Aaron Swartz, Hacktivist Commits Suicide at 26 – Where did we go wrong?

  • January 14, 2013

News was released today that Aaron Swartz died tragically on January 11 by suicide in his New York apartment.

Aaron Swartz, a wizardly programmer who as a teenager helped develop code that delivered ever-changing Web content to users and who later became a steadfast crusader to make that information freely available, was found dead on Friday in his New York apartment.

John Schwartz of the New York Times

Aaron_Swartz_at_Boston_Wikipedia_Meetup,_2009-08-18

Many people across the internet are weighing in to discuss who was to blame.  Larry Lessig, Aaron’s friend and one time lawyer, writes of the shame the federal prosecutors should feel for showing no restraint by charging him 13 felony counts.  Others are pointing their fingers at MIT for standing idly by allowing the prosecution to move forward with the case even when JSTOR decided they did not want to pursue charges.

As an alum, I can’t help but to feel discomfort with my former university and the role they might have played in this person’s decision to end their life.  Particularly because what Aaron was accused of doing, making information free and accessible, is so essential to the ethos, the absolute core, of MIT’s culture.

In the past, I have always been very proud of MIT and its ability to strike a balance between letting the students run free and maintaining legal and safety standards of the institution.  Frequently laws are bent, infractions overlooked and matters dealt with internally to protect their students.  Because what administrators at MIT acutely understand is that for the groundbreaking research and entrepreneurship to continue to flourish at the institution like it does nowhere else, students need to have the space to do crazy things, even if they aren’t completely within the rules.

Even though he was not a student, Aaron very easily represents many of the approximate 10 thousand students and staff at the institution that sit so precariously on the edge of brilliance.  It was Aaron this time but every year new classes come into the institution with the same attitude; the same naivety that allows them to  change the world by breaking the rules.  And every year, we are reminded of how delicate these minds are when we lose precious members of our community to suicide.

And so what happened with Aaron is sad on many levels.  We all lost an incredible person and MIT had a very serious, hopefully temporary, lapse in judgment.  Because in this case, MIT did not do what it should have done, protect its own, not just students but any member of the community.

While nothing will bring Aaron back, we need to make sure that the way MIT handled the prior events do not become data points in a trend.  For the sake of all current and future students, MIT’s administration must remember what the institute stands for above all else: that the hacker culture is important and those within it must be dealt with restraint for the culture and its members to survive.  By forgetting this, MIT chipped its moral footing and sadly saw the effects of another brilliant mind being trapped into a corner with seemingly nowhere to go.

Rafael Reif, MIT’s president, emailed this out to the MIT community that starts the long conversation about what could have been done better.  It’s a good start that will hopefully shine more light on what happened.

~Adam Leeb