The brother of my friend Noah Swartz committed suicide last Friday. I didn’t know Noah’s brother Aaron, so these are the terms I relate to it in. The Swartz family is close to many of my friends: Mako and Mika live in his Aaron’s former apartment/offices, and I’ve met both of Noah’s brothers through them. Noah’s a quiet guy, but a geek in his own right — crazy good at strategy games and an occasional host for college radio.
Noah’s brother was Aaron Swartz. Aaron’s in the news a lot right now, and with good reason. He was brilliant and he was unfairly treated. The Swartz family and Aaron’s partner aren’t going to have a lot of privacy these days, but I’m not sure they want it. They’re angry and they want you to know that Aaron’s death wasn’t just about depression:
“Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.”
It is difficult to explain what Aaron was actually prosecuted for, what he was facing, and why it was horribly wrong. The best summary I’ve heard so far was aired this morning on WBUR: http://www.wbur.org/2013/01/15/swartz-attorney-ortiz
It’s hard to know where to go from here. Here are some ideas.
Ask MIT for an apology. It’s too little and too late, but those who loved Aaron would like to see MIT acknowledge that its involvement in his prosecution was wrong.
Dedicate yourself to publishing Open Access. If you are in academia, you know what this is about. Aaron was convinced that knowledge is power, and our publications are purportedly our efforts to share knowledge. You may also wish to share copies of your pdfs on the web, and there is a Twitter movement advocating this (#pdftribute). I should note while this is common it is also technically illegal — an act of civil disobedience, albeit on a much smaller scale than Aaron’s alleged and unrealized liberation of JSTOR archives.
Give to Givewell. Aaron believed we have a moral obligation to help others in the most efficient manners possible. He personally worked for structural change — he was a genius and so he had a reasonable chance of accomplishing this — but he was also a strong believer in Givewell and doing the greatest good by contributing to the developing world. My husband Chris and I donate a significant fraction of our income each year to Givewell, and the Swartz family has asked that donations made in Aaron’s memory be made to that organization.
Finally, here are articles and links if you’d like to learn more about Aaron. I present these in chronological order.
- Aaron’s talk “How we stopped SOPA” (May 22 2012), which articulately explains what was so dangerous about SOPA and highlights one of the many ways Aaron fought to make our world a better place.
- Cory Doctorow’s “RIP Aaron Swartz” (Jan 12 2013), in which he remembers a brilliant young friend.
- Lawrence Lessig’s “Prosecutor as Bully” (Jan 12 2013), an angry summary of how wrong Aaron’s prosecution was.
- The Economist’s Babbage Blog “Remembering Aaron Swartz: Commons Man” (Jan 13 2013), a poignant memorial.
- The New Yorker’s Tim Wu “How the Legal System Failed Aaron Swartz–And Us” (Jan 14 2013), a criticism of the expansive nature of our current legal system, how disproportionate justice is subject to selective enforcement, and how genius is punished.
- WBUR’s David Boeri “Prosecution’s Case Against Swartz Draws Scrutiny” (Jan 15 2013), mentioned above, this best summary so far I’ve heard of Aaron’s legal case.