It’s always difficult to report on someone’s death. If they’ve had a lifetime of accomplishments, how do you sum that up in a few brief paragraphs? When a life has been cut cruelly short, it’s even worse–trying hopelessly to convey the sense of lost possibilities.
With Aaron Swartz, who died on January 11, reportedly by his own hand, you have the worst of both worlds: At the age of 26, he had already achieved so much in so many different arenas as to baffle an obituary writer: taking part in creating the RSS protocol when he was 14 years old, working on the Creative Commons licensing system, helping to launch the social media site Reddit, promoting the Open Library to facilitate book access, co-founding the civil liberties group Demand Progress. But the crushing realization that his death brought was that everything Aaron had done so far was just the prelude to what he would have gone on to do.
Tributes to Aaron by those who knew him well–Cory Doctorow, Lawrence Lessig, Quinn Norton–give a glimpse of the absolutely irreplaceable way that Aaron saw the world. His skills, his vision, his energy, his generosity: There was no one else who had that combination. And now no one does.
Whatever personal demons Aaron struggled with, the responsibility for his death lies with a criminal system that prosecuted him with neither mercy nor justice for an act of civil disobedience: downloading articles en masse from JSTOR, a nonprofit group that serves to safeguard the profits of the corporations with a stranglehold on scholarly publishing.
The system by which publishers extort astronomical fees for access to knowledge they didn’t create is indeed unconscionable, as was U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz‘s response to Aaron’s challenge to it: threatening him with 35 years in prison and a million dollar fine, under the theory that “stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars.”
The Obama administration can forgive torturers, and it can forgive financial fraud that brought an economy to its knees. Trying to liberate information, it seems, is the one crime it’s unable to forgive.
Among many other things, Aaron was a terrific media critic, and Extra! is proud to have published a couple of his pieces. His article “Rachel Carson, Mass Murderer?,” from September/October 2007, debunked the canard that concern over the environmental effects of pesticides is responsible for millions of human deaths. (The New Yorker‘s Caleb Crain, in an appreciation of Aaron–1/13/13–called the piece “intelligent and heartfelt,” saying it helped him start thinking of its author as “a new kind of public intellectual.”) You can hear Aaron discussing his Rachel Carson piece on CounterSpin (10/12/07).
The other piece Aaron wrote for us was “Is Undercover Over?” (Extra!, 3-4/08), about establishment media’s disparagement of the use of undercover reporting to expose serious wrongdoing. Aaron came out strongly for the right to go under the radar to serve the public good–a principle that I suspect he would still stand by, despite the world of trouble it landed him in.