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Re: <nettime> RIP: Aaron H. Swartz (November 8, 1986 -- January 11, 2013
Luke Smith on Thu, 17 Jan 2013 17:41:18 +0100 (CET)

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Re: <nettime> RIP: Aaron H. Swartz (November 8, 1986 -- January 11, 2013)

I wrote this meditation and so far have shared it with no one.

Thoughts Following the Death of Aaron Swartz

I didn't know Aaron and I have no special knowledge of his life or death.
We were only fellow travelers, but I admired him a great deal and still do.
Like he surely was for many people, he was the sort of person I hoped I
could be but could not. I am writing this because, first, I feel I know
something of the project he believed in and, second, my own experience with
suicide makes feel compelled to say something about it.

Years ago, when I was a sophomore in college, my friend Nelson Pavlosky and
I obtained an e-mail archive detailing flaws in voting machines
manufactured by Diebold Election Systems. We got it from another activist
leader on campus, Micah White. Diebold attempted to suppress the
information in the documents using claims of copyright infringement. With
the help of the EFF and a law clinic at Stanford, Nelson and I <a
target="_blank" href="
sued them</a>. The case resulted in a finding of liability for their
frivolous copyright claims against what was found to be a legitimate
distribution of information in the public interest. There was a flash of
attention following the lawsuit and, with the help of Professor Lessig, our
Swarthmore college group sparked an organization called Students for Free

I quickly realized I had no idea what I was doing and did not know how to
lead anyone or even what I wanted to do with myself. I lacked Aaron's
brilliance and courage; after graduation I was quickly overtaken by my own
difficulties. I ended up in San Francisco working in the environmental
movement. I was glad to contribute my skills despite the mundane nature of
the technical work involved. I found that there are structural connections
between the problem of the environmental commons and the problem of network
commons. Both are threatened by a market logic of enclosure and
exploitation that creates grave negative externalities and undermines the
benefit of the commons to humanity as a whole. But during this time I also
found myself struggling with a lot of pain, physical and otherwise, and I
didn't get much done outside of my job. I regret that I have not
contributed much to the Free Culture movement since the lawsuit.

In contrast with my flash in the pan, Aaron was a shining light. His rare
combination of technical genius, communication ability, and social
perceptiveness made him a true unicorn. But he must have been fighting
through depression, too, and that's one thing I want to talk about.

I think it's true that people who commit suicide ultimately do so for
deeply interior reasons that no other person can really understand. I was
very close to my mother, but when she killed herself three years ago I knew
that I could never truly know "the" reason. But there were still reasons I
could know. She was a person driven by a desire to do right by other
people. Her work as a therapist in private practice was important to her
and she operated on generous terms. In the year leading up to her death,
however, our family's circumstances resulted in the loss of her business.
My father's job, working as an attorney for UAW union members, disappeared
with the decline of the union itself. My parents lost health benefits. My
mother had to try working for a hospital and found that the severe lack of
resources in the world of mental health treatment made it intolerable. I
know that in her final months, the inability to continue her life's work,
the feeling of being thwarted, must have contributed to her distress. Her
purpose in life was about helping others; in the end she could not help
herself without it.

Some people believe that suicide is an act of cowardice or selfishness. I
reject this view absolutely and find it offensive. Neither my mother nor
Aaron was a coward. Their lives reveal no selfishness. No one I've seen has
said this negative stuff about Aaron and that is a good thing.

The more common belief is that suicide is the product of a disease, an
unfortunate result of a "chemical imbalance" that was not successfully
treated. I believe that this view is less wrong but it is incomplete, and
it does not do justice to the experience of people who commit suicide. Of
course, we should not stigmatize people with depression or suicidal
thinking -- we should help them any way we can, with drugs, therapy or
whatever works. But depression is as much a disease of our society as it is
a disease of individual people. Its increasing prevalence has to make you
wonder: why now? What is wrong with this world that requires us to
intervene so drastically on so many  people's lives just to convince them
to keep participating in family, society and the economy?

In my mother's case, her depression was connected to a grinding
incompatibility between her compassionate desire to help other people on a
person-to-person basis and the direction that our mental health system has
taken -- devaluing psychotherapy because drugs are cheaper for the
"consumer" and more profitable for corporations. Recent scientific
questions about the efficacy of SSRI antidepressants and ever-more evidence
for the real power of talking to someone will not, I am sure, stop the
expansion of drug-based treatment at the expense of therapy. Nothing will
stop it because the market is blind to the externalities it is creating.
They've even widened the market for the atypical antipsychotics --
extremely powerful drugs -- to include five year olds who throw temper
tantrums. Let me be clear: I'm not against medication in principle, and my
mother wasn't either. She was a practical person and believed in using
whatever method would make someone better. She was on an antidepressant
when she died. But the idea of depression as a chemical problem that can be
fixed with the right pill is wrong. My mother's death was not really
because of neurons gone haywire. It was meaningfully connected to the
conflict between her positive ideals and the insane priorities of our

The insane priorities of prosecutor Carmen Ortiz, and the clueless idiots
who wrote the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and JSTOR, and MIT and everyone
else involved in pushing Aaron up against the wall very clearly contributed
to whatever inner struggle he was facing. These actors, too, were slavishly
devoted to a ridiculous market logic of enclosure and blind to the
externalities involved. There is no reason, given the success of the open
access model, why every journal article should not be free to every human
on Earth. These people should be ashamed. I do not think we should explain
away Aaron's death and their guilt with the idea of depression as a
disease. Suicide is not an act of selfish cowardice nor is it just the
result of an illness. It is a desperate refusal to suffer the world as it
is or seems to be. Perhaps it can be the final act of defiance in the life
of a person who has long since taken up arms against a sea of troubles,
ready to oppose and end them. The Tunisian fruit-seller who touched off the
Arab Spring was not merely a sick person. Aaron wasn't either.

For all of us who are making the Internet, along with the law and norms
that go with it, let this be a reminder that this isn't a game. I'm with
Jim Gilliam; <a target="_blank" href="
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-4WKle-GQwk";>the Internet is my
religion</a>. For me, the fight to stop enclosure logic from ruining the
Internet is directly connected to the struggle to keep that same logic from
destroying the environment and civilization itself. The network, the law,
government, society as a whole -- they are all one big machine that's made
of people. We cannot free ourselves from its problems as individuals. (If a
genius like Aaron cannot escape them, what chance do I have?) However, we
who make the Internet and its culture, we at the frontier of change, have
an opportunity to rewire the workings of the machine -- to create the
architecture of human solidarity or lack thereof. We can influence whether
the network enables collective solutions to our problems and supports the
flourishing of every person -- or instead locks us into a giant game of
prisoner's dilemma that pits us against each other and appropriates our
gains in productivity for a narrow few. We need to take this seriously, and
we need to include a broader constituency of people in our work. We also
need to build institutions and take care of each other. We can't let the
burden of our social responsibility rest solely on the shoulders of
extraordinary individuals like Aaron.

Playfulness is an essential part of our culture of innovation, but with
respect to the moral implications of our task, the time has come to put
away childish things. Silly techno-libertarian ideas about the inherently
liberatory nature of the current shift are, well, silly. Information
doesn't want to be free; people do. But I don't think the eco-doomers are
right either. We are not guaranteed salvation nor are we condemned;
instead, the adventure is on to build a machinery of love to replace the
machinery of enclosure and exploitation. That's what I believe Aaron was
doing. If what you are making now is not the machinery of love, stop. Make
something else. When you remember Aaron, remember that only revolution is


On Sun, Jan 13, 2013 at 6:40 PM, Anivar Aravind <anivar.aravind {AT} gmail.com>wrote:

> Academics, please put your PDFs online in tribute to  {AT} aaronsw. Use
> #pdftribute. This is happening Check out - http://pdftribute.net/ ;
> It'll soon be a huge collection of pdf links to academic articles .
> share widely

Luke Smith
luke.thomas.smith {AT} gmail.com

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