Sad news. Aaron Swartz, a programmer and internet activist who cofounded an outlet that would eventually grow into social media powerhouse Reddit, last night committed suicide in NYC. He was only 26 years old.
Swartz first began to make a name for himself at the mere age of 14 when he co authored an early version of RSS. From there he started Infogami which would eventually merge with reddit. Keeping with his anti establishment roots the tech wiz would then go on to form Demand Progress, an online activist group whose mission statement was “win progressive policy changes for ordinary people through organizing, and grassroots lobbying.”
But perhaps if we are to begin to understand why Swartz took his own life last night perhaps the following might offer us some clues:
gawker: Swartz was arrested in July 2011 for allegedly downloading approximately 4 million academic journals from JSTOR with the intent to distribute them for free over P2p file-sharing sites. He was charged with wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, and recklessly damaging a protected computer. In September 2012, Swartz appeared in court and plead not guilty to those charges. Just two days before Swartz’s suicide, JSTOR — perhaps because of Swartz’s actions — began offering free but limited access to its archives.
But perhaps Swartz’s sense of idealism and grassroots activism hit a roadblock when he found himself agreeing to be bought out by corporate media tittle Conde Nast which soon led to Swartz first coming clean with his bouts of depression.
Offers a commentator via boingboing: There are official institutions both public and private that try to make a place for minds like Swartz’s, but they’re few and far between in corporate America ca. 2013. In the end, though, some of those minds just can’t stand office life (per Swartz’s words in the Gawker obit) or even the most minimal bureaucratic and corporate intrusions on their work. Which is perfectly fine. For minds like that, there’s usually nothing to do but make their own institutions. It looks like Swartz did just that.
The true institutional failure witnessed in this sad case is a Federal Justice Department that would allow the rogues gallery of swindlers and money launderers who brought down the global economy to walk free while continually harassing a person whose alleged crime was performed in the public interest and whose alleged victims asked the prosecution to stop. It’s an illustration of how seriously messed up this country’s official priorities are.
Reflected Swartz in a 2007 speech, in which he discussed his time at Reddit, including the first weeks after its purchase by Conde Nast:
We all flew out to San Francisco and begun working at the offices of Wired News (we were purchased by Condé Nast, a big publishing company which owns Wired, along with many other magazines).
I was miserable. I couldn’t stand San Francisco. I couldn’t stand office life. I couldn’t stand Wired. I took a long Christmas vacation. I got sick. I thought of suicide. I ran from the police. And when I got back on Monday morning, I was asked to resign.
Gawker then go on to reveal a separate blog post from earlier that year in which Swartz fully described the depth of his depression:
Your face falls. Perhaps you cry. You feel worthless. You wonder whether it’s worth going on. Everything you think about seems bleak – the things you’ve done, the things you hope to do, the people around you. You want to lie in bed and keep the lights off. Depressed mood is like that, only it doesn’t come for any reason and it doesn’t go for any either. Go outside and get some fresh air or cuddle with a loved one and you don’t feel any better, only more upset at being unable to feel the joy that everyone else seems to feel. Everything gets colored by the sadness.
At best, you tell yourself that your thinking is irrational, that it is simply a mood disorder, that you should get on with your life. But sometimes that is worse. You feel as if streaks of pain are running through your head, you thrash your body, you search for some escape but find none.
And then there was this sobering comment one reader made that caught my attention:
To someone who has struggled with depression since I was about 12 (so that’s 23 years now), his description of depression is eerily familiar. It’s not that anything is wrong. There’s nothing that you can “fix” or change that will make you feel better. And while there is a sadness that you experience, the more difficult part is the feeling of “nothingness”. It’s an absence of emotion. I don’t so much think about killing myself as I do about me not existing anymore. They might sound like the same thing but they aren’t. Sometimes I think that the only thing stopping me from killing myself is that I can’t be bothered doing it. If I cared more, if I actually felt something, it might be enough to motivate me to do it. But I don’t feel. Sometimes I just stare at the wall for hours. I used to have so much promise. It was expected that I would do very well in life. I haven’t. I don’t think I will now.
It’s regrettable that Aaron Swartz took his own life. But his family and friends should know that there wasn’t anything that they could have done to prevent it. I know that they will be compelled to feel guilty that they didn’t do enough. But they shouldn’t. I’m medicated to the eyeballs but it’s of limited help. I’ve taken a dozen different things over the last 12 years. I’ve done the therapy thing. But there was nothing to talk about. Because nothing was wrong. So Aaron Swartz’s family and friends should try to focus on the positive things in his life. The work that he did. The changes that he helped make. And the fact that he isn’t suffering anymore.