Why Aaron Swartz is becoming a martyr, and why you should care

Aaron Swartz speaking at a rally against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in January 2012.
Aaron Swartz speaking at a rally against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in January 2012.
Image: Daniel Sieradski, via Wikimedia Commons
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Martyrs tend to be made quickly, before the dust has settled on their lives, or their deaths. Such is the case with Aaron Swartz, a 26-year-old digital activist who apparently hanged himself at his home in New York City on Jan. 11. His family and friends say Swartz, who was prone to depression, felt hounded by prosecutors who were threatening him with up to 35 years in jail for computer hacking. Though Swartz was little known outside the circles of the geek world—and was hardly a celebrity even in internet terms, with a modest 7,000-odd followers on Twitter at the time of his death—there has been an outpouring of online tributes and media articles about him.

His rapid elevation to tragic folk hero is easy to understand when you look at his life. To those who knew him, Swartz was a kind of Arthur Rimbaud for the internet age: an impassioned, difficult, capricious, endearing, depressive boy genius who was doing foundational work by his mid-teens, and brought it to an end (albeit, in Rimbaud’s case, not by suicide) when barely an adult.

The long list of projects that made up his brief but astonishingly productive career (covered in detail elsewhere) were united by a fierce commitment to making knowledge as widely available as possible. His early work included helping develop the Creative Commons license, a form of copyright that lets authors make their work shareable and even modifiable while still keeping rights to it; later he launched a free online repository of books and campaigned against legislation that would have greatly empowered copyright holders at the expense of internet startups. The charges he faced for his latest escapade were 13 felony counts for the theft of online documents—not, as you might surmise, diplomatic cables or nuclear-weapon designs, but academic journal articles from an online archive, JSTOR, which he downloaded with the presumed goal of making them available for free, as he had previously done with a massive stash of US court records. The prosecution continued even though JSTOR withdrew its complaint and has since made itself largely free to the public anyway.

The troubled young prodigy with the free-thinking ideals, the heartless bureaucrats exercising absurd governmental overreach—all the elements of a good myth, and in particular a good American myth, are here. And not just because of the tragic arc of his own life. Swartz fills a particular slot in modern American left-wing iconography, one that was waiting for an occupant. His acts of radical document liberation echo those of Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, and Bradley Manning, the American soldier believed to have sent Assange a trove of leaked US diplomatic cables (and whose trial begins in March.) But with Assange discredited and Manning’s motives unclear—and he did, after all, leak government secrets, not harmless academic papers or public records—Swartz represents a less tarnished ideal. As an icon for the information-freedom movement he perhaps serves the purpose that Daniel Ellsberg, the military analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers (but is still very much alive), did for the press freedom and anti-war movement in the 1970s.

Not that Swartz’s friends and colleagues all agreed with some of his methods. They certainly did not agree with his killing himself, their sadness mixed with anger at him for throwing away his life and his potential. Nor are they all overjoyed at his sudden beatification. Swartz’s friend danah boyd, a researcher into internet culture and a digital activist herself, wrote:

I… fear the likelihood that Aaron will be turned into a martyr, an abstraction of a geek activist destroyed by the State. Because he was a lot more than that–lovable and flawed, passionate and strong-willed, brilliant and infuriatingly stupid. It’ll be easy for folks to rally cry for revenge in his name. But not much is gained from reifying the us vs. them game that got us here… I think we need to look for an approach to change-making that doesn’t result in brilliant people being held up as examples so that they can be tormented by power.

All movements that agitate for change make progress thanks to a mixture of radicals and moderates in their ranks. Swartz will be a martyr to some, and will inspire some young activists to commit extremist or foolhardy acts. It’s probably too late to stop that happening. But for the broader public, his death puts a human face to fundamental debates otherwise expressed largely in legalese and acronyms—SOPA, PIPA, PACER—about what sort of information society should be able to access without restriction. If his death helps makes those complex issues more widely understood, it will not have been entirely in vain—though if only he had stayed alive, he would undoubtedly have achieved far more.