Death by suicide is always disturbing, even if a decision after a well-lived life facing terminal, painful illness. When committed by a young, talented person with a seemingly invisible illness, it takes on even more pathos. Think of Sylvia Plath or Tyler Clementi or so many whose names do not evoke immediate recognition. In cases such as these, and in reflection now of Aaron Swartz, I cannot help but feel how sad it is because it should not have turned out that way.
Not that I doubt his struggles or pain. To the contrary, that which drove him above all, I believe, is how much medical science and most people remain ignorant and afraid of mental illness, and the effects of extreme anguish and profound emotional suffering. Neither his death nor his prodigious life are unique when set against the history of so many highly gifted, emotionally challenged young people. Sylvia Plath's death, no less driven by mental illness, nonetheless also spoke to the crossroads of where women of letters lived emotionally in an era of transition about gender relations in Western society. In a similar vein, Tyler Clementi moved us by how his life and death spoke simultaneously to technology, privacy and sexuality, same sex relationships as a component of adolescent and young adult development of undergraduate students particularly. That Aaron Swartz crossed into the Internet world of law, economics, information and technology makes him the subject of the blog today.
If some people in the mid-19th century United States did not recognize the impending crisis of a war over slavery before John Brown invaded Harper's Ferry, they could not ignore it after the event. So, too, with Aaron's passing comes the unequivocal recognition that we live in an information economy, that the Internet is not simply a technology but a world-historical, cultural phenomenon with the potential to express good and evil and every human emotion in between. It has and continues to disrupt and disturb social norms, business models, traditions for how people communicate, how companies operate and how to receive and express ideas. Although his death is overdetermined by mental illness, his life speaks so clearly to how much "the Internet" and all that it means for contemporary global society. That serious tensions remain, and no one can afford to push off these issues as just "technology" is his lasting legacy. Technology alone explains almost nothing about the Internet today. Reporters have called upon Larry Lessig for a comment to Aaron Swartz's death. How completely fitting. It is an implicit recognition that to address anything about "technology" today, one must inevitably, purposefully think about the law, social norms and market forces that work in tandem constantly with technology as a ever-present dynamic of how we live everyday.
Access to information that technology has elevated into a precious commodity is what drove this young man. The logic of ones and zeros seemed to have no distinctions when it came to law or economics. In a pure sense, how could one fail to admire dedication to such a pristine idea? I am not equating John Brown's actions with those of Aaron Swartz, but using it as a famous backdrop from which to place such aspirations in the bold relief of exalted histories. Such purity we have all known, whether it be in Brutus' hope to restore the Republic of Rome, Joan of Arc leading the charge or in the rhetoric of Patrick's Henry's stirring Revolutionary command to give him liberty or death. Because we won that revolution, we extol that phrase, but it was spoken with the understanding that to fight for liberty was to break the laws, and that if the Revolution was not successful he knew what the consequence would be. Joan of Arc led armies, and ultimately paid for her bravery as a woman contravening social roles as much as a soldier defending the honor of the French royalty by burning at the stake. Brutus took his own life after losing a battle against Caesar's heir, Augustus. Each, in their own ways, are heroes. But the further back into history these lives fade, the easier their death's are to swallow. Did we really need a very sensitive young prodigy to take his life to recognize how much work remains for us all in the Internet age?
The answer must be no. With intelligence, courage and integrity, we can assume these challenges. What might these challenges be? To make laws fair and appropriate to balanced needs such that whole generations of youth do not experience themselves as criminals? To understand Internet security in this day and age sufficient to distinguish fraud and abuse laws designed for "protected computers" that managed large-scale financial systems from experimental hackers -- who might face consequences, to be sure, but not so grave as to contribute to pre-existing mental conditions that include thoughts of suicide? To exercise the existing law for physical space similarly for cyberspace such that we see the actions of Private Manning not so differently than we did for Daniel Ellsberg, violative of military or government service but for a reason, and most certainly not evidence of full-blown treason? I could go on, but you get my meaning.
In honor of Aaron Swartz, I am going to disclose the personal appeal that technology, law and policy holds. It is not, as you might have guessed, technology per se, although I have had a preternatural interest in shiny things for as long as I can remember. Rather, it is my own particular brand of a "fairness" streak in me. Because technology disrupts existing economic, social and political relations, I have hitched my wagon to it as the means to ask age-old questions about social justice. Mr. Swartz's technical prowess made him a prodigy I never was nor could never be. But I suspect that as talented as he was with technology, that is not really what drove him, and we would do his memory a disservice to limit our thinking about him in this way. Rule-bound adherents may not respect exactly what he did, but we may honor him for what in his life he was trying so desperately to say.