The Life and Afterlife of Aaron Swartz

Photo: Sage Ross/DPA/Corbis

Years before he hanged himself in his Crown Heights apartment, the hacker, writer, and activist Aaron Swartz used to debate with his then-girlfriend Quinn Norton whether the Internet would mourn him if he died. It was Swartz’s stubborn belief that no one would notice or care if he died young, as he often thought he was fated to do. Like many young men of great promise and fluctuating moods, Swartz was an unstable compound of self-effacement and self-regard—among the most empowered, well-connected young people in America, yet convinced that his very existence was a burden to others, even those who loved him. Back when Aaron was 20 and the journalist Norton was 33, before they had crossed over into a complicated romantic affair, Norton brought Swartz with her to a tech event in Berlin, where he and her ex-­husband, the tech writer Danny O’Brien, played a game in which they tried to “kill” themselves on Wikipedia, seeing how long they could remain dead before some volunteer editor restored them to life. Neither could remain dead for more than ten minutes.

There is a category of young person able to do things like contribute to the building of the Internet in their teens, or sell their tech start-ups for millions of dollars when they are 19, or rally a million opponents to a major piece of legislation when they are in their twenties. Usually such people are not the same young people who write on their blogs that they are too frightened to ask for a glass of water on a plane, or that “even among my closest friends, I still feel like something of an imposition, and the slightest shock, the slightest hint that I’m correct, sends me scurrying back into my hole.” Swartz was preternaturally adult when he was still a child and still a precocious child after he had grown to adulthood—“so vulnerable and fragile,” his friend Ben Wikler said. “He put up shields in all the wrong places.” He had done more in 26 years than most of us will do in a lifetime, but often avowed to others, and most of all himself, that he had done nothing of any worth at all.

By the time he was 17, Swartz had already secured a permanent legacy written in code. When he was 13, he was co-authoring a version of RSS, a system that allows streaming of news from across the Internet onto a single reader; in his later teens he helped to build and sell Reddit, a news message board that has grown into one of the world’s most heavily trafficked sites, and created the coding backbone of the Creative Commons licenses that allow artists and writers to claim or waive certain rights to control their works or share them online—the coin of the realm for a growing community of progressive activists known as the copyleft movement, devoted to building an economy of culture based on sharing.

But he was also an ailing person in great physical and emotional pain—a sufferer from ulcerative colitis and suicidal depression, which he described so vividly on his blog (once with enough specificity that a Reddit colleague had the police break down Swartz’s door). Norton spent much of 2010 keeping Swartz away from suicide, telling him, she told me, “This, the way this feels, this is gonna calm down. Like when you get a little bit older, this is gonna be okay. It’s not ever gonna go away completely, but it’s gonna be something you can manage.” As he confessed on his blog in late 2007, he was not merely ailing, he was also ashamed to bear the stigma of his illnesses, and the shame made it difficult to treat both of his conditions. “To some degree I was kind of like, ‘Stop making me deal with this,’ ” Norton told me. “ ‘Stop making me the only one who knows.’ ”

The progressive activist Taren ­Stinebrickner-Kauffman, who began dating Swartz in the summer of 2011, after he and Norton had broken up and just before the federal indictment for hacking MIT’s JSTOR academic-article database that would define the last year of his life, knew a more securely grounded boyfriend than Norton had—one who was beginning to learn that “direct confrontation was often not the best way,” that participating in electoral politics might be more effective than in-the-shadows hacktivism, and who was doing the dishes for the first time in his life. He had assured her that the depressive episodes described in his blog were a thing of the past, and she says that nothing in his conduct gave her cause to doubt it. The first time she ever worried about his depression, she told me, was on the morning of January 11—the day she would discover him hanging from his belt in the apartment they shared.

Legal theorist Lawrence Lessig with Aaron Swartz at the launch party for Creative Commons in 2001, when Swartz was 14. Photo: Rich Gibson/Wikimedia Commons

The sanctification of Aaron Swartz began immediately—first online, then off. He had become a millionaire from the sale of Reddit to Condé Nast, but then turned his back on Silicon Valley for good to become an intellectual adventurer, teaching himself economics, sociology, history, and psychology by dropping into the lives of experts, as he well understood that any minimally informed admirer can do. He still worked on projects to organize and make available information online, but was increasingly intent on finding the secret to mobilizing masses to political action. Swartz was one of the early catalysts for the campaign that stopped the Internet regulation known as the Stop Online Piracy Act (and its corollary, the Protect Intellectual Property Act), which its opponents believe would have effectively allowed private companies to censor the Internet. During this campaign, which was waged while Swartz was still facing indictment, he emerged as a leader who occupied a position of unusual credibility and authority. And it was this transition, from a builder of platforms for machines that do precisely what you tell them to do to freelance scholar-activist poised to intervene in the messier realm of democratic politics on behalf of Internet culture, that made so many think of him, even at 26, as the kind of person who, as the writer and activist Cory Doctorow wrote when he died, “could have revolutionized American (and worldwide) politics.”

At his funeral in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, where he was born and raised, the hundreds of mourners were a mix of members of family and Aaron’s far-flung networks, including some towering figures who had known Aaron since he was a chubby kid. There was Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web, and the Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig, eminence among Internet legal theorists, each channeling the cosmic sorrow and worldly rage already circulating online before a packed crowd of mourners clad in black, the men wearing kippahs.

First, there was remembrance of the person Swartz had been, full of adoration and tenderness and a kind of exasperated love for how preternaturally wise he could be and how mundanely stupid. Then there was remembrance of the circumstances under which he died—as an accused felon prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney of Massachusetts for the crime of downloading too many (4.8 million) academic articles from an online archive hosted by MIT, an extravagant gesture motivated by the cause of using technology to liberate culture from corporate ownership. After two years of exhausting negotiations, which had taken him no closer to an acceptable plea bargain, Swartz was three months from the start of his trial when he preempted it, and his legal plight loomed large in the way all of those around him understood his death. “Aaron did not commit suicide,” said Robert Swartz, Aaron’s father, “but was killed by the government.”

In rhetorical salvos like these, at the funeral in Highland Park and at the vigils held in Cambridge and New York and San Francisco and Washington, D.C., Swartz emerged as a human repository of the Internet’s virtues and its unrealized fantasy of social transformation. Again and again, his friends made the point that Swartz’s open-access activism was merely the prologue to his truly immodest ambition to “hack the whole world,” and to realize his dream of “a world without any injustice or suffering of any kind.” His closest friends and family were keen to reject any effort to “pathologize” Swartz’s condition, though he had himself described it as sickness. “Aaron was depressed because God is depressed,” said Lessig at his funeral. “Look at this world and what we have done—who wouldn’t be depressed?”

“I’ve heard a lot of people talk about Aaron’s impossibly high standards and youthful enthusiasm and naïve brilliance,” said his friend and executor, Alec Resnick. “I can’t help but think that the whole point of people like Aaron is to show us how low and base and hidebound our expectations are.”

Those expectations were largely formed by his early life as a young prodigy raised among idealists. One day, when he was 3 years old, as Robert Swartz recounted to the funeral audience, Aaron asked his mother: “What was this ‘Free Family Entertainment in Downtown Highland Park’?” “She asked him, What was he talking about?” A volley of laughter issued from the audience. “He said, ‘Mom, it says here on the refrigerator.’ He had taught himself to read.”

He built a working ATM in the third grade—it distributed coupons and tracked student accounts. He created a Wikipedia-like site at 13, leading to introductions to Berners-Lee and others who shared the view on Internet advertising he shared then with the Chicago Tribune: “That’s not what the Internet was made for,” he said. “It was based on open standards and freedom, not ads.” He dropped out of high school after the ninth grade, and spent his days in conversation with grown-up technologists, missing out on the numbing busywork and status anxiety that fills the days of American high-school students—depicted so memorably in the Highland Park films of John Hughes. “High school had been the most unpleasant experience of my life,” said his father, who was supportive of Aaron’s decision. “If things come easily to you, and you understand things quickly, you spend a lot of time in school bored out of your mind.”

Swartz speaks against the Stop Online Piracy Act during a New York rally in January 2012.Photo: Daniel J. Sieradski/DPA/Corbis

Robert Swartz is a compact, robust man with a ruddy face; he was a longtime owner of a small tech company and is now an intellectual-property consultant to, among other ­places, the MIT Media Lab. The company—which produced a Unix-like operating system—was named after his father, an entrepreneur and a nuclear-disarmament and peace activist who founded the Albert Einstein Peace Prize Foundation.

In interviews, Aaron Swartz described his childhood as lonely and his suburb as a place without a center. In one of his early blog posts, Swartz had described Highland Park, not uncharitably, as one of the places where the parents were educated and well-meaning, and had looked upon the struggles for justice of the sixties with sympathy, though they did not themselves participate. It was a perfect place from which to escape into cyberspace; at a vigil at Cooper Union, Norton recounted a memory of Swartz singing Pete Seeger’s “Little Boxes” to her daughter.

After e-mailing Lawrence Lessig a suggestion on how to design certain Creative Commons licenses in 2002, Swartz went to work with him on it, beginning one of the many long and complicated mentor relationships that seemed to fill Aaron’s life. He enrolled briefly at Stanford University, incubator of tech entrepreneurs, despite never having finished high school (he was rejected from Berkeley), but left after a year for Paul Graham’s unstructured tech think tank Y Combinator, having found Stanford intellectually unchallenging. By day four, Swartz had already concluded that Stanford was a kind of “libertarian nightmare world.”

In the winter of 2007, after spending time with Norton in Berlin, Swartz’s colitis flared up. He holed up in Boston for a week, awol from Reddit, which he had already stopped treating like a serious commitment—he was fired when he eventually did show up at the offices in San Francisco. That week in Boston, he posted a fictional account of a suicide, which described among other things his hatred for his chubby boy’s body.

In 2009, Swartz took a monthlong vacation from the Internet—one of the first he had ever experienced. He wrote about it on his blog, which, when it wasn’t summarizing a social-scientific controversy, or criticizing the work or motivations of previous collaborators, was exploring the conflicted inner life he was so good at keeping from others.

“I am not happy,” he wrote. “I used to think of myself as just an unhappy person: a misanthrope, prone to mood swings and eating binges, who spends his days moping around the house in his pajamas, too shy and sad to step outside. But that’s not how I was offline. I loved people—everyone from the counter clerk to the old friends I bumped into on the street.”

Toward the end of the post, Swartz reflected on the extraordinary life he has lived, one made possible by the Internet, and his willingness to seize its possibilities.

“I realize it must seem like the greatest arrogance to think one could escape life’s mundane concerns, like asking to live on a cloud, floating above the mere mortals,” he wrote. “But it was that arrogance that made me think I could contribute to adult mailing lists when I was still in elementary school, that arrogance that made me think someone might want to read my website when I was still just a teen, that arrogance that had me start a company as a college freshman. That sort of arrogance—not bragging, but simply inwardly thinking I could do more than was expected of me—is the only thing that’s gotten me anywhere in life. ”

“One of the things that makes him the Internet’s boy is he was already living in the future that I hope we get to,” said Norton. “Where everybody has the permission to act and be important and where hierarchies don’t prevent people from doing things or believing in themselves and just having a fucking life. We get a huge number of messages that we are not allowed in the world. We occupy social laws of living, and we are not allowed to leave them. And all we ever have to do is walk out. And I think one of the most extraordinary, moving parts of Aaron’s life, his story, is that he just didn’t accept the limits that we put on ourselves.”

In a blog post a few months later, Swartz engages in a brief philosophical inquiry into how a person can live a moral life. “The conclusion is inescapable: we must live our lives to promote the most overall good. And that would seem to mean helping those most in want—the world’s poorest people.” He would go on to specify which moral actors he found the most admirable. “Our rule demands one do everything they can to help the poorest—not just spending one’s wealth and selling one’s possessions, but breaking the law if that will help,” he wrote. “It seems like these criminals, not the average workaday law-abiding citizen, should be our moral exemplars.”

Swartz was a fellow at the Lessig-headed Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard in September 2010 when he allegedly began the batch download that would lead to his arrest and indictment. Over the course of several weeks, the indictment claimed, Swartz engaged in a game of digital cat and mouse as first JSTOR, then MIT sought to block his access to its network, causing JSTOR on two separate occasions to block all access to MIT computers for several days. Starting in November of that year, Swartz bypassed the wireless registration and plugged directly into the network from a closet on campus, hiding the laptop under a box and running a script to discover and download articles continuously.

The indictment alleged that Swartz was attempting to download the archive for the intention of sharing it online—perhaps carrying forward the agenda of the Open Access movement, which protested the locking away behind a paywall of academic articles. (He had taken a strong position on this issue with the online publication of the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, a polemic written by Swartz and a small group of collaborators.) It charged him with wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, and recklessly damaging a protected computer. He faced up to $1 million in fines and up to 35 years in prison. The indictment was later amended to thirteen felony counts and as much as 50 years in prison. But those numbers are entirely notional; the plea-bargain phase settled on a reported offer of six to eight months if Swartz would plead guilty to thirteen felony counts. If he rejected the deal, as he did, the government would recommend a sentence as long as seven years, if he was convicted.

Whether any of this constituted a crime that ought to have been one of society’s priorities to punish depends on one’s perspective. No harm had come of it besides a few days of hassle for the MIT IT staff, and, as is always true of digital reproduction, taking copies of ­JSTOR’s archive left JSTOR with perfect copies of its own. JSTOR eventually made peace with Swartz when he returned the data, and the organization publicly announced it had no further wish to see him prosecuted. Though there were many efforts by the Swartzes to extract a similar statement from MIT, none came.

The analogy his supporters used to describe the crime was “checking out too many books from the library.” The U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts put it differently: Swartz was a thief. It was the latest skirmish in a battle over which analogies would control the digital world—the resort to analogies being a sign both of how rudimentary the legal concepts that govern the Internet are and how slow a consensus is to form about a new medium.

This was a battle fought along many fronts; in legal journals and academic symposia, where a cadre of activists who nurtured Swartz in their midst tried to build a new consensus about who should and should not control the circulation of ideas; in the everyday practices of a hundred million Internet users, who had grown inured to sharing music and videos online; in the offices and laboratories of software and media companies, where the latest copy-­protection schemes are devised in an ever-escalating arms race with those intent on undoing them; in the corridors of Congress, where lobbyists from the various media, old and new, seek advantage for their industries by shaping laws that reflect their economic interests; and in courtrooms, where those unlucky enough to be caught flouting the laws face prosecution for doing what the rest of us habitually do on the Internet—copy for free. Though its opponents had a stronger hold on the levers of power, the copyleft believed it possessed an unbeatable trump card: the future, in the form of everyone’s children, who had grown up without any encumbrances on “content.”

Swartz was one of those children, and his interventions began at the margins where the public right to information was unambiguous. In 2008, Swartz exploited a limited opening in the pacer court-document archive to download and release millions of records. The FBI investigated him but ultimately declined to prosecute.

At a memorial, Swartz’s friend Carl Malamud confessed that he wondered if his own hot criticisms of ­JSTOR—he had tweeted that charging $20 for a six-page article was “morally offensive”—had incited Aaron to take undue risks in hacking it. When I spoke to him a week later, Malamud still hadn’t answered the question for himself. I asked why he had said that he sometimes feels guilty.

“Because the boy got in trouble and he killed himself,” he said. “Did I encourage him to do ­JSTOR? There were quite a few of us banging the table about this. Did we incite him to do this, and could we have done more once he was arrested? I don’t know. I ask the questions, and I can’t answer them. I can’t look in somebody else’s head and figure out what he was thinking. I could second-guess myself and ask what I did wrong, and I hope folks at ­JSTOR and MIT are doing the same. This was a tragedy.”

Malamud described Swartz as having been “terrified” by the FBI investigation into the ­pacer download. Resnick recalls him worrying that the FBI was going to break down his door at any moment. And yet it didn’t seem to deter him—he continued to plot and carry out hacktivist assaults on databases designed to withhold information behind a fairly steep paywall. As the law professor Orin Kerr pointed out to me on the phone, here was the truly puzzling juncture in the data-liberation career of Aaron Swartz. “Many people would take being investigated by the Feds and let off without charges as an occasion to become more cautious and not to see it as a green light to do even more,” he said. “I would have told him not to do it, or else to do it if he wished, but to be aware that if he got caught, he was going to be prosecuted and he was going to face jail time.”

Swartz, connected to the leading legal lights of the Internet, almost certainly knew that already. Even more perplexing was that, by all accounts of those who knew his thinking best, Swartz had been drawing back from hacker activism even before the ­JSTOR incident. He had shifted his focus to economic inequality and health care.

“This was emphatically not what he was spending his time thinking about,” his friend Resnick said of the ­JSTOR hack. “At best it was a weekend project, which unfortunately went very wrong.”

I asked Malamud how terrified Swartz could have been if the ­pacer episode didn’t stop him from even a casual hacking of JSTOR. “I think he was still terrified, but he was also brave. He saw this as something that was right to do, and so he did it.”

The moralistic language spoken by the Open Access movement—with its invocations of Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks—may seem slightly perplexing to those of us raised with the common-sense view that works of science, art, and culture circulate in our society through institutions that fund them by charging fees to the public to access them. But the partisans of the open Internet were informed by a different experience and set of ideals than the rest of us, those of a techno-utopia that really existed and has been continuously under siege ever since John Perry Barlow, the former Grateful Dead lyricist turned Internet visionary, co-founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation and declared the independence of cyberspace as a self-regulating realm of perfect freedom beyond the reach of any territorial government’s laws.

That Swartz was a self-described hacker mattered greatly to his legal fate—through constant repetition in the media, many have come to associate the term with criminality, the breaching of restrictions on access, the stealing of secrets, even acts of espionage and cyberwarfare. But in the term’s original incarnation at MIT, the hacker was a kind of monastic devotee of the computer who practiced a new kind of ethics calibrated to explore the new world it was creating.

Steven Levy, in his seminal book Hackers, neatly evoked the working principles that governed the hacker ethic: “Hackers believe that essential lessons can be learned about the systems—about the world—from taking things apart, seeing how they work, and using this knowledge to create new and even more interesting things,” he wrote. “They resent any person, physical barrier, or law that tries to keep them from doing this.…Imperfect systems infuriate hackers, whose primal instinct is to debug them.…In a perfect hacker world, anyone pissed off enough to open up a control box near a traffic light and take it apart to make it work better should be perfectly welcome to make the attempt. Rules that prevent you from taking matters like that into your own hands are too ridiculous to even consider abiding by.”

The book describes all the hacker rule-breaking that unfolded in the MIT artificial-intelligence labs, with hackers crawling through the vents, stealing and making unauthorized copies of keys, to get access to the tools they needed for their explorations. Administrators at MIT have been dealing with, and indulging, such spirited rule-breaking for decades. MIT hacks usually involve some inventive mischief in the physical world, such as affixing parlor furniture to the underside of a campus archway, or stealing the Caltech cannon and transporting it across the country. No one is arrested or imprisoned for what everyone understands is an exercise of the high spirits of brilliant young men who earn their indulgence by being members of a technological elite at an elite institution. MIT hackers breach security to test their powers, to repay the insult of keeping them out, and never for base personal gain, never in order to steal credit-card numbers like some computer-enabled foreign thug. And yet the laws that keep out the Russian mob invariably end up prohibiting much of what the hackers do. And therein lies the tension: between the rules that can and should govern elite cadres of monastic devotees of knowledge in itself and the rules that can be applied to society at large. The sharing ethos confined to the MIT artificial-­intelligence lab was a great boost to technological progress; but released into the world, it has produced waves of innovation and disruption about which it takes a nearly religious faith to trust that they will all result in outcomes that will be better for everyone.

When I met Taren ­Stinebrickner-Kauffman in Brooklyn, she broke down only once during an hour-long conversation, when we came to the subject of what happened to Swartz’s case on the day he died. Just that afternoon, his attorney, Elliot Peters, was making a consequential discovery. There had been a puzzling 34-day delay between the arrest and the request for a warrant to search Swartz’s laptop—longer than the prosecution is allowed. And information that Peters recently received from the U.S. Attorney’s office was strengthening his bid to suppress the searches from that laptop in court. “We were all excited about this,” said Peters, “and I was already thinking of how I was going to cross-examine them, when I got this e-mail from Bob Swartz saying Aaron had committed suicide.”

“If only Aaron had waited another week or so,” ­Stinebrickner-Kauffman said, her face crumpling into tears. The family and their intimate supporters were gearing up for a public fight. The tagline would have been “Save Aaron,” the slogan accompanying it “Nerd does not equal criminal.”

But ­Stinebrickner-Kauffman had already begun to sense the “aversion and cringing” that overtook Swartz when he had to start asking people for money. His fear of being a burden on others, his horror of being made the center of attention, were interfering with his preparation for his own defense.

In order to defend himself, he would have had to confess to everyone that he had made a boneheaded miscalculation that had made him into the imposition on everyone’s time and money that he always feared that he was. He would have to admit that the ailing, depressed, imperfect shadow side of him was just as real as the brilliant, precocious, successful, morally exemplary side that everyone was celebrating.

“I remember talking to him about this; I told him that for someone with such clear vision about so much, one blind spot he had was how much he mattered,” said Wikler. “Aaron took his life in another small room with bare white walls. He couldn’t hear our voices at that moment.”

“He had this thing about not being able to bring yourself to do things you don’t want to do,” ­Stinebrickner-Kauffman said. “Everybody has to do things that they don’t want to do. And we all know that it’s really annoying and maybe even painful. But those kind of things were even harder for him than for most people.” Swartz had said that he would rather spend the rest of his life without a fixed residence, sleeping on other people’s couches, than work at an office job that he did not want to take. “He occupied a higher plane where everything was thinking and writing and doing and meeting with people who were really interesting and smart. And he filled as much of his life as possible with that, far more than anybody else I know. But when it came to having to do something that he didn’t want to do, he couldn’t do it.”

In the end, he didn’t want to be the martyr he has become. The suicide that eventually thrust him into that role was also an attempt to evade it, by evading trial. A weekend side project on an issue he didn’t even care that much about anymore was keeping him firmly ensnared in the past, and might even blot out the new life he was entering.

“I used to tell him the most important thing was never to get caught,” said Norton. “I know these people and I know what they are capable of.” Toward the end of their relationship, Swartz and Norton began to part company on their view of the American political system, which Norton saw as irredeemably fallen and which Swartz had come to believe was preferable to others, in part because it allowed technocratic elites like himself to play an outsize role. “I swear to God that boy just wanted to live inside an episode of The West Wing,” she said. “He wanted to find the halls of power and do his earnest best to make everything a little bit better. And I just believed that was a dead end. And I felt like one of the tragedies of this whole story is that he proved me right.” Among the reasons Swartz turned down the plea bargains, Wikler told me, was that a felony would constrain him from having the kind of life he now wanted: “You can’t be secretary of Commerce,” he said, with a felony conviction. Early on, after his arrest but before his indictment, Swartz was offered an unusual deal—one count of violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and three months in jail. He turned even that down.

François de La Rochefoucauld once observed that it’s not enough to have great virtues; one must use them with economy. As I listened to the tributes to Aaron Swartz in Highland Park and New York and online, this aphorism came to mind. Swartz had skipped out on the lessons taught by the American high school—the lessons in cynical acquiescence, conformity, and obedience to the powers that be. He was right to think these lessons injure people’s innate sense of curiosity and morality and inure them to mediocrity. He was right to credit his “arrogance” for the excellence of the life he lived. But if nothing else, these lessons prepare people for a world that can often be met in no other way; a world whose irrational power must sometimes simply be endured. This was a lesson that he contrived never to learn, which was part of what made him so extraordinary. It was Swartz’s misfortune, and ours, that he learned it too late, from too unyielding a teacher. It cannot serve society’s purpose to make a felon and an inmate out of so gifted and well-meaning a person as ­Aaron Swartz, and thus he was a victim of a grave injustice. But it bears remembering that the greater injustice was done to Aaron Swartz by the man who killed him.

The Life and Afterlife of Aaron Swartz