Aaron Swartz Wanted To Save the World. Why Couldn’t He Save Himself?

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Feb. 7 2013 9:47 PM

The Idealist

Aaron Swartz wanted to save the world. Why couldn’t he save himself?

Aaron Swartz at a Boston Wiki Meetup on Aug. 19, 2009
Aaron Swartz at a Boston Wiki Meetup on Aug. 19, 2009

Courtesy of Sage Ross/Flickr/Wikimedia Commons

On Jan. 4, 2013, Aaron Swartz woke up in an excellent mood. “He turned to me,” recalls his girlfriend Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, “and said, apropos of nothing, ‘This is going to be a great year.’ ”

Swartz had reason to feel optimistic. For a year and a half, he’d been under indictment for wire and computer fraud, a seemingly endless ordeal that had drained his fortune and his emotional reserves. But he had new lawyers, and they were working hard to find common ground with the government. Maybe they’d finally reach an acceptable plea bargain. Maybe they’d go to trial, and win.

“We’re going to win, and I’m going to get to work on all the things I care about again,” Swartz told his girlfriend that day. It’s not that he’d been idle. In addition to his job at the global IT consultancy ThoughtWorks, he’d become a contributing editor to the Baffler, done significant research on how to reform drug policy, and completed about 80 percent of a massive plot summary of the novel Infinite Jest. But Swartz held himself to high standards, and there was always more to do: more books to read, more programs to write, more ways to contribute to the countless projects he’d signed on for.

Swartz and Stinebrickner-Kauffman started 2013 with a Vermont ski vacation. They were joined by the young daughter of Swartz’s ex-girlfriend, tech journalist Quinn Norton. He loved Norton's daughter more than anyone in the world. Swartz adored children, and he could act like a child himself. A pathologically picky eater, he ate only bland foods: dry Cheerios, white rice, Pizza Hut’s personal pan cheese pizzas. He told friends he was a “supertaster,” extraordinarily sensitive to flavor—as if his taste buds were constantly moving from a dark room into bright light.

Though he called himself an “applied sociologist,” Swartz was best known as a computer programmer. His current project, a piece of software he called Victory Kit, was going well. Victory Kit would be an open-source, free version of the expensive community-organizing software used by groups like MoveOn—the sort of thing grassroots activists from around the world might use.

Some of those activists came to hear Swartz give a presentation on Victory Kit at a conference in upstate New York on Jan. 9. At the last minute, though, Swartz decided not to speak. His friend Ben Wikler says Swartz’s talk depended on someone else committing to join him in making their code open source. When he couldn’t secure that commitment in time, Swartz decided he wasn’t talking. “I remember being annoyed at him for being a stick-in-the-mud,” Wikler says.

Swartz had his principles, and he held to them forcefully. “Aaron generally felt like being a stickler about that stuff made the world better, because it actually pushed people to do the right thing,” says Wikler. He wouldn’t sign any contracts that might encourage patent trolling. He was finicky about his wardrobe, wearing T-shirts whenever possible. “Suits,” he wrote on his blog, “are the physical evidence of power distance, the entrenchment of a particular form of inequality.”

He wasn’t dogmatic about everything. He’d always been opposed to marriage, but he was starting to think he’d gotten that wrong. On Friday, Jan. 11, Stinebrickner-Kauffman stopped over at Wikler’s house. She and Swartz were coming over for dinner later that night, but she came by herself beforehand. As she played with Wikler’s new baby, she mentioned that Swartz had told her that, after the case was resolved, he might consider getting married. If that was possible, anything was possible.

But less than two miles away, in a small and dark studio apartment, Aaron Swartz was already dead.

*     *     *

At the beginning of every year, Aaron Swartz would post an annotated list of everything he’d read in the last 12 months. His list for 2011 included 70 books, 12 of which he identified as “so great my heart leaps at the chance to tell you about them even now.” One of these was Franz Kafka’s The Trial, about a man caught in the cogs of a vast bureaucracy, facing charges and a system that defy logical explanation. “I read it and found it was precisely accurate—every single detail perfectly mirrored my own experience,” Swartz wrote. “This isn’t fiction, but documentary.”

At the time of his death, the 26-year-old Swartz had been pursued by the Department of Justice for two years. He was charged in July 2011 with accessing MIT’s computer network without authorization and using it to download 4.8 million documents from the online database JSTOR. His actions, the government alleged, violated Title 18 of the U.S. Code, and carried a maximum penalty of up to 50 years in jail and $1 million in fines.

The case had sapped Swartz’s finances, his time, and his mental energy and had fostered a sense of extreme isolation. Though his lawyers were working hard to strike a deal, the government’s position was clear: Any plea bargain would have to include at least a few months of jail time.

A prolonged indictment, a hard-line prosecutor, a dead body—these are the facts of the case. They are outnumbered by the questions that Swartz’s family, friends, and supporters are asking a month after his suicide. Why was MIT so adamant about pressing charges? Why was the DOJ so strict? Why did Swartz hang himself with a belt, choosing to end his own life rather than continue to fight?

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When you kill yourself, you forfeit the right to control your own story. At rallies, on message boards, and in media coverage, you will hear that Swartz was felled by depression, or that he got caught in a political battle, or that he was a victim of a vindictive state. A memorial in Washington, D.C., this week turned into a battle over Swartz’s legacy, with mourners shouting in disagreement over what policy changes should be enacted to honor his memory.

Aaron Swartz is a difficult puzzle. He was a programmer who resisted the description, a dot-com millionaire who lived in a rented one-room studio. He could be a troublesome collaborator but an effective troubleshooter. He had a talent for making powerful friends, and for driving them away. He had scores of interests, and he indulged them all. In August 2007, he noted on his blog that he’d “signed up to build a comprehensive catalog of every book, write three books of my own (since largely abandoned), consult on a not-for-profit project, help build an encyclopedia of jobs, get a new weblog off the ground, found a startup, mentor two ambitious Google Summer of Code projects (stay tuned), build a Gmail clone, write a new online bookreader, start a career in journalism, appear in a documentary, and research and co-author a paper.” Also, his productivity had been hampered because he’d fallen in love, which “takes a shockingly huge amount of time!”

He was fascinated by large systems, and how an organization’s culture and values could foster innovation or corruption, collaboration or paranoia. Why does one group accept a 14-year-old as an equal partner among professors and professionals while another spends two years pursuing a court case that’s divorced from any sense of proportionality to the alleged crime? How can one sort of organization develop a young man like Aaron Swartz, and how can another destroy him?

Swartz believed in collaborating to make software and organizations and government work better, and his early experiences online showed him that such things were possible. But he was better at starting things than he was at finishing them. He saw obstacles as clearly as he saw opportunity, and those obstacles often defeated him. Now, in death, his refusal to compromise has taken on a new cast. He was an idealist, and his many projects—finished and unfinished—are a testament to the barriers he broke down and the ones he pushed against. This is Aaron Swartz’s legacy: When he thought something was broken, he tried to fix it. When he failed, he tried to fix something else.

Eight or nine months before he died, Swartz became fixated on Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace’s massive, byzantine novel. Swartz believed he could unwind the book’s threads and assemble them into a coherent, easily parsed whole. This was a hard problem, but he thought it could be solved. As his friend Seth Schoen wrote after his death, Swartz believed it was possible to “fix the world mainly by carefully explaining it to people.”

It wasn’t that Swartz was smarter than everyone else, says Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman—he just asked better questions. In project after project, he would probe and tinker until he’d teased out the answers he was looking for. But in the end, he was faced with a problem he couldn’t solve, a system that didn’t make sense.

*     *     *

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