This post is about Aaron Swartz, a software developer and internet activist who recently killed himself at the age of 26. I did not know him personally. I only know what I’ve read. I debated writing this post because I’m worried it will be too simplistic. Who am I to make an assessment about someone else’s life? But me making an assessment of Aaron’s life is the point I’m trying to make: we all make assessments about people we don’t know, often inaccurate assessments about what it would be like to be someone else other than ourselves.
For those of you that haven’t read anything about Aaron Swartz, he was a prodigy of the internet. Barely a teenager, he set up info.org to share the world’s knowledge. Still as a teenager he was part of a working group that developed RSS which enables users to efficiently receive updates when websites they follow change their content. He had a gift and work ethic that enabled a start well beyond the average.
As a young adult, proceeds from the sale of Reddit, which Aaron was part on in its early stages, brought him the flexibility that money will bring. But instead of pursuing wealth he pursued causes. He was a leading voice in ending the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a bill that would have made it easier for Congress to shut down websites accused of copyright violations.
Then came the cause that the law did not tolerate – downloading millions of academic articles from JSTOR, which makes articles available to institutions for a paid subscription. He hid a laptop in a cupboard and plugged into the MIT library to which he had access. He believed the knowledge, some of which was made possible by public funding, should be free to everyone. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for Massachusetts did not agree and charged him with computer fraud among other charges. Aaron faced jail time, not for a few months but years.
Outside looking in it would have been easy to minimize the weight he must have felt from the charges many believed to be excessive. It would have been easy to minimize the depression he suffered from. He was a genius, he knew what he liked to do and had the opportunity to make a living doing it. How many of us could say the same? He achieved recognition. He achieved respect. He had a passion bigger than himself. In a culture that ties career achievements to worth we could ask why he wasn’t fulfilled? Why did he kill himself? But it’s too easy to ask from the outside looking in – too easy to inflate our perceived suffering, dismiss the suffering of others, complicate our life story, and simplify that of others.