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The tragedy of Aaron Swartz

He was a hacker, entrepreneur and idealist who killed himself aged 26. An important new book puts his story in context

Tom Chatfield | January 27th 2016

In January 2011, Aaron Swartz was caught downloading millions of journal articles from the JSTOR scholarly database, via a laptop smuggled into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The US Attorney’s Office in Boston indicted him in federal court on four felony charges, later increased to 13, claiming wire fraud and breach of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The maximum prison sentence was 95 years, the maximum fine over $3m. The justice system had decided to make an example of someone opposed to copyright law, who had publicly called for an end to the “private theft of public culture” and the “privatisation of knowledge”. On January 11th 2013, a few months before his trial was due to begin, Aaron Swartz hung himself in his Brooklyn apartment. He was 26 years old. He had told nobody that he was about to take his own life, or why.

Swartz – hacker, programmer, entrepreneur, activist – used technology with a passion and fluency that had set him apart before he was even a teenager, and which earned him intellectual peers decades his senior. Yet, as Justin Peters’ new biography, “The Idealist”, makes clear, Swartz did not live for technology. He wanted to make a difference. Technology was his superpower, his chance to change how things worked. But it also made him vulnerable, colliding the realms of ideals and facts. He was brilliant, young, impatient to fix the inadequacies of actuality. Actuality fought back.

“The Idealist” isn’t a conventional biography, and it doesn’t so much seek to explain as to contextualise Swartz’s story. Its first half is a history of copyright and competing notions of public and private good – a history bookended by two exemplary tales. First, we meet Noah Webster. Born in Connecticut in 1758, Webster’s driving ambition was to give post-revolutionary America its own standards of grammar and spelling (as determined by his somewhat idiosyncratic standards). He worked equally ferociously to protect the proceeds of his lexicographic proselytising, lobbying the powerful and the prominent for copyright legislation. 

Second, some 189 years of expanding copyright empires later, we meet Michael Hart, a dreamer and misfit whose great mission became building an open digital library for all humanity. By the time of his death in 2011 – in relative poverty and obscurity – Hart’s dream had become known as Project Gutenberg, and had successfully made available over 37,000 books and historical documents. Like Webster, Hart had devoted his life to a mission with monomaniacal determination. Unlike Webster, he hadn’t found profit or prestige. What he had helped to do was found the free-culture movement: a calling that spoke to the young Swartz, among others, as a manifesto for what the open Internet might mean.  

In Peters’ telling, there is both tragedy and bathos to Swartz’s death: no conspiracy, few villains, just flawed systems grinding out their incentives. Institutions like MIT looked to their lawyers and sat on their hands; the Attorney’s Office existed to win convictions; the protection of information as if it were property bore the momentum of time, power and cash.

“The Idealist” hefts its burden of research and explanation with flair. Perhaps the greatest service Peters performs, though, is giving us Swartz’s own voice on page after page: a private soul with a gift for friendship; an idealist but no innocent; restless, precocious, growing and learning. 

In July 2009, aged 22, Swartz wrote about something unprecedented: the fact that he had spent the entire previous month offline. “Offline,” he explained, “I felt in control of my own destiny. I felt, yes, serene... Offline, I felt solid and composed. Online, I feel like my brain wants to run off in a million different directions, even when I try to point it forward.” Technology offered so much: a new world, one he had a chance to shape in the company of like minds. The task was to reconcile infinite possibility with actuality, and leave actuality the better. Had he lived, who knows how much the world might have gained.

The Idealist by Justin Peters, Scribner, January 28th

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