Aaron Swartz: The Words That Didn’t Help

There are few reading experiences more heavy than this. After hearing about the shocking suicide of 26-year-old techie activist Aaron Swartz, who spent his last two years fending off a Javert-like criminal pursuit for a trivial copyright violation, I read a seven-part “self-improvement” blog series he wrote on his blog five months ago, titled Raw Nerve. Here’s the series landing page:

This is a series of pieces on getting better at life.

1. Take a step back
2. Believe you can change
3. Look at yourself objectively
4. Lean into the pain
5. Confront reality
6. Cherish mistakes
7. Fix the machine, not the person

The best posts are probably 2 and 4.

These words reveal a lot about Aaron Swartz. He was a sensitive, curious and eager young man. He had a clean, direct and personable writing style. His thoughts about how to get better at life are not at all pained or self-critical — rather, he yearns to explore his potential for courage, for ambition, for self-directed change. He was particularly influenced by a business psychology book called Mindset: How You Can Fulfill Your Potential by Carol Dweck, and gripped by the idea that our best opportunity for continual self-improvement is to make it a habit to channel our failures into growth opportunities.

It’s not clear whether Aaron Swartz felt these ideas were so important because he had a natural tendency to think this way, or because he had a natural tendency to think the opposite way, and wanted to turn this around. I wish I could discern from his words which it was. This excerpt is somewhat revealing:

The first step to getting better is believing you can get better. In her book, “Mindset”, Dweck explains how to start talking back to your fixed mindset. The fixed mindset says, “What if you fail? You’ll be a failure.” The growth mindset replies, “Most successful people had failures along the way.”

Now when I first heard about this work, I just thought: that’s nice, but I already do all this. I believe fervently that intelligence can change and that talents can be learned. Indeed, I’d say I’m almost pathologically growth mindset. But even I began to notice there are some things I have a fixed mindset about.

For example, I used to think I was introverted. Everyone had always told me that you were either an extroverted person or an introverted person. From a young age, I was quite shy and bookish, so it seemed obvious: I was an introvert.

But as I’ve grown, I’ve found that’s hardly the end of the story. I’ve started to get good at leading a conversation or cracking people up with a joke. I like telling stories at a party a story or buzzing about a room saying ‘hi’ to people. I get a rush from it! Sure, I’m still not the most party-oriented person I know, but I no longer think we fit into any neat introversion/extroversion buckets.

Growth mindset has become a kind of safe word for my partner and I. Whenever we feel the other person getting defensive or refusing to try something because “I’m not any good at it”, we say “Growth mindset!” and try to approach the problem as a chance to grow, rather than a test of our abilities. It’s no longer scary, it’s just another project to work on.

Just like life itself.

Aaron Swartz’s death is a terrible tragedy, and it presents a failure that the world can learn from. A Wall Street Journal article about his (shamefully trivial) criminal case reveals that prosecutors were bullying and tormenting him beyond what could possibly seem reasonable, and that he’d had an upsetting session with them only two days before his death.

I don’t know why Aaron Swartz killed himself, but my guess is that he committed an emotional and impulsive act of revenge against the prosecutors. I believe that suicides can often be best explained as acts of desperate rage, as (misguided) attempts to wring satisfaction from no-win situations. It’s the losing hand you slam down when you have no winning hand to play.

Many people who knew Aaron Swartz speak of his struggles with depression. They knew him and I didn’t, but I see more rage than depression in his final terrible act. In this sense, he did effectively communicate his message. No matter how inhumane the prosecution team that bullied him was (and they appear to have been pretty inhumane), they cannot possibly avoid feeling guilt and shame and self-doubt today. Aaron Swartz made his point and “won” his unwinnable case, at the worst possible cost.

Do Aaron Swartz’s blog posts about self-improvement help in any way to explain his suicide? I think they help to explain Aaron Swartz, but they don’t help to explain his suicide. I don’t think he was “leaning into the pain” when he hung himself. If it was an act of rage, I only wish he had been able to resist going through with it, so that he could have returned to his better project of improving himself. And, I wish I could have had a chance to meet this remarkable young man.

10 Responses

  1. I have no idea why Aaron
    I have no idea why Aaron Swartz killed himself, but my guess is that he committed an emotional and impulsive act of revenge against the prosecutors.

    Then you have an idea about why Aaron killed himself, don’t you?

    I believe that suicides can often be best explained as acts of desperate rage, as (misguided) attempts to wring satisfaction from no-win situations.

    Ever heard the expression, “Depression is rage turned inward?” It is a key theory of armchair long-distance psychoanalysis.

    It’s the losing hand you slam down when you have no winning hand to play.

    Ah. So now Aaron is a loser? Wow. It didn’t take long for you to toss compassion and sympathy out the window, presuming they were there to begin with.

    He didn’t “win” his case. Neither did the prosecutors. But they do get to flog his compose as if the presumption of guilt no longer matters.

    If you read Lessig’s piece, you’ll note that he begs people (like you) not to “pathologize” the death of his friend and colleague.

    I’d ask you not to do that as well, but… you know… too late.

  2. Cal, you’re right about the
    Cal, you’re right about the first point — a guess is an idea, so I will change the wording of my original post to say “I don’t know” rather than “I have no idea”. Thanks for that one.

    “Depression is rage turned inward” — yes, I think there’s a lot of truth to that. The two words don’t mean the same thing, though.

    “Aaron is a loser”? No, I would never say or think such a thing. In this case, I think he may have been trying too hard to win.

    Finally, I agree about not pathologizing Aaron Swartz’s death. That’s kind of my point. Rage is not a pathology — it’s a normal and common human emotion. I think the tragedy here began with a ridiculously overzealous prosecution of a copyright protest, and I wish Aaron Swartz didn’t react to it in the way he did.

    Sorry if my words offended you in some way. It’s not easy to write about suicide on a blog without offending someone, but that’s not my intention.

  3. You have to wonder how the
    You have to wonder how the Obama administration decides with whom to play hardball.

    I agree with his goals on availability of court documents and scientific publications of publicly funded research, but the way he was doing it was more petulant than practical or pragmatic.

  4. Yeah, TKG, for once I even
    Yeah, TKG, for once I even agree with your criticism of the Obama administration. Though I doubt the decision to prosecute this to the max came from Obama, for all we know it may have come from Eric Holder or another high level appointee. I’m guessing the profit motive to prosecute high-visibility copyright offenders/pranksters was at play here, and that there was big pressure from the business/publishing community. The public attorneys could have resisted this pressure, though — instead it seems they did the opposite.

  5. Eric Holder would definitely
    Eric Holder would definitely have reviewed the case and OK’d the aggressive prosecution, which I don’t think MIT nor JSTOR were asking for. Obama would most likely not have reviewed it, but it possible he could have.

    I personally think that ultimately Swartz would not have been given jail time and this hardball approach was to instill the fear of God in him and others.

    Kill the chicken to scare the monkey, but I think they were only acting like they were going to kill the chicken but weren’t going to carry it out.

  6. It’s the losing hand you
    It’s the losing hand you slam down when you have no winning hand to play.

    That’s not a loser? Perhap I misunderstand your metaphor then. In games that have “hands,” like poker, if you “slam down” a hand that has no chance of winning, you are indeed a loser, or a fool, or maybe just the dumbest poker player in history.

    Aaron didn’t slam down a losing hand – he gave up in a battle against a titanic government that is hell-bent on destroying dissent and the free (as in “free speech” not “free beer”) dissemination of information. The prosecutors had no reason to come down so hard on the man, except to “prove a point” to other hackers and would-be liberators of information. Like the over-the-top treatment of Bradley Manning, or the persecution of John Kirakou – all from an administration determined to keep secrets.

    I know: you don’t want to have to think about how MIT and Wikileaks are linked, so I have to tell you. The gov’t goes overboard on a case involving the security of unimportant information to intimidate and terrorize anyone else who might be freeing more important information. “If they’ll do that to that guy for stealing academic papers, what will they do to me if I reveal the secret torture program?”

    Aaron was persecuted by an administration that was democratically elected by voters who in large part (if they are to be believed) do not support the majority of the administration’s actions or policies. (But we shouldn’t talk about that. Obama voters didn’t vote for the persecution of whisteblowers – they voted for a man whose employees persecute whistleblowers.)

    Aaron’s mental issues were known to the prosecutors. While I cannot determine they deliberately drove him to suicide, the prosecutors insistence that a minor offense from an otherwise law-abiding citizen makes clear they have callous disregard for the lives and well-being of those they persecute. They may not have wanted this last desperate act from him, but they want some kind of last, desperate act: a plea bargain so they could claim “victory” in a losing case. In a sense, Aaron robbed them of this chance at “victory;” he stole their chance to give the weight of truth to lies. Now the case will be viewed for what it is, rather than what the government would like you to see.

    No doubt many want to excuse Obama – but the opinion that he didn’t determine the course of this case is as speculative as any suggestion he did. In fact, since his supporters like to point out his “deep involvement” with all levels of decision-making, it is quite disingenuous to free him of accountability on this.

    The latter speculation would also fit with available and observable evidence – unless you believe there is a rogue attorney general who is driving the persecution of medical marijuana activists and “whistle-blowers,” that is. In which case, you have a President who is unable to control his own cabinet. (Immoral or incompetent: not good choices you have if you’re an Obama supporter.)

    I’m not surprised by the sentiment that want to laud the President when his team does good things, and deflect blame from him when they do bad. It’s not helpful, but it’s also not surprising.

    By the way: I’m not “offended” by your pandering or your apologetics. I’m frustrated, primarily because I was under the impression you wanted to *think* and *discuss* rather than navel-gaze and mumble.

    Aaron deserved better than your government gave him. I hope you’ll remember him the next time you’re considering compromise your own ethics to vote for someone who does not share them.


  7. I just recently discovered
    I just recently discovered Little Brother by Cory Doctorow, which sort of led me into that realm of internet activism. Though I hadn’t heard of Aaron Swartz before the news of his passing, I’ve learned since that he was a huge figure in much I take for granted – and that all of us internet-users, and free-internet supporters, owe him a debt of gratitude.

    May his life be remembered for the causes he championed, and may his passing inspire compassion and peace.

  8. I read these comments, and I
    I read these comments, and I have to say

    1) It is not the Obama admin, as opposed to federal and state laws that have been laid down to protect people’s intellectual rights. Obama didnt say, “Hey, lets get that kid.”

    2) The prosecutors wanted to make an example of him, and I really hope they are feeling guilt, and not smug. I am a creative person, on one hand I hope that someone stealing my art or other creative works would be prosecuted somehow, but I would never want them to get 30 years. From what I hear, the ‘offended’ party, ie the school itself was not pursuing prosecution. I might be wrong, but if they were not pursuing prosecution, then why on earth would anyone else? Again, I hope those responsible for pushing the prosecution through have heavy hearts, and guilt eating at their guts.

    3) To the guy who said the writer of the passage was calling him a loser. No. In america, if you die before you are pronounced guilty, you are not guilty of said crime. So I think Levi was saying he played the last cards in his hands. To him, and we really dont know what he was thinking, every single person can only speculate, but to him.. maybe he felt that was the only way to ‘win’ the case. The prosecutors can not prosecute him mow that he is gone, therefore not disparaging his family name. Not dragging his family through a trial that – even though its not murder or some other horrid crime, maybe he thought it would be an embarrassment to his family. This way, they are spared. And then maybe, he just would rather have taken his own life than spend 30 years behind bars. He may have already seen his life as over. My heart goes out to him. It is absolutely ridiculous. And laws such as these need to be gone over and rewritten. No one should have to feel so over whelmed that they feel the only recourse is death.

    He had so much potential, and the amounts of innovative ideas and works that could have been, we will never know. I pray for his family

  9. Thanks, “Concerned” — yeah,
    Thanks, “Concerned” — yeah, what you describe about winning and losing is what I have in mind. I was trying to say that he seemed to be determined to win an unwinnable hand. And, well, at a really extreme and unreasonable cost, he did win it. I think a gigantic backlash is developing against the way the government prosecuted this case (copyright profits over humanity and common sense), and I don’t think intellectual property legal experts will forget the name Aaron Swartz soon, or ever.

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