I never knew Aaron Swartz. I do not pretend to know much about him personally nor can I imagine what his family continues to suffer through. Like so many people, I have been moved by this tragedy, and my response has been to pour through his writings, reporting, and people’s opinions.
Let me be clear. I do think that Aaron acted in a way he felt was consistent with moral behavior and he tried to make the world a better place. I do believe scholarly work should be open and free. I believe sites like Reddit can influence positive social change, as we saw with SOPA. I also think the prosecution exhibited inappropriate behavior, and that a potential 35 year prison sentence is an absurd prospect.
I also think that part of this story is untold or unexplored, and so I shall make, delicately, an attempt at exploring it.
Us Versus Them
Accounts of Aaron’s closing days, weeks, and months tell us he was increasingly lonely, sheltered, and cut off from the world. I have some experience with depression when I was younger, and I can tell you some people feel a sort of fog over their head, as if the walls were closing in. Looking further back, though, Aaron’s own words we see a glimpse of how Aaron may have seen himself: he was in a battle; it was him versus the world, freedom advocates and hackers versus the elite and powerful corporations.
We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. … We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web.
In tone and intention, this line of thinking is not dissimilar to people who fear the government is fueling up black helicopters to strip them of their rights. It also reminds me of a friend who habitually uses a variety of drugs, and has since seen his life and relationships completely, tragically, disintegrate. What’s left of his intellectual energy focuses on how the courts conspire against him; how his father, a hard working and good man, is just an asshole who doesn’t understand “what it’s about.”
The commonality that I see is an us-versus-them worldview. I do not understand this worldview.
In fact, I’m surrounded by companies run by entrepreneurs, young and old, who aim to make a lot of money, but also make people happy and support good causes. They care about the result of their life’s work. I purchase most of my tech products from Apple, the richest, perhaps most elite and secretive company in the world, which also happens to be affecting real change in their supply chain in truly remarkable, and unmatched, ways. And in the public sector, for all its failings, I know amazing people in government who believe in leaving the world a better place than as they found it.
To the contrary, in both public and private spheres, our world is simply filled with amazing people; Aaron was one of them.
There is a lot that can and will be said about our justice system or the factors that unfairly forced Aaron into his dangerous corner. But I truly hope we examine another facet of this tragedy: this us-versus-them worldview is a dangerous thing and it is showing its ugly head in different sectors of our fragile society.
This worldview makes people feel alienated and in danger. It pits good people against good people, who are suddenly cast as villains. It pushes people closer to doing unthinkable things, either against others or themselves.
If you believe it the freedom of information, as we all should, we must find positive ways to effect change and influence behavior. Breaking through doors will only encourage stronger locks and taller walls. We simply can’t afford to be in an arms race against our own people. We must not judge motives or assume the worst of strangers. If an educational institution has an ill-conceived policy, we owe it to Aaron to demand change in loud, but constructive, ways, so that we can preserve both freedom and our society. For corporations, we must as a nation set and enforce clearer guidelines about how information can be obtained, used, and shared, and establish ground rules for how our user data is handled and who really owns it.
A call to arms should not be Aaron’s legacy. A band of shadowy hackers will not make the world a better place. Hostility, not openness, is the natural result of harming our institutions. If we are to build a better world, the world Aaron envisioned, we would be better served by doing it together.