Computer activist Aaron H. Swartz committed suicide in New York City yesterday, Jan. 11.
The accomplished Swartz co-authored the now widely-used RSS 1.0 specification at age 14, was one of the three co-owners of the popular social news site Reddit, and completed a fellowship at Harvard’s Ethics Center Lab on Institutional Corruption. In 2010, he founded DemandProgress.org, a “campaign against the Internet censorship bills SOPA/PIPA.”
He deserves a eulogy more eloquent than what I am capable of writing. Here's Cory Doctorow's, one of his long time friends.
It's a sad world in which you are being arrested and grand jury'd for downloading scientific journals and papers with the intent to share them.
It looks like Aaron Swartz may have willed all his money to Givewell. This... makes it even sadder, somehow, in ways I don't know how to describe.
His last Reddit comment was on /r/HPMOR.
Lawrence Lessig writes that Swartz's legal troubles had caused Swartz's wealth to have been "bled dry".
This makes me angry. Can we perhaps raise the lost money on the internet and send it to GiveWell? Aaron's tribute site has a link to them, but that's not the same as an organized campaign (specific goal, progress meter, mailing list, etc.)
One of my favorite quotes of his, from Fix the machine, not the person:
That's really disturbing. I exchanged some friendly emails with him a few months back last time :/ . Didn't think of this as a possibility at all. So sad to see younger people go.
Sidenote: something is profoundly wrong with US. 35 years sentence even as a possibility? What the hell? In the EU he'd face some fine and community service maybe and that's about it, or actually nothing at all as the case would have been dropped when MIT and JSTOR backed down.
Lessig: Prosecutor as bully. His crime was pissing off the wrong people: a government of men, not laws.
JSTOR's first best outcome was probably for Swartz to go to jail while having people think that JSTOR didn't want him to go to jail.
JSTOR weaseled, but this will follow Kevin Guthrie and Laura Brown for the rest of their lives. As it should.
From the linked Cory Doctorow eulogy:
A depressed 26-year-old faced a significant probability of spending decades in a small steel cage in which he would face a high likelihood of being repeatedly raped.
I suspect from his writings undiagnosed (and untreated) bipolar - the descriptions of the depression, the tour de force creativity runs. I could be seeing this through bipolar-coloured glasses, of course - I don't have bipolar, but I have loved ones who do. It's scary shit, and frequently really hard to treat in any effective manner.
I think his self-ideal must have been, a person who solves problems, important problems that need solving. And that is why he didn't seek help. Perhaps he was used to solving problems by himself, perhaps he didn't even trust other people to solve them correctly. So he simply ignored or endured the depression and the physical illness when they occurred. And he managed to survive that lifestyle for his first ten years as a hacktivist, but eventually he ran up against something that he couldn't topple or dodge, so in the end he chose that solution which also offers final relief.
What makes you think that? "Twenty-seven studies comprising 3275 suicides were included, of which, 87.3% (SD 10.0%) had been diagnosed with a mental disorder prior to their death."
I would just like to register my preference that those who retract comments leave the original text in place. In most cases, I believe the retraction itself serves the purposes of retraction pretty well, whereas replacing the text is sort of overkill and detracts from the conversation.
I feel like there's nothing I can say that will do justice to this tragedy, but it seems worse to say nothing.
Aaron was a hero, and the world will be a darker place without him.
I feel sad. I almost always cry when I feel death in near mode. I didn't know Aaron except for his glorious deeds and LW posts, but it still feels awful.
I feel guilty because there are many more people I can't cry for. Aaron was a cool guy, but so are all the other people who die every day.
I feel angry at the world for being so terrible and destroying one of us forever. Death is unacceptable. Let's stop this, OK?
Can we promote this to Main in homage? That's the piece I remembered when I realized "Oh crap, this Aaron Swartz".
He killed himself; this is true. He faced 35 years of confinement and the very-real prospect of rape. This, too, is true. He was criminalized for his intent to freely distribute scientific knowledge. This makes him a hero. He broke, but only storybook heroes are unbreakable. It's depressing how society seems to persecute those most able to improve it; that the broken machine slays those very engineers who've dedicated their lives to its repair.
The public servants responsible for the case against Aaron Swartz as of July 2011:
U.S. Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz
Special Agent in Charge Steven D. Ricciardi
Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen P. Heymann
Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott L. Garland
Cambridge Police Commissioner Robert C. Haas
The U.S. Secret Service’s Electronic Crimes Task Force
The Cambridge Police Department
The MIT Police Department
May they be remembered.
--Teresa Nielsen Hayden
This is from the discussion I mentioned as "more links"-- I probably should have said something about how thorough it is.
White House petition re: Carmen Ortiz. Surprisingly popular after just a few hours.
I didn't compile it, Teresa Nielsen Hayden (probably) did.
I promulgated it because I want there to be some social costs for disproportionate prosecution.
So, The Tech is reporting that Aaron Swartz has killed himself. No suicide note has surfaced, PGP-signed or otherwise. No public statements that I've been able to find have identified witnesses or method. Aaron Swartz was known for having many enemies. There's the obvious enemies in the publishing industry and the US attorneys office. Cory Doctorow wrote that he had "a really unfortunate pattern of making high-profile, public denunciations of his friends and mentors."
I'd like to raise the possibility that this was not a natural event. Most of this evidence can be adequately explained by how little time has passed, so we'll know more in a few days or weeks.
Strange side note: He had a PGP public key on his web page at http://www.aaronsw.com/pgp, retrievable from Wayback Machine, but the link went bad some time after Jul 28 2012. All other links on the site seem to be fine.
Additional side note: if your chance of being murdered ever goes past 0.01, state publicly that you don't believe in suicide and that any suicide note would definitely be cryptographically verifiable. If it ever goes past 0.05, set up a record-audio-to-Internet button that you can activate in under a second, then give your lawyer a signed message saying that any supposed suicide note which lacks a certain phrase is fake.
The New York Times has more information about circumstances:
I don't know if the relevant news reports had been released at the time this comment had been posted, but the apparent method of Swartz's death was hanging.
When you narrow down the set of people who could be considered Aaron Swartz's enemies to those who could have him killed and have it reported as a suicide, who would benefit more from his apparent death by suicide than his being drained of funds and convicted of felony, and ask whether this is realistic behavior for the remaining members of that set, particularly when you consider that the individual in question had written about his struggles with depression and was facing the prospect of dramatically worsening life conditions, I think this sort of speculation is more naive than cynical.
Some of this information has been released since the posting of the parent, but because the tone of the post feels like it was jumping a gun or two, I wanted to throw this out there:
There are good reasons why the media might not want to go into detail on these things, especially when the person in question was young, famous and popular. The relatively recent Bridgend suicide spiral was (is?) a prime example of such neglected media ethics, but the effect itself is nothing new.
Also: some things are always bound to get out via the social grapevine, but the lack of detailed official statements within a day or two is hardly even weak evidence for anything. I'll bet the "possibility that this was not a natural event" also occurred to the police, and immediately publishing relevant details of what might have become a criminal investigation just seems plain dumb.
He seems to have been smarter than most, had more money than most, and cared more about how the world was going than most. Having a will might just have been being relatively reality-based rather than a sign of depression.
His online will is directly inspired by Eric S. Raymond's (whose example he links to as the good idea that inspired him), and ESR certainly isn't depressive.
I made a will shortly after my first child was born, and I was around 27. Standard best practice.
It seems he published "If i get hit by a truck" in 2002, at age 16. Sad. Also, perhaps, awe-inspiring. Eliminating the problem of one's bus-factor would ordinarily be admirable... if you do it for the contingency where you simply get hit by a bus. I want, but can't, quite make myself believe that he didn't write this, at that time, in anticipation of an end like this. In that case; not awe-inspiring, only sad.
One more human dead. One of the saddest possible things imaginable, and it happens on a daily basis. It is particularly sad to see this happen to "one of our own". I somewhat wish that we could feel this sad at each death that happens, but I don't think we could survive that amount of sadness. So we go on through life, constantly knowing deep down that utter tragedy is happening every minute, but doing our best not to think about it lest we allow it to wash over us and submerge us in a tide of constant misery.
Ugh. What a world we live in...
He didn't want to die, he couldn't handle going on living.
The psychology of suicide can get a lot more complicated than that. Feeling you absolutely must do something, but you can't bring yourself to lie down and wait, or to go to the hospital, or to call a hotline, or to take a shower, so you do the only thing you can. Watching yourself plan your own suicide, thinking "Huh. That's probably a bad idea. I wonder if I'll actually go through with it?". Being desperate both to die and to live, and picking whichever you're drifting towards until it happens to be death. Letting the suicidal part of you run the show, not because you share its goal, but because it's the only one that can get you out of bed.
First two are from experience, second two are from anecdotes whose sources I mostly forget plus a dash of experience.
I don't have nearly as much experience with suicidal thoughts that can be interpreted as "wanting to die", but I can report that the standard "too much suffering to cope with" explanation isn't universal.
I'm furious, but my target is not the legal system or the idiots who bullied Swartz. I despise them, yes, but there's a bigger target that might be causing way more harm here.
I was writing this big text about it, but there wasn't really much concrete information in it. It feels like the media's lack of action, in light of the current movement and near-martyrdom status Swartz has gained now that the public media jumped on the news of the suicide and spread it all over the ball we live on, is partly to blame.
All the counterfactuals ran through my head when I read about this. Basically, Swartz was fighting for access to information, in a manner that apparently broke no laws or rules he could have been aware of, and it turned out to be the lack of public awareness about his case, and his lack of information on how the public and his friends would react and support him, that probably contributed the most to whatever complicated thing happened in his mind to make him end his life.
(ETA: It looks like other people are also picking up on this (linked article made #1 on HackerNews at time of edit), so yeah, media and information issues.)
Because of shitty broken social systems, the news of... (read more)
Stigmatizing depression is bad. Stigmatizing suicide is probably good, and I'm worried by the posthumous status boost Aaron is getting. More thoughts on this
Even Tim Berners-Lee weighs in:
A eulogy by Cory Doctorow is up at BoingBoing.
Apparently, his (heroic) actions may not even have been illegal. Stupid ***** legal system.
First post, though long time lurker. One thing that has been bothering me about this: Aaron was familiar with the methods. He was a member of this community. He had a brilliant mind. How was he willing to take this action? I find myself confused, for these seem to be completely contradictory facts.
As someone with a history of mental illness, I have found certain comfort in rationality. Using the tools of rationality, I believed I've been able to notice when my thinking starts to go wonky and depression begins to kick in, and I'm able to take action ... (read more)
I found this Hacker News comment pretty inspiring... it's amazing how much he was able to accomplish, especially considering he was only 26.
Reading more about the circumstances of Aaron's suicide has led me to be quite upset with certain individuals who decided to prosecute him anyway, despite JSTOR dropping their suit and convincing others to do the same. For shame.
Petition to remove prosecutor.
I'm saddened he no longer though his life worth living, I hope the remaining people's lives can be made better, it was very generous of him to make efforts to that end.
So I occasionally come across posts comparing the cases of Aaron Swartz and Amanda Todd: both bullied for years and eventually committing suicide after making a less-than-prudent decision at some point in their lives. On the face of it, it seems silly to compare a fighter for freedom of information and against censorship with a naive young girl talked into lifting her top on camera. However, the actual impact of their suicides may well be comparable if the legal system and public perceptions are affected as a result. Is there something to this, or is it just a standard accidental pattern matching?
My personal favourite of his essays: Against Reflective Equilibrium (or, What is ethics for?)
Another petition: To... (read more)
It should have been me. He was doing more for the world than most people ever will and he died when my selfish lazy ass survived. I'm a fucking moron so I didn't notice the friction between the rope and the anchor and it broke and I landed on my ass, but he wasn't a fucking moron, he could see that kind of thing and now he's dead. Fucking hell, why couldn't it just have been me instead of him?
The universe doesn't offer that sort of trade.
I am at a loss for words. I really, really want to say something helpful, but I don't know how. Please, please stop thinking that way! If only I could hug you IRL, I would.
http://www.reddit.com/r/suicidewatch may help you.