May 30, 2024

Grieving Aaron Swartz

Aaron took his life yesterday. The world has lost a good soul. Aaron was brilliant, inventive, generous, and passionate. The intense pressure on Aaron was unfair, and it was a direct result of his well-intentioned fight to make the world a better place. I feel sad, angry, and even guilty. Experts will tell you that these emotions are natural in the case of suicide. They are also very real.

Those of you unfamiliar with Aaron Swartz should read Tim Lee’s article, “Internet pioneer and information activist takes his own life”. Memorials and responses are spreading across the web. Cory Doctorow offers his memories and admiration. Larry Lessig expresses his sadness and anger. James Grimmelmann remembers Aaron’s incredible passion, wit, and ingenuity. Hundreds of others are posting about Aaron, and the community of people that he touched is wrestling with it all. His family and partner have posted an official statement.

I was not one of Aaron’s close friends, but for what it’s worth I’ll offer some reflections: my memories of Aaron, my experience with suicide, and my thoughts on the perverse policy and politics that weighed on him. If the last seems inappropriate right now, I would argue that Aaron–of all people–would have wanted this to be discussed.

In the abstract, Aaron was at first intimidating. The common (and true) storyline was that he was a technological whiz-kid that helped to create RSS, Creative Commons, and Reddit. In person, he was just Aaron. Quirky but approachable. Lighthearted but driven. Immediately engaged on a good cause. We ran into each other in the Summer of 2008. I had been admiring his work on open access to public records. When I mentioned that federal court records were stuck behind a pay-wall, his eyes lit up. I’ve written the story up before, but the punchline is that Aaron successfully “liberated” millions of these records before the courts caught on. The FBI got involved, but couldn’t find a way to press charges for redistributing public records. Ultimately Aaron filed a FOIA request for his own FBI record, which he posted to his blog. Classic Aaron.

He and I kept in sporadic touch as he went on to the next of many projects. His cache of court records served as the initial seed for the RECAP project, which helps individuals to contribute to a public archive of court records. That archive includes the criminal case against Aaron. I am subscribed to updates via RSS.

One of my greatest fears is that the court records escapade helped to contribute to the pressure that Aaron faced over the past two years. Although the FBI never pressed charges, they couldn’t have been happy. Aaron subsequently allegedly went on a mission to “liberate” millions of academic articles from the academic database JSTOR, by way of an MIT networking closet. He felt, as do many academics and advocates of access to knowledge, that the world would be a better place if everyone had free access to the fruits of academic research. This time the feds threw the book at him. I worry that the court records incident made the government more likely to go for maximum charges. I worry that it had helped to embolden Aaron (although I also admired his boldness). I feel guilty that although Aaron had written about his struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts, I hadn’t reached out to him.

A range of often-conflicting emotions is common for “survivors of suicide” (ie. those who have lost a loved one to suicide). These include guilt (like mine), stigma (real or perceived), anger (at the loved one or others), and disconnection (from the person and memories of them). Unfortunately, these feelings are not new to me, or to our community here at Princeton. A few years ago, my father-in-law, who suffered from bipolar disorder, killed himself. Two years ago, our good friend and colleague here at Princeton, Bill Zeller committed suicide. Like Aaron, Bill was a brilliant, funny, passionate geek. For survivors who are struggling, there is no substitute for support groups [1, 2] or professional therapy. However, for an overview of the grieving and recovery process I recommend the short pocket-sized “Handbook for Survivors of Suicide (PDF)” produced by the American Association of Suicidology. That handbook will tell you that emotions like anger and guilt are natural, and that recovery involves working through them.

If you are reading this and you struggle with depression, anxiety, or anything that leads to suicidal thoughts, know that you are not alone. Please talk to your loved ones, a mental health professional (although this may take some patience and trial-and-error), or call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Many sufferers feel great stigma, but it is critical that you reach out. I know from personal experience, as a sufferer of anxiety, that it can seem insurmountably intimidating to open up. However, I have also experienced tremendous support after doing so, and have discovered that many others struggle in one way or another.

At the moment, I am angry. The prosecutor in Aaron’s case could not possibly have thought that it was equitable or appropriate to insist on charging him with federal crimes that call for dozens of years in prison if convicted. Aaron’s alleged actions could have, for example, been treated as a simple case of breaking and entering without any profit motive or real damage. When I was at MIT, these types of antics were commonplace and embedded into the subcultures of the place. The psychological pressure that Aaron must have been facing is unimaginable. Larry Lessig was forceful in his condemnation of the prosecutor, and I too have a hard time tempering my anger.

There is also the policy matter of the extremely mis-calibrated laws that the prosecutor was relying upon for the obscenely long potential jail time. Tim Lee discusses this at the end of his article. The so-called “hacker” laws are vague and unjust, their enforcement is seemingly arbitrary, and Aaron’s actions should not have reasonably qualified for punishment under their standards.

I was fortunate to occasionally enter Aaron’s orbit. I am sad, angry and guilty. For now, that will have to do.


  1. This article is weeks old now, It is unknown to me who may yet read this message. I was in a state of Shock as it were with my messages yesterday, and my above posts may have been rants, please take them as such.

    I did not have time yesterday to read all the links presented, as it was a lot to read, but I continued to read today, and I feel I need to change my tone and offer yet another post, of a different nature.

    Thank you Steve Schultze for this article, more specifically, thank you for the links accompanied. There has been much on my mind of late, and this development adds so much. It may be the legacy of Aaron Swartz will be more than his technological accomplishments, or even his political activism (which I share). Being such a high profile person in certain circles, it may be a legacy of further understanding and dealing with emotional trauma that is mental illness by a much greater segment of the population.

    I have often said that I take a “no blame” approach to mental illness. Sometimes I may back-slide on that stance. It is natural for me having dealings with an oppressive government to presume a blame on them for their bullying. I felt that way yesterday and much of today even as I read Lessig’s blog, and pondered my own experiences.

    But, thank you for the link to the “Handbook for Survivors of Suicide.” A powerful yet short writing. It covered nothing that I didn’t already intellectually know having studied much in my life on this subject. But, it was a curt reminder of my “no blame” stance. I read the entire thing, even though I have not yet been such a “survivor” that it was written for. There have been many close calls though as I myself have dealt with suicidal tendencies, most my siblings, my wife, and even now my nephews and nieces are exhibiting such. I feel much more empathy to both the survivors and to the victims because I have literally experienced both sides of the mind.

    I was wanting to post an analytical analysis of the likely many factors that went into Aaron’s decision. While there is no way to really know how accurate that analysis is, I suspect it is a lot closer than many who have posted on the various blogs, because of my own personal experiences. I will, however, refrain from such an analysis. Instead I wish to using a few excerpts from that survivors handbook and my own beliefs and study, add what I hope is a comfort to anyone reading this post who has been on either side of the mind.

    “The Suicidal Mind. Attempting to decipher precisely the thoughts of the suicide victim is much like trying to understand a foreign language by eavesdropping on a conversation.”

    I say either side of the mind meaning the non-suicidal (an outsider’s or survivor’s perspective), and a suicidal mind. While the suicidal mind may be a “foreign language” it is one I have become fluent in. I had to, because it was and still is my mind. But, it is not my only language, I have a religious language that helps me supersede the language of the suicidal mind.

    “We know that the primary goal of a suicide is not to end life, but to end pain.” The truth of this statement cannot be over-emphasized. And so true is this gem. “The suicidal person has a distorted view of their world. Problems that seem solvable to us seem impossible to them.”

    I will not attempt to put others into the suicidal mind, but anyone who has been there will understand those facts. The Handbook continues:

    “Only after you’ve exhausted your deductive abilities can you finally let go of the ‘Why?’” I will keep my analysis of the “why” to myself, but I feel I can have a satisfying answer of why, through analysis and deductive reasoning.

    The Handbook goes on to a section on feelings of guilt and blame. Very insightful section. I take just a snippet. “The key lies in understanding the difference between blame and responsibility. Blame is accusatory and judgmental, but assigning responsibility need only be a simple acknowledgment of fact.”

    Fact: Mental illness is real, it is a medical problem, it is a disease of the brain, and it is deadly. I acknowledge that. I further acknowledge that many I know and love, myself included, have such a disease. Even if it has not yet claimed the lives of those I know, it is a fact that it may yet one day.

    Fact: It is said Aaron Swartz openly talked about his also having this disease. As much as the bullying of an oppressive government to which he would not nor could not conform to may have or may not have been a catalyst to the final decision, it was the disease, and not the government that took him.

    Fact: The disease could take me, BUT I can also “choose” to not let it, because I can chose, no matter how “irrational” my thoughts become, to conduct such as to keep myself alive, and to seek the help of others to keeping myself alive.

    The Handbook goes on to talk about acceptance. Recognizing the facts, helps with acceptance. Another thing I have found helps is a particular religious perspective. I realize such a perspective is not shared but by less than 0.001% to 0.002% percent of the world population. But, I share it here, I share it through a poem (quoted from memory and may not be perfectly accurate).


    “Death ugly?
    Oh my child no.
    If you could see the beauty
    that lies where your sight fails
    you would run with arms open wide
    and leap into eternity.

    But sad is a harvest of green wheat
    And so that you would
    feverishly cling to earth
    and finish your mortal task
    I merely gave death an ugly mask.”
    -Carol Lynn Pearson

    This poem, though short, speaks as to what both keeps me alive from day to day, and what allows me to pre-accept should this disease overtake any of those I love. I have an “eternal” perspective or a belief that this life is a “mortal” experience of an “immortal” being. I revel in the knowledge that some day, I may yet reconnect with those I love. But more importantly, the knowledge that this mortal body and the diseases of the brain will not be a part of the immortal and one day perfect body.

    However, I recognize my own life progress, and recognize that I am still “green wheat” as the poem says. Thus, I chose to “cling to earth” even when the pain is unbearable and the problems impossible to solve. And, from that perspective I do my best to help those I love also so “cling to earth” by offering them options and ways to solve problems that I know to them seem impossible to solve.

  2. Been a long while since I have come here, this past month has been especially difficult for me personally. Then, I come here to this news.

    I too am grieving. I did not know Aaron Swartz. Likely heard is name when I read your article about RECAP some time ago, may have heard is name when RSS was the big rage. But, otherwise I had not known him. I too have dealt with JSTOR and it’s pay-wall boggles my mind. I believe I commented this very frustration on this website a bit ago on an article about college cheating. The theory (in lay-man’s term) has come to my attention that ALL research is done with the idea that it is to further humanity. But, in reality, the fact is that it is a pay to play system. That ALL research is kept locked up, and only those who would go to the useless colleges get to access it, only those with huge sums of money get access to it.

    My boss is into education, and heavy on the research. She received millions of grant money to fund research back in the 70’s. But, now, as we go about day to day business, she asks me to find what current research says, and I can’t get access to any of it, and almost ALL links go to JSTOR. What is the purpose of research if no one can access it, I ask?

    Apparently this is the same question Aaron Swartz asked. And, so, though I knew him not, I am now linked to his cause and linked to his memory.

    But, to read this news. No, it is much more than my frustration over the pay-to-play system that is American academics that links me now to Aaron Swartz and to mourn is his passing. It is mental illness. It is depression and its reality. I too, while I consider myself a brilliant mind, suffer from clinical Major Depressive Disorder, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

    I too have felt that heavy handedness of the Government who even to this day despises what they don’t understand. Despises the “mentally ill” and seeks to take away our freedoms. They create laws and punishments that are completely contrary to decency and humanity, and then they wonder when there is political back-lash from the likes of myself and Aaron Swartz. And, this backlash only is used to hurts us worse.

    I mourn the passing of a man I never knew, and name I hardly even heard of. But, his fate, is the fate of many wrongly persecuted for a medical problem that is beyond their control. A fate, I hope I do not share. I have suicidal thoughts nightly. I act not on those thoughts for specific reasons, but some 7 years ago I very nearly acted on the desire, not to outright suicide but for what would have been my death within months if not days. A desire to declare my independence, taking State owned land as my own, and fighting if necessary unto death for my independence, while attempting to survive living off the land.

    I hope to never need to carry out such a plan. But, the government of today, is getting ever more heavy handed at every level, and though I fight and fight with the pen to instigate change in the minds of the populace. I suspect that much like Aaron Swartz, I too will be a victim of the government’s animosity toward those who do not “conform” to their agenda.

  3. > or real damage

    You obviously don’t understand the mindset of government. Anyone who is enthusiastically dedicated to changing the status quo (and in this, I mean the “rules of the game”, not accepted accomplishments within “the game”) is a revolutionary/terrorist/dangerous-person.

    Richard Stallman, for example, is just lucky that he was most active at a time where technology was less advanced, and therefore the changes he forged ended up only gradually gaining momentum, so government and industry had little sensitivity to what was happening, a la “boiling frog” metaphor.

  4. Dean C. Rowan says

    sjreese, a very good comment, on the money, so to speak. Librarian here. It’s important for geeks and the like to know that as public servants librarians and libraries have always been about fucking things up for the few who want to impose and maintain a fake scarcity of knowledge. Always. I’m compelled to say this because I often get the feeling that the geeks–the Tim Lees, the Lessigs, maybe even the Swartz’s, for all I know–don’t seem to get it. Instead, for them it’s about the rallying cry, the soapbox, the self-righteous advocacy of legal and political moves that usually just inflate the rhetoric and make for sporting politics. Take, for example, this sad suicide, about which everybody who knew him evidently needs to point out how “intimidating” Swartz was. Are intellect and skill and a dash of quirky personality intimidating? What is gained by this characterization? It lends an edginess to a story that once conveyed its own inherent edginess, but no longer. As technological innovation grows more ordinary–and god forbid we should be forced to dwell among the ordinary–its proponents jack up the histrionics. Consequently, we have a morally vacant federal lawyer pulling all the stops to win a round and set an example.

    But, hey, we “keep this privilege” for ourselves? Bullshit. Libraries exist to serve their constituencies. You are, no doubt, a member of one. Visit your library and let them know what you want.

    • When has any library granted access to JSTOR research papers? I have not seen a single one. Libraries offer “books” but never “knowledge” and ESPECIALLY never “scientific research.” At least free and public libraries never offer such, I could read every book in the library and have no greater understanding of “scientific research” than I do now, (As an example, all the books at a library are still going to say that the T-Rex is a scaly reptile, even though science now [according to the news] believes that T-Rex was a feathery bird. But, of course I can’t access to records to show how they come to that conclusion… That is pointless drivel, but how about all the records for so called “global warming.” I have no way to verify if “scientists” really are claiming that global warming is man caused, or even if it is warming and not cooling. Because I can’t get access to the scientists actual journals. All I get is what is pasted in the news, about scientists claiming such, but which scientists and what was their research? I also hear plenty about scientists who have come out against it, but only because I go looking, the news never mentions those scientists, but again, I never get access to their research either. How can I form an opinion on “global warming” and whether or not I should do anything about it, if I can never see the research?)

      I suspect, very much that private, and pay-to-play libraries offer access to such research. The libraries at colleges that you can only access if you go to college and pay tons of money for nonsensical classes that have nothing to do with your study. The money that you pay to listen to dribble of teachers who don’t know anything they are talking about, because they were not the ones that did the research. Or to take classes that are so outdated (Like the University of Utah who refused to teach Java classes until it was more than 10 years old, and still teaches C+ and computer theory in Fortran). Etc. Etc.

      No, colleges are worthless, because they do not impart “knowledge” instead they are a collection of nothing more nor less than money-grubbing institutions from which a person may be able to find knowledge, if they care to pay and then if they do their own work, that is if they even have the time to do the work and money to pay.

      Me, I don’t have the time, nor the money to pay, so I have to glean what I can from the Internet, but I am never granted access to “real science” as so called “scientists” call it. I am never granted access to actual “research.”

  5. Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations. Want to read the papers featuring the most famous results of the sciences? You’ll need to send enormous amounts to publishers like Reed Elsevier..

    There are those struggling to change this. The Open Access Movement has fought valiantly to ensure that scientists do not sign their copyrights away but instead ensure their work is published on the Internet, under terms that allow anyone to access it. But even under the best scenarios, their work will only apply to things published in the future. Everything up until now will have been lost.

    That is too high a price to pay. Forcing academics to pay money to read the work of their colleagues? Scanning entire libraries but only allowing the folks at Google to read them? Providing scientific articles to those at elite universities in the First World, but not to children in the Global South? It’s outrageous and unacceptable.

    “I agree,” many say, “but what can we do? The companies hold the copyrights, they make enormous amounts of money by charging for access, and it’s perfectly legal —there’s nothing we can do to stop them.” But there is something we can, something that’s already being done: we can fight back.

    Those with access to these resources — students, librarians, scientists — you have been given a privilege. You get to feed at this banquet of knowledge while the rest of the world is locked out. But you need not —indeed, morally, you cannot — keep this privilege for yourselves. You have a duty to share it with the world. And you have: trading passwords with colleagues, filling download requests for friends.

    Meanwhile, those who have been locked out are not standing idly by. You have been sneaking through holes and climbing over fences, liberating the information locked up by the publishers and sharing them with your friends.

    But all of this action goes on in the dark, hidden underground. It’s called stealing or piracy, as if sharing a wealth of knowledge were the moral equivalent of plundering a ship and murdering its crew. But sharing isn’t immoral — it’s a moral imperative. Only those blinded by greed would refuse to let a friend make a copy.

    Large corporations, of course, are blinded by greed. The laws under which they operate require it — their shareholders would revolt at anything less. And the politicians they have bought off back them, passing laws giving them the exclusive power to decide who can make copies.

    There is no justice in following unjust laws. It’s time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture.

    We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that’s out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access.

    With enough of us, around the world, we’ll not just send a strong message opposing the privatization of knowledge —we’ll make it a thing of the past. Will you join us?

    • sjreese, how about a citation for those who don’t recognize Aaron’s speech.

      • Didn’t need a citation, probably because A) it sounded very much like it would have been something Aaron said, and B) because it very well may be sjreese’s speech as well.

        It is exactly that.

        Two people can have the same speech. Unless Aaron suggested he wanted to A) copyright his speech, and B) hide it from the world in a system like JSTORE… I suspect, simply from reading about Aaron in this and the linked articles, he would want everyone so like-minded to take up the exact same speech, and not worry about “citations.” “Citations” SMACK of JSTOR and the entire “research community’s” elitism, which apparently Aaron was against.

        Far be it for me to speak for Aaron, however, I suspect I would be accurately portraying his feeling if I said, no need for citations, that he would want to say to everyone please take up the call to “fight for Guerilla Open Access.”

        And so I of myself say… With enough of us, around the world, we’ll not just send a strong message opposing the privatization of knowledge —we’ll make it a thing of the past. Will you join us?