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.