Aaron Swartz Is the Kurt Cobain of His Generation

The death of free information's greatest crusader was tragic — and completely avoidable

Before this week, you may not have known who Aaron Swartz was. You may not know who he is now. But if you’ve found yourself within stumbling distance of the Internet in the last decade, you’re familiar with his handiwork. The 26-year-old open access activist who took his own life on Friday was one of the driving forces behind Reddit, RSS, Creative Commons and Demand Progress, the group that helped defeat SOPA. Maybe you’ve heard of them.

By all accounts, and there have been many, Swartz was something of a cross between a saint and a gremlin, a hacker with a mission: To liberate as much information as possible onto that great freer of information, the Internet, for the betterment of all.

He’d once emancipated 20 percent of the U.S. federal court database PACER, a storehouse of non-copyrighted public records—an act for which he was investigated by the FBI with no charges being filed.

When he took his own life (he hanged himself in his apartment), he was facing federal prosecution for, to quote MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, “downloading too many free articles from the online database of scholarly work JSTOR.”

Even though JSTOR had declined to pursue a case against Swartz, some believe the silence of M.I.T., where the infraction took place in a computer closet, emboldened prosecutors, who sought a potential sentence of 35 years and $1 million in fines. (Swartz is alleged to have targeted JSTOR for its practice of compensating the publishers, rather than the authors, of its articles.)

This tragedy is a minefield of hot-button issues, starting with the nature of information in the Internet age, ending with mental health, and making stops at judicial proportionality, the commodification of knowledge and antiquated copyright law.

-The idea of information “wanting to be free” tends to be a hard sell for publishers, but as noted, Swartz was targeting information that either ought to have been free (as in the PACER case) or information that was free, or that revenues from which were not going to its creators (the JSTOR case).

-This is another side of the mental health debate that sprung from a gun debate. Swartz had a history of depression, and the outcome was nothing less than tragic, a brilliant mind extinguished in his prime. His depression was exacerbated by what Lawrence Lessig has deemed punishment disproportionate to Swartz’s offenses, as if the prosecutors were making an example of, or “bullying” Swartz.  While it’s possible that what Swartz did was illegal (we’ll never know as the charges were almost immediately dropped), the punishment, especially in the absence of an aggrieved complainant, seemed wildly unreasonable.

It’s hard to hear Swartz’s story—that of tormented wunderkind who burned so brightly before burning out—and not feel sad and a little angry. That he’d accomplished so much at such a young age, all wed to a singular, selfless vision of democratized information, spoke to a rare purity of mind and heart.

I remember talking to a friend years ago about Kurt Cobain and how artists and geniuses seem more open to and in sync with the vibrations of the world around us. But that sensitivity makes them more vulnerable—to the havoc that those vibrations can cause, and to those whose hearts and minds aren’t quite so pure. And thus it’s the duty of those of us with thicker skin and tougher calluses, to protect them while they’re here, and preserve their legacies when they’re gone.

The final entry in Swartz’s blog is titled “What Happens in The Dark Knight” and ends with the line “Thus Master Wayne is left without solutions. Out of options, it’s no wonder the series ends with his staged suicide.” It makes one wonder what happened in Swartz’s dark nights, and what we might do to keep his vision alive.