Activism in Memory of Aaron Swartz


Aaron Swartz, before he became the first saint of the Internet age, seemed the perfect boy-child of the Internet, the algorithm made flesh, a human embodiment of the Internet’s voraciousness and connectivity, its head-spinning drive toward an open banquet of knowledge. The inventor of the Web, Tim Berners-Lee, pictured Aaron Swartz “blazing across the dark sky of ordinary people, broken systems, a shining force for good.” And then in Aaron Swartz’s death by suicide, at age 26, one year ago, it seemed a promise had been crushed — the machinery of surveillance, censorship, and control had won the day. A year later the invitation is to see deeper into a vision of technology but also of culture and humanity, and to recover something of Aaron Swartz’s ambition, as he put it shyly, “to save the world.”

Lawrence Lessig, the Harvard law professor and for a decade Aaron Swartz’s closest grown-up friend, leads us this hour from the cold, snowy trek he calls the the New Hampshire Rebellion. It’s a mission to save a corrupted Republic, to ransom the Congress of the United States, to smash the money shackles on our politics. It is part of the project to renew Swartz’s spirit. Lessig may be the preeminent legal advocate before the Supreme Court and elsewhere of the free Internet – free as in freedom, not as in ‘free lunch’, as the saying goes. He is the author of Republic Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress and a Plan to Stop It.

We’re trying also to locate Aaron Swartz as a landmark in the culture and the age. Matt Stoller, an incisive, sometimes scathing blogger on politics and money, was Swartz’s close friend and contemporary inside politics. The author Maria Bustillos corresponded with Aaron Swartz and has written wonderfully on his literary appetite and his own writing. He’d commented after his arrest two years ago that he read Kafka differently: The Trial, he realized, was not fiction but meticulous documentary coverage. And finally: nothing engages me more about Aaron Swartz than the news (to me, anyway) that he was an astute reader and commentator on David Foster Wallace and his mad epic Infinite Jest. On his blog Swartz had “solved” the mysterious ending of Wallace’s novel. It is as if he were trying to deduce the algorithm in Wallace’s head that produced the book. I am feeling tremors of a convergence here of iconic figures — two geniuses, two suicides and perhaps two parallel visions of an American apocalypse.

A reading list, for those interested.

A year ago Professor Lessig gave a TED talk about campaign finance reform, and how he sees the issue:

[ted id=1702]


Guest List
Lawrence Lessig
Lawrence Lessig, the Harvard law professor and for a decade Aaron Swartz's closest grown-up friend. Lessig may be the preeminent legal advocate before the Supreme Court and elsewhere of the free Internet – free as in freedom, not as in 'free lunch', as the saying goes. He is the author of Republic Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress and a Plan to Stop It.
Matt Stoller
Matt Stoller, an incisive, sometimes scathing blogger on politics and money, was Swartz's close friend and contemporary inside politic
Maria Bustillos
The author Maria Bustillos corresponded with Aaron Swartz and has written wonderfully on his literary appetite and his own writing. He'd commented after his arrest two years ago that he read Kafka differently: The Trial, he realized, was not fiction but meticulous documentary coverage
Reading List
From Swartz's blog: Everything is Bad For You, A Non-Programmer's Apology, On Finishing Infinite Jest and What Happens at the End of Infinite Jest
Aaron Swartz
From Swartz's blog, Everything Good is Bad For You and A Non-Programmer's Apology. And thoughtful writing on David Foster Wallace, Swartz's favorite writer (and the figure at the center of next week's show!): On Finishing Infinite Jest and What Happens at the End of Infinite Jest.
Requiem for a Dream
Larissa McFarquahar
Requiem for a Dream, Larissa McFarquahar's posthumous profile of Swartz in The New Yorker.
The Idealist
Justin Peter
Justin Peters, The Idealist, on Slate.
The Life and the AfterLife of Aaron Swartz
Wesley Yang
Wesley Yang, The Life and Afterlife of Aaron SwartzNew York.

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  • Steve

    Aaron was a visionary person; it is tragic that his ability to influence society was cut short.

    Although downloading all those JSTOR documents was wrong, it shouldn’t have been. His experience with the justice system reveals how out of whack contemporary American Intellectual Property laws are. Further, it was nice that he reminded the Academy that it should work to benefit society instead of filling the wallets of academic publishing fat cats.

    I am grateful to him for RSS, Reddit, and fighting SOPA and PIPA.

    My heart goes out to Aaron’s family and friends — particularly Bob, his dad, who has denounced MIT for its role in his son’s legal woes and revealed his vulnerability as a father who couldn’t save his son. I thank them for Aaron and wish them peace.

  • NJ

    It saddens me that over one year after his death, nothing seems to have changed. I wonder how Aaron would’ve responded to the Snowden revelations?

    • Kunal Jasty

      If anything the patent trolls are bolder, the paywalls more prevalent, and the government’s attack on a free and open Internet more intense.

    • Max

      Call us now, N.J.! We want to hear from you!

      (617) 353-0692

  • Fred

    Sadly, Aaron Swartz was another casualty of prosecutors-run-wild, hired guns who get promoted when they protect the “establishment”, rather than thoughtfully enforcing laws by using the substantial weight of the government to go after really bad actors. Perhaps this is not a new phenomenon, but it appears to me that U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz in Boston has repeatedly gone after low-hanging fruit, often targets without the means to mount a concerted defense. Swartz was one. Another was the attempted seizure of the family-owned Caswell Motel in Tewksbury for alleged drug crimes, which was blocked by a federal judge who castigated the prosecutors and law enforcement agencies. At the same time, there are huge voids in prosecutions which are difficult or potentially damaging to big money interests. Consider the FBI agents who were never brought to trial in the Whitey Bulger case, and the financial industry leaders who have never been prosecuted for their role in bringing the economy to the brink of collapse in 2008.
    Professor Lessig’s discussion of money and government corruption strikes a chord when moving beyond Congress to executive branch functions.

  • A. David Wunsch

    This show lost its way — it never seemed to have a focus. Was it about Lessig’s march for campaign spending reform or was it about Swartz and his goal of liberating information?We learn remarably ltttle about Swartz although there were a number of lapses into hagiography.
    We also never understand why a young man who was facing at most a short prison sentence chose to take his own life. This move didn’t further his cause and gave the public permission to simply dismiss him as “mentally ill.”

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  • chris

    Aaron Swartz seemed to me by the end of our radio conversation a finer, more fascinating, sadder, more cautionary hero of our time than I’d realized. Yes, we wandered a bit, but on re-listening to the podcast, some pungent insights stuck, for example: (1) Matt Stoller’s line that his friend Aaron’s zeal for free information ran headlong into a “transition toward oligarchy… a new era in the American experiment” that has effectively broken Congress, discredited the government and is in sight of undoing the assumptions of citizen power. (2) Larry Lessig’s anecdote about the wildfire of agony around Aaron Swartz’s death in his rising generation online – in contrast to the corporate media’s difficulty in grasping a public-interest genius, as in the New York Times’ sneering magazine profile of Jimmy Wales, who didn’t – and never planned to – get rich on Wikipedia. (3) Maria Bustillos’s elaboration of Aaron Swartz’s profound identification with the “Infinite Jest” novelist David Foster Wallace – as fellow prodigy, social analyst and severe depressive in and out of recovery before the awful collapse into suicide. She sealed my sense that we will remember “The Internet’s Own Boy” (and we will!) as a cultural marker – not at all as a technologist but as a warning about this digital age. On a second listen, I couldn’t imagine these and other telling points emerging except in that open and somewhat unruly give and take. Is there a better way to play this game?

  • Chris

    Why should scholar’s work be given away for free? Why should content be free? Artists, musicians, writers, journalists, any kind of content producer needs to earn a living just like the software designers who have created systems for transmitting information.

    Also, clinical depression is what causes suicidal behavior.

  • Robert Sekuler

    This was the first and last time I will listen to radioopensource. The program’s topic, the life, death and influence of Aaron Swartz, is obviously an important one, and many of the guests could have offered valuable insights into the topic, had they been allowed to do so. However, the program’s host seemed more interested in hearing his own voice and in demonstrating his mastery of the thesaurus, than in exploring the topic. I shut off the radio when for the umpteenth time, the host incorrectly declaimed that the program was about Adam Schwartz (rather than Aaron Swartz). The host never apologized for his error, which struck me as utterly disrespectful –Swartz and to the listening audience. Not good.

  • A history professor several years ago at a small gathering, shared his knowledge about the fall of empires and that factually, prior to uprisings, intellectuals are targeted for silence – in whatever means necessary. The interviews and comments on Aaron Swartz were carefully worded ( excellent job ) , likely out of reasonable fear. Will the greed mongers ( ‘ The Capitalist Dictators ‘ ) hear enough, in time – about the consequences of their narcissism relative to humanity ?

  • Potter

    What a story! I have had so many thoughts, some opposing my own and others, about Aaron Swartz. I had not focused on him a year ago. So this reaction is after listening and then reading some of the articles Mary has linked.

    Is this what Alice Miller meant by The Drama of the Gifted Child?

    I have the feeling that he was emotionally unbalanced. But for all the awe of his talents, nobody got too close to him. And if they could get close (his girlfriend Taren in the end seemed to have) they did not focus on that because of his brilliance, the substance of this thoughts, drives. And so who knew that he needed to be saved or how to save him? I mean that he was running out… like a comet. This is of course hindsight. Was the psychic and/or physical pain so unbearable for him? Was his suicide from despair? Or was it cowardice? or lack of faith? Is this loss all to be blamed on law enforcement alone, a lesson about injustice and misapplication of the law?

    He seems to have been a boy-man with a kind of brilliance of mind living but too untamed, living an unstructured free existence. He did not have to do what he did not want to do. Did he have any intimacy? Was he capable of it?

    The articles by Noam Scheiber and Larissa Mcfarquahar were excellent. Thoughts about Aaron’s story absorbed my mind for days. He was brilliant, but a comet. He was a brilliant comet. We don’t know how to deal with such people, to recognize them, protect them and of course take from them what they have to offer us. Activism is a very dangerous vocation and it should not be.

    On the substance of one crusade: I have wanted Jstor articles in the past. Researching on thing or another led me to their wall and I went away annoyed. Internet, access, has changed over the years. But I also think that if a person writes an article, does research, etc. and they want or need to be paid for it, they should be paid. Contributing to the commons should not be forced upon creators. It should rather be in the culture to share. That sharing should be nurtured and praised, not forced, demanded.

    This from Mcfarquahar’s article stood out for me:

    To think continuously about changing the world is to spend your life looking at what is bad in it. To be attached to the world is to be attached to the world as it is, and not for any reason, because reasons can always be countered. To consider the world from first principles, to think about how well it would work if everything were different, is to be ready to throw away everything you know. Radical idealism and a sense of limitless possibility are the brighter facets of absolute rejection.

    And from Lawrence Lessig:

    I THINK IT WAS just recognizing he was going to need other people, and that was too hard for him to accept. He couldn’t become dependent. To end it was the only way.

  • J C Blazak

    The government is wrong and unjust to limit access to the internet and knowledge. Aaron should have never been in court. The banks in this country have stolen money and prosperity from us and sleep with big government.The prosecutors against Aaron should be jailed for Aaron’s demise. We lost a beautiful kind human being. Aaron was under intense pressure. He did not have any problem with his mind he had a problem with the corruption and injustice in this country. I know pressure and I can relate.