity," such as gay, straight, and bisexual. Why complicate it? In another blog post, Aaron expressed a very biological understanding of human dynamics and friendships, comparing small-talk to primates grooming each other. Despite this scientific allusion, Aaron goes on to show great disdain for empty and fake social interaction, which he believed Twitter capitalized on and therefore made more prevalent. In all his technological-genius glory and in all of his introversion, he placed great value on in-person human contact. "...it's impossible to really know someone through sanitized soundbites. In 140 characters, there's little room for the nuances of personality such conversation typically reveals." Aaron did not feel that online interaction could replace human contact, but he did view social media as a positive social outlet. He acknowledged that things sites such as Twitter made staying in contact with friends and acquiring new ones much easier for those who were not necessarily in a position to socialize outside of the home.
Further testing the realities of online life, Aaron took a month-long break from the internet. He spoke of this break as a realization of sorts, knowing that he had not understood that his lifestyle was unhealthy prior to spending a month offline. He had not quite realized how his lifelong occupation altered his perceptions and his mental health. "I am not happy. I used to think of myself as just an unhappy person: a misanthrope, prone to mood swings and eating binges, who spends his days moping around the house in his pajamas, too shy and sad to step outside. But that's not how I was offline. I loved people — everyone from the counter clerk to the old friends I bumped into on the street." His time away from the internet showed him how much he was indeed bombarded by distractions, from email to Tweets to conversation in messaging. He felt in control of his life while offline. While Aaron stated that believing one can take breaks from the demands of life was arrogant, he also knew that such arrogance is what had made him successful. Was there a way to balance the demands in his life - a reality based very much on the internet - with the calm and control of life offline? Aaron decided that he would be arrogant enough to try. Modern technology can be extraordinarily complicated, and that is what Swartz succeeded in, despite the fact that many things that made him the most happy were found in his life offline. Aaron remained somewhat modest in lifestyle despite his fortune, choosing to live in a small apartment rather than upgrade (which he surely could have done) and was quite happy with this. He found joy in taking walks, going to the gym, and even grooming and combing his hair during his vacation from his digital world. But Aaron had not yet encountered his greatest challenge yet - a challenge that combined both his internet world and the very "real" world of unjust criminal prosecution.
Aaron Swartz' Arrest and Legal Problems
With a strong dislike of "being talked about," Aaron probably experienced great discomfort with explaining his eccentricities to others, and probably even greater discomfort with the need to explain his choices to the public and to law enforcement. When Swartz was arrested on January 6, 2011 by MIT police and a Secret Service Agent for illegally downloading a great number of academic articles from JSTOR, he was charged with multiple counts of breaking and entering with intent to commit a felony, as well as multiple violations against The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The open-door policy of MIT surrounding the use of their wired network made Aaron's crime exceptionally easy, especially for the very intelligent young man. He succeeded in downloading 4.8 million articles, and although JSTOR only sells access to the articles (and does not actually own them) Aaron's "theft" threatened the survival of the business. Under The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, Aaron faced hard prison time, although he was not unauthorized to access MIT's network - an important flaw in the case that MIT failed to point out. As the case continued, charges piled up higher and higher against Swartz. Although MIT and JSTOR declined to continue prosecuting, he was relentlessly pursued by Federal authorities and prosecutors stated that Aaron had downloaded the material with the intent of making it available through free file-sharing. Aaron faced thirty-five years in prison followed by three years of supervised probation as well as a one million dollar fine - for downloading academic articles. Aaron had already spent his fortune on his case.
Mere days before Aaron's death, his defense was told by prosecutors that he would have to spend a minimum of six months in prison and plea guilty to all charges if he wished to avoid trial. By the time that authorities began making speculative apologies about the reality of Aaron's crimes (an expert even deeming them "inconsiderate" rather than truly malicious) it was far too late.
Public outcry about the charges against Aaron were of various standpoints. Some argued that Aaron did break the law and did need to own up to his crimes and what the punishment was, although not many people seemed to think that his escapades warranted thirty-five years of being locked up. When Aaron was finally bled so dry financially that he reached out for help to pay for his legal defense, many were unsympathetic. A comment even stated, "Aaron should man up, take responsibility for his actions, and pay his own bills." Others, however, applauded Aaron for what he did and what he represented. Aaron was an activist, campaigning against the Stop Online Piracy Act, volunteering for Wikipedia, and investigating the treatment of Chelsea Manning (a major source for Wikileaks.) He first gained attention from the FBI through his download and release of federal documents via Public Access to Court Electronic Records, although they could not press charges because of the fact that the documents were public. Followers of Aaron Swartz's story wondered if this, among other inconveniences of Aaron's genius, sparked the desire for harsh punishment against the man they deem a technology hero.
Aaron Swartz' Suicide and Aftermath
In Brooklyn on January 11, 2013, Aaron's girlfriend Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman found him hanging in his apartment. Weeks before his trial, Aaron was dead. Several days after the suicide, Aaron's funeral was held in Illinois and multiple memorial services followed, several of which Taren attended; people wanted know why Aaron had committed suicide, some of which had not paid attention to him until his legal troubles became known or even until his death. Aaron left no note to explain his suicide, but to Taren, it did not need much explaining. "I believe that Aaron's death was caused by a criminal justice system that prioritizes power over mercy, vengeance over justice; a system that punishes innocent people for trying to prove their innocence instead of accepting plea deals that mark them as criminals in perpetuity; a system where incentives and power structures align for prosecutors to destroy the life of an innovator like Aaron in the pursuit of their own ambitions." Taren unabashedly blames the prosecution for her partners death, noting that although he had dealt with depression before, and that he dealt with extreme stomach pain from ulcerative colitis (similar to Crohn's Disease) his suicide was the result of being bombarded for several years for doing what he believes to be right. She stated on a post, "If on January 10, Steve Heymann and Carmen Ortiz at the Massachusetts US Attorney's office had called Aaron's lawyer and said they'd realized their mistake and that they were dropping all charges — or even for that matter that they were ready to offer a reasonable plea deal that wouldn't have marked Aaron as a felon for the rest of his life — would Aaron have killed himself on January 11? The answer is unquestionably no."
Bullying often makes headlines, and so do the suicides that result from the behavior. Aaron Swartz was a sensitive being, openly so, and intensely so. What the federal government did in regards to Aaron's "theft" is nothing short of "bullying for grown-ups" and they sought to make an example of Aaron, and it was agonizing for him. Taren was not the only one quick to speak up about what the federal government had done to Aaron. Lawrence Lessig wrote a eulogy titled Prosecutor as Bully, in which he questions whether or not Aaron had committed a crime in the first place and the morality of the issue. Was the man who - after making a load of money, kept his simple wardrobe and small apartment - really trying to hack his way to more financial success? "The "property" Aaron had "stolen," we were told, was worth "millions of dollars" — with the hint, and then the suggestion, that his aim must have been to profit from his crime. But anyone who says that there is money to be made in a stash of ACADEMIC ARTICLES is either an idiot or a liar."
Morality and its function in the modern, technological world was a major concern for Aaron. It is no surprise that Aaron, after being caught downloading illegally from JSTOR, maintained that he had done nothing wrong even as he did acknowledge his participation in the charges against him. Information should be free and easy to access for all, and there was no way around this fact. He should not have had to explain something so obvious, should not have needed to defend the choices he made prior to his arrest. Even in his last blog entry, where he reviewed The Dark Knight, his focus on morality and the different ways morals are used (and misconstrued for personal gain) is apparent - and personal. The Joker tells Batman that the people he protects have no real morality - their morals and rules are a bad joke. The Joker knows that Batman is just a pawn of the system. Aaron surely related greatly to the statements the Joker made; only chaos was fair, and people were only as good as the world allowed them to be. Whatever morality it was that allowed the prosecution to bully him to his breaking point sure was a "bad joke," and Aaron was disheartened by this. His world had been shaken beyond a point of viable return. "The movie concludes by emphasizing that Batman must become the villain, but as usual it never stops to notice that the Joker is actually the hero," he says in his last blog entry. "Thanks to Batman, society doesn't devolve into a self-interested war of all-against-all, as he apparently expects it to, but that doesn't mean anyone enjoys the trials. Thus Master Wayne is left without solutions. Out of options, it's no wonder the series ends with his staged suicide."
It is unfortunate that Aaron's suicide was not also staged, but his legacy is alive and well. Immortalized in the Internet Hall of Fame, a documentary, and the opening of many conversations surrounding what was related to his cause, Aaron is still moving things along in activist circles. Perhaps his death will help prevent future misuse of power regarding free-flowing information. His suicide was preventable. His choices were of a higher moral standing than most can really comprehend, and because federal prosecutors saw him as a threat, he was killed. All over the world, people use sites daily that were made possible by Aaron. He did die at twenty-six, but his life was certainly not idle, as a martyr's rarely is.