When I heard that Aaron Swartz had committed suicide, I was reminded of too many similar, sorrowful occasions. The most brilliant technical minds will sometimes struggle with depression or other forms of mental illness. The sweetest, smartest ones sometimes commit suicide. More than a few lovely, gifted young scientists and engineers I have known have gone down this awful path.
It isn’t necessarily a service to Aaron Swartz’s memory to treat him as a martyr. He contributed enough in his short life for us to celebrate and remember. His death was not the height of his achievements. If he is to be treated as a martyr, however, then the first order of business ought to be self-reflection in the cyber-activist community. Swartz followed a well-worn track of hacker activism. He copied a trove of academic articles to make them available to anyone, in defiance of a paywall system that annoyed a great many people because the public had paid for much of the research in the first place. Swartz faced a severely long sentence under existing laws, though Carmen Ortiz, the prosecutor, says that she would only have sought a six-month stint. The stress of facing jail might have contributed to Swartz’s decision to end his life.
Swartz seems to have been drawn into the digital styling of an old archetype: the impetuous young revolutionary. That archetype is getting a lot of play. Recently, Anonymous activists hacked Department of Justice computers to announce their plan to release secret government information to avenge Swartz’s death.
If Swartz felt himself to be a martyr when he ended his life it would be an even greater shame, for the cause of open culture is young and ought not be treated as sacrosanct just yet. There are both huge unsolved problems and promising unexplored alternatives.
One problem is that not all participants in an online network are created equal. Some have bigger and better connected computers. So making information “open” turns out to empower new kinds of commercial concerns, like search and social networking, which compile dossiers on everyone else, and influence the world in profound ways for pay. Similarly, governments are better positioned to take advantage of openly shared information than ordinary people, undoing the democratic intent of the original open ideals.
As for unexplored alternatives, we might look back to the origins of digital media in Ted Nelson’s work of the early 1960s. Nelson’s idea of a universal micropayment system for information could make information just as available as making it free, but would do so by enriching a majority of people and building a bigger, stronger middle-class that can afford to buy it. The advantage would be that middle classes would be able to balance the powers of governments and giant corporations.
No one is certain if the “open culture” ideal can escape the trap of empowering new kinds of spying empires, or if Nelson’s alternative or some other idea might work better. We are all engaged in an experiment as we enter the digital age, and no one has all the answers. Premature certainty in human affairs never serves humanity well.
But even for those who are sure the “open” path is the only proper one, Swartz’s death reveals a problem in the “open culture” movement. A number of elder figures in the digital world, including Lawrence Lessig and Cory Doctorow, have identified themselves as Swartz’s mentors, but if that is so, maybe it is time for all us elders to reacquaint ourselves with the practice of civil disobedience. Civil disobedience requires preparation and training, and I wonder if Swartz was encouraged to gain either before deciding to act.
Having spent a small amount of time in jail myself for protesting (and having faced raised army-rifles in a foreign country on another occasion while protesting for human rights), the one thing I can say with confidence is that you have to be well prepared. You should only act once you are ready to accept the consequences. Then you must be able to demonstrate enough grace and fortitude that it becomes clear you’re not a bad guy. You should never go alone, as that defeats the purpose of social change. Nonviolence must involve not only a lack of violence towards others, but also towards oneself.
When a figure like Swartz, or for that matter Private Bradley Manning, emerges, it will often be the case that older figures in the movement mentored them, but apparently not in the realities of civil disobedience. Activists often seem shocked and affronted when they are prosecuted. But that should have been in the plan all along. Such planning is part of what makes nonviolent civil disobedience different from vandalism or criminality.
This is my plea to young cyber-activists. In my 20s I helped to first articulate the ideas that Aaron Swartz followed so intensely, and then later changed my mind. You might too – you never know. If you find current laws so intolerable that you feel certain you must break the law right now, then please go and get training in nonviolent action before you act. Your self-destruction really doesn’t help the rest of us.