Stochastic Bookmark

abstruse unfinished commentary

about correspondence


Aaron Swartz

It is not, nor will it become, my habit to address topical matters on this blog, but this exceptional young man calls for exception handling. Not that I knew him (though acquainted with someone who did); of him, of course, more through his open access / Creative Commons efforts than, say, RSS or Reddit (or protowiki I feel I've gotten to know him better through his own words and others ' (as well as more dispersed commentary, whether journalistic or self-published).

He was a visionary, not just seeing the future but also a way to get there. He held himself to impossibly high standards, and those close to him, with whom he could be withering, to standards less high but no less impossible, but was always willing to give the best of himself to enhance others' goods.

Much has been said about the excesses of his prosecution and its possible political motivation (little about the irony of the now more widely reviled Carmen Ortiz, unsolicited protector of JSTOR's and MIT's prerogatives, also trying to prize from Boston College the confidential Belfast Project records for the Royal Ulster Constabulary Police Service of Northern Ireland), and about how this exacerbated the depression he suffered, particularly the prospect of prison time. But I believe that constraints on his future computer (and political) activities had greater bearing on him. He had already been effectively neutralized, and may have despaired of recovering any agency.

I also believe that his despair was not without calculation. The timing, between the partial opening of JSTOR's archive to the public and the anniversary of the SOPA strike, is too pat. He would have anticipated the Turing comparison, howevermuch he thought himself undeserving of it, despite having achieved so much more than most do over an entire adulthood; perhaps he thought his best already behind him. I think he foresaw that his passing would galvanize his cause, serve as martyrdom in a way that he had been largely proscribed from serving otherwise, and the engendered rage soon directed at the machine that he enraged rather than at its minions. The twitter data dump in his memory may be only the beginning.

If this is so, it is no less tragic, nor less a waste. His legacy not unalloyed, but ... so much to offer, and made to suffer so.

add 20.1: so Congress is investigating both clarifying Terms of Service in CFAA and prosecutorial indiscretion, which may have been related to Swartz's involvement with wikileaks (perhaps to turn him?) ... I've credited Swartz with a lot of insight and foresight above, but such prompt response from the lever-pullers might have surprised even him.