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Aaron Swartz wanted to save the world. Why couldn’t he save himself? (slate.com)
106 points by woodhull on Feb 8, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 44 comments



Despite the weekly articles and coverage since Aaron's death, this is by far the best of the pieces, especially in terms of detail. I think even Aaron's haters will think it's the best, as it dispels a lot of the exaggerations that have cropped up around Aaron's material accomplishments.

But even in this more realistic, nuanced light, the tragedy of his suicide seems even more profound. There's no easy answers or conclusions, though this piece does the best job I've seen so far of explaining the political tensions and context leading up to Aaron's prosecution and death. Definitely a worthwhile read, even after reading thousands of other words on the subject.

The OP downplays Aaron's role at Reddit considerably, to the point where it sounds like he did nothing at all except dream about social activism before taking the money and running. But even if he wasn't the full time engineer, wasn't his contribution in converting Reddit to web.py considered noteworthy toward the success/maintain ability of the site (at least at its early stage)? http://www.aaronsw.com/weblog/rewritingreddit

Edit: this was discussed in the Reddit thread five years ago though not really conclusively answered

http://www.reddit.com/r/reddit.com/comments/1octb/reddit_cof...


reddit hasn't seen fit to include his avatar in the 'reddit alumni' http://www.reddit.com/about/team/


Reading this I kept shaking my head and thinking "what a sad little boy/man." Everything about his life makes me cringe: the awkward adolescent photos, his gravitation towards adult "friends," his dependence on a largely analytical basis for relationships and connections, the endless dissatisfaction and detachment, the fruitless big dreams, the inability to focus and work on one objective, the recklessness, the grueling self-analysis and self-exposition, the anger and the impotence...

I think, from reading this, that Aaron was a person with something missing inside of him. To compensate, he tried to change everything around him - everything but himself. People like that have poor odds in life. When the world resists their efforts and they are forced to acknowledge the limits of their agency, their big dreams of quick change come crashing down. They can find themselves with little to retreat to in the aftermath.


I'm sure a lot of this is true, but some of it seems like you're casting him in a much more negative light than is fair. He did accomplish some things.

I don't think he had something missing inside of him. I think he had some mistaken beliefs but probably would have figured those out eventually if he hadn't taken such a radical step.


"he tried to change everything around him - everything but himself."

Read his last big piece of writing: the series Raw Nerve, which he called "a series of pieces about getting better at life." He was trying to change himself. And he was making headway. And then not.

http://www.aaronsw.com/weblog/rawnerve


It sounds like you're disappointed in him for not succumbing to aspects of the modern world which could fairly be described as diseases. I understand this is a widespread and basically normal opinion, but I don't understand how people can hold it without being aware of how subjective and ridiculous it is.

It would be like going back to the time of Galileo and Giordano Bruno and commenting how sad it was that they couldn't just make nice with the powers that be and toe the line like everyone around them, and how much more fulfilled and happy they would have been if that were the case.

The world needed changing then, and it needs it now. To ignore this is to totally miss the point of this entire episode.


Disappointed? Huh? What are you talking about?

Aaron was unhappy his entire life. He behaved recklessly, attracted criminal prosecution, and capped it all of by killing himself. Do you find that noble? I don't. I think he failed: failed to see the world realistically, failed to direct his thoughts and energies in a constructive manner, and failed to achieve much of anything. He puffed himself up and charged into something that didn't budge, and then he lost control. That's not noble to me at all. Just sad.

As for: >aspects of the modern world which could fairly be described as diseases.

Can you elaborate? (And do you mean that these aspects behave similarly to pathological infections in organisms or to epidemiological dynamics among populations?)

And >Galileo

Bad comparison. Galileo was explicitly ordered by the Catholic Church not to "hold or defend" the Copernican system. I.e. the dominant social power of that time and place decided they didn't like the concept, and they suppressed efforts to discuss and spread it. When Galileo edged around the constraint, they clamped down even harder. It was a clear cut case of a social power deciding to restrict free speech to prevent an idea from even being thought about.

In contrast, there is no dominant social power in modern times. No one is in even a remotely comparable position in 2013 to suppress ideas. You and I are free to discuss copyright liberation or whatever we want. Aaron was free to write blogs, tracts, hand out pamphlets, send letters to politicians, make websites, etc etc etc. No one suppressed him in any of those activities. It is only when he crossed the line into illegal behaviour that he was prosecuted - according to open, democratically-developed laws and prosecutorial guidelines - all subject to normal processes of democratic oversight.

>The world needed changing then, and it needs it now.

Dangerous language in my opinion. Nothing "needs" anything. Deciding that the world "needs" changing means you set up a very rigid condition for success. And this is what I think happened with Aaron: inevitably people who think the world needs changing run into roadblocks, which their rigidity does not prepare them for. Then, failing to make the changes they believe are necessary, they fail to meet their rigid victory condition - and because of its rigidity, they fail, in their own opinion, absolutely. Which is devastating, and in Aaron's case, seems to have pushed him past his limits.

A healthier perspective is that the world might be better with some tweaks - but it will probably never be perfect, and you should accept that you might not be able to do everything you want - and so on and so on. Aaron could have done with a bit of that perspective I reckon. How about you?

As far as I'm concerned, all of Aaron's convictions and all of the bickering about the technicalities of the case are red herrings here. The fact that so many people haven't stopped to think harder about all this, and have instead jumped on the instant rage bandwagon is one of, if not THE real issue, I think. It speaks to a real trend of snap-judgement reactionary groupthink, which seems to be prevalent in contemporary internet culture. The angry people yelling about democracy and shouting dissidents down are the real danger to open society.


> No one is in even a remotely comparable position in 2013 to suppress ideas.

Of course not. That would be weird, as those events lie hundred of years in the past. It is a total different world today. Thinking that those events map one-to-one is far beyond ridiculous. You need to refer to the principle.

The hard truth is, that much of the publicly funded research is kept away from 99,9 % of the people, just so a few can make profits.

Fine, it might make it easier for you to say to yourself, that

> democratically-developed laws

back up your opinion.

But the actual truth is that many laws are written by lobbyists.

Also the laws are and always have been up to interpretation. The prerogative of interpretation is under a constant challenge.

If you think that the current system will be seen as just in 100 years from now you are probably wrong. If we want to accelerate human development we must make sure, that everyone has access to current research, just as we make sure that everyone has access to the modern software due to open source.

Sadly, for every Aaron there are thousands of people with your mindset that chose the way of least resistance. And when I hear those people pitying the ones who are trying to make the world a better place, it makes me angry and sad.


1) You've got the wrong end of the stick mate - it was etherael who tried to make the Galileo comparison - I was pointing out to him how ridiculous that comparison was - and you have mistaken my critique for his original comparison. Aim your criticisms at him.

2) The hard truth is, that much of the publicly funded research is kept away from 99,9 % of the people, just so a few can make profits.

How about you back up that opinion? Because it sounds like reductive hyperbole.

3) the actual truth is that many laws are written by lobbyists.

I would never deny the influence of special interests, and you misconstrue me if you think I do - or if you think I am arguing that current political systems are perfect. I am sick of this false dichotomy that you can only have two opinions on modern democracy - either you are a raving critic who thinks it is all corrupt and shit, or you are a placid simpleton who thinks everything is fine. I take a middle road - I try and see the good and the bad in balance. The harsh black and white perspectives common among e-activists are severely in need of some balance.

4) the laws are and always have been up to interpretation

Yes, of course. Did I argue that this is not the case, or should not be the case? The question is the mechanism through which laws should be reappraised. Aaron Swartz thought reckless, desperate and illegal behaviour was an appropriate mechanism. People like you seem to think that angry crowds of people on the internet demanding the change they want is an appropriate mechanism. I think that careful, focused consideration of all pertinent issues by qualified experts is the most appropriate mechanism. Shocking, I know, but no, I don't think people on the internet tend to come to particularly balanced opinions on political issues. My greatest sin seems to be that this isn't sexy or modern enough - it is after all a mechanism which modern democracies employ all the time. Apparently that makes me one of the "thousands of people... that chose the way of least resistance" (because it sure is a walk in the park venturing and defending my position against the anti-government consensus on Hackernews...)

5) If you think that the current system will be seen as just in 100 years from now you are probably wrong.

Again, this false dichotomy - can I not simultaneously believe that there is a lot of good to be found in the democratic systems we have developed so far, and believe at the same time that there is room for improvement? I don't see how the two are mutually exclusive.

The problem I think is that people today are not particularly educated about how the history of the development of modern political and economic systems, and they have no understanding of how much they have improved on previous formats, and how many benefits we derive from these advances. They are blind to the benefits of what has been achieved, and can only see problems. So they have no perspective.

6) we must make sure, that everyone has access to current research

We must, I would argue, also make sure that we protect the systems of incentives that allows creative work to be done. This to me is the singular arrogance of e-activists - the belief that anyone profiting from creative work are fatcats, that no allowances should be made for creators in making information free, that anyone affected by the actions of e-activists is just a dinosaur, that the world must adapt to them. It's unhealthy. I think if we really want to accelerate human development we must be careful not to succumb without critical scrutiny to the allure of impressive-sounding causes such as open-everything. How often do e-activists question their actions? How often do they say "what if the things I believe in are wrong and damaging?" Not often, from what I can see.

6) when I hear those people pitying the ones who are trying to make the world a better place, it makes me angry and sad.

Oh, get off your damn high horse.


Disappointed? Huh? What on earth are you talking about?

If I refer to someone as a sad little man, it's a fair call that I could be described as disappointed in them, if I misunderstood your position on that I apologise.

Or perhaps did you wake up, find the story about Aaron on HN and become an instant, just-add-hyperbole overnight crusader?

Not exactly, I've always been of the opinion that the state doesn't need to be reformed so much as dismantled, but in terms of being unaware of the situation; no. That's why I've always been of the opinion that the state ought to be dismantled, the constant pain and misery they have historically inflicted on those they are charged to protect and/or represent.

As for: aspects of the modern world which could fairly be described as diseases. Can you elaborate?

I mean basically the things which he spent his life fighting against which ultimately resulted in his tragic end. The way in which he and I differ is that he was an activist that wanted to see institutional reform whereas I do not care to risk anything for anyone and simply wish to see those same institutions entirely dismantled and will absolutely not risk myself in any way to do so precisely because those that do often end up casualty statistics in one way or another.

I don't believe in fighting for humanity, personally I just route around the ridiculousness as much as possible and tolerate and/or divest myself as totally as I am able with regards to the rest. But those are simply two negative views and approaches on situations which as I said can fairly be described as diseases.

It was a clear cut case of a social power deciding to restrict free speech to prevent an idea from even being thought about.

You mean like completely out of proportion prosecutorial aggression to address an issue that the state would instead not like you or anyone else to think too closely about? I disagree, I think they're trying as hard as they can to clamp down on certain ways of thinking, it's precisely the same thing in a different setting.

It is only when he crossed the line into illegal behaviour that he was prosecuted

You say this as if legal and illegal is a meaningful distinction these days, once again I disagree with that, I think it's beyond obvious that there are a very large amount of very stupid laws on the books in a very large variety of countries and I hold no innate respect for any such laws above that which I would hold for rules arbitrarily foisted upon me by a violent and erratic overseer.

- according to open, democratically-developed laws and prosecutorial guidelines - all subject to normal processes of democratic oversight.

Which is, as demonstrated by the magnitude of the horrendous nature of all the things which have been created in precisely the same vein, clearly useless.

The world needed changing then, and it needs it now. Dangerous language in my opinion. Nothing "needs" anything. Deciding that the world "needs" changing means you set up a very rigid condition for success.

Not particularly, I don't care if the world changes or not at the end of the day, That I see things are broken and that I see they are in many ways simply getting worse is more an indication that I should not bother myself with engaging with such a clearly broken system than I should fight harder against it at any risk to myself. That doesn't mean I can't call a spade a spade.

Aaron could have done with a bit of that perspective I reckon. How about you?

If the perspective is that he shouldn't have bothered and shouldn't have put himself at risk to fix the injustices of a people largely foisted by themselves upon themselves, I entirely agree. If the perspective is that one should simply accept that things are all roses and we should simply fall in line and to the best of our ability follow the instructions of our rulers because although they may be flawed in a great many ways, we are responsible for them because we are part of a population which has en masse been stupid enough to allow the situation to develop, I couldn't disagree more.


Right, well, ignoring the fact that you dodged the question of what you meant specifically by diseases...

Yes, you misread the word sad. I wrote with pity. Sorry you didn't pick that up.

I've always been of the opinion that the state doesn't need to be reformed so much as dismantled

Well... I think you're ignorant and entitled. Basically. Sorry.

You mean like completely out of proportion prosecutorial aggression to address an issue that the state would instead not like you or anyone else to think too closely about?

No, I mean like the Pope decided that he didn't like Galileo and he didn't like the idea of the Copernican system, and he banned the very idea. One guy stood up and literally said "No one is allowed to believe or talk about idea A. Idea B is the only truth."

The idea that the prosecution of Aaron is in any way comparable to the situation in Counter-Reformation Italy is just... completely retarded. There's no other word for it. If you really believe that, then you're stupid. I'm sorry. It's not "precisely the same thing," it's not even bloody close. Perhaps you could enlighten me: explain who are the people attempting to control contemporary discourse - explain how they are doing it - explain why they are doing it - explain exactly what thoughts they are trying to make illegal to discuss. I'd like to see you try without falling into utterly ridiculous conspiracy theories.

I think it's beyond obvious that there are a very large amount of very stupid laws on the books

Great, welcome to the club: it's called People Who Are Sure They Know Best How Things Should Be Run. Members: basically everyone. I have some grumpy old men who hate welfare bludgers and some young bright-eyed radicals who think money is just, like, this thing that people made up y'know, to introduce you to if you're interested.

Which is, as demonstrated by the magnitude of the horrendous nature of all the things which have been created in precisely the same vein, clearly useless.

From your writing I take it you're educated (in some respects.) By a school? Also, I'd assume you're in reasonable good health. Ever gotten sick? Needed medication? How about this computer you're using? Been mugged or stabbed recently? Your family ever been helped out by reliable insurance contracts? Ever worried about your hometown being invaded and burnt to the ground by neighbouring tribes? Enjoyed a bout of syphylis recently? How about reliable credit and a global economy that is a miracle of efficiency?

Oh yes, I absolutely agree with you: all of these silly laws - completely useless!

If the perspective is that one should simply accept that things are all roses...

Nice work reading your own pet peeves into what I wrote buddy.


Since your reply basically boils down to "Is not" I believe that the customary response on my part is supposed to be "Is so".

And since this exchange is very boring and trite and you are clearly a complete moron, I'll leave it at that, we can pretend it went on for a good long while but eventually you got the better of me and said "Is not" one more time than I said "Is so" and you won.

Cheers.


If you want to actually learn something about Galileo, try this.

http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Nb8fKBZlKmU&feature=relmfu


I agree with you on pretty much all points, but it's still sad.

Still, though, if we're talking about seeing the world in a realistic manner, a group of people who lost a mascot, one of their own, will not be able to hear your message. And Aaron really was a mascot. Most of the people who feel affected by his death didn't know him and weren't even particularly touched by his work during his life. It doesn't make it less sad, though.

You won't be able to convince them of anything, because they can't hear it right now.

With his death, Aaron became an icon, and anyone can attribute anything they want to him to make his life and death personally meaningful to them. Sadly the complex, troubled individual is mostly lost in this hagiographizing. I thought the Slate piece was the best and most nuanced thing I read about him so far. It jived with what I knew of him personally.


I'm kinda gettig tired of all these Aaron Swartz posts. There I said it.


Yeah, but this is by far the best-researched one I've seen. The writer could've crapped something out in a hurry a month ago, but instead took the time to focus on quality. That deserves our applause.

Most of the previous coverage made it sound like Aaron was instrumental in the design of RSS, for example. That wasn't really the case, and the article is the first I've seen to get that right. On the other hand, he did play a true role in the creation of Markdown, and the article gives him fair credit for that.

And I believe this is the most detailed account to date of Aaron's time at YC, which I found to be really, really interesting. If you read only one section of the piece, that's the one I'd recommend.


I think you're right. This article is the new benchmark in Aaron Swartz articles. A late entry, but has completely obliterated the field. Anyone thinking of writing a Swartz article take note, the bar is high. You'll need a team of people and a decent budget to approach the same quality. Good luck.


Therein lies the power of the oppressors: the public attention span to any one subject is severely limited. I admit to also getting tired, but I wish it weren't so, because it doesn't seem we've accomplished much. The petition has stalled and no reforms have been made.


Welcome to 2013 and the sound and fury of insta-activism. Welcome also to 2012 (KONY) and 2011 (Occupy). Am I missing anything?


"Am I missing anything?"

Stop SOPA?


Ah yes. Sometimes the mob does have teeth.


I almost didn't click on this story because I thought the same, but it turns out that this feature is a lot more detailed and interesting than all of those other stories (which were all rushed out) combined.


Dude, then don't read them.

A good hacker died who's death could have been avoided. Some people feel the need to raise awareness about it. I personally don't mind, as these articles are far less annoying to me than the latest industry's farts and could actually lead to some change.


I think it's important that awareness of this is maintained. Not so much for "Swartz" himself, but for the potential this has to reform copyright in the U.S, and thus encourage others to follow suite


I'm looking forward to the Abelson MIT report; other than that I don't anticipate any new information, and thus no "news" value.


I know many of you are getting tired of articles about him. But I still find this article really interesting!


Here's an only tangentially related question I've wondered about several times now, reading various articles about this case: his girlfriend's last name is "Stinebrickner-Kauffman", and consistently so. I know of Spanish customs where children get the last names of both parents, but these names don't sound Latino. Is it customary for (sorry if I'm making a wrong assumption there) Israeli/Jewish people to take both last names as well, or had she been married before? (again not to be stalkerish, I don't really care if she had been married - I'm just wondering if there are other cases than in Spain where it's customary to take the name of both parents).


It's not unusual for this to occasionally happen in English-speaking countries, though it is not ubiquitous in the way it is in Spain. Also note that the two names don't necessarily come from her 2 parents; it's quite possible (indeed, likely) that she inherited that name through several generations.


Here's an article on surname patterns in the United States, previously submitted for HN discussion:

http://www.npr.org/2012/07/19/156923573/when-hyphen-boy-meet...


Oh that's interesting, missed that the first time around, thanks.


People move around Europe without changing their last names.


Well this has got to be the most autistic reply in here.


Sorry if it came across that way - it surely wasn't meant as prying into these people's details. I was just wondering about how people end up with the names they have.


The comment thread, by the way, is fantastic. Entertaining seeing what a relatively non-tech crowd (with a few nuts sprinkled in for good measure) has to say about all this.


E.g. - from user Catfitz: "You've put your finger on something I've felt a long time about life and death of Swartz and his case -- there's an authoritarian arrogance there about hacking and stealing 4 million articles to decide for other people, the JSTOR system and the universities and scholars who participate in it, how they should live -- and be forcibly "liberated" as he "expropriates from the expropriators" like a common Bolshevik. This is dressed up in so much talk of "free" and "open" that people forget that it bears all the signs of technocommunism -- everyone is to be forced to work for free and share everything in a collective farm. How will costs be met?"


If you ever played computer games you will know: Having one healer you can heal everyone but that healer; Having two healers you can heal just everyone.


Could the guy responsible for making the contents of his hd available online do it so. Use the dd command by the way, don't just copy files.


I like all the stories about him. It is like seeing him from a different angle every time. Pieces by pieces, I start to see the whole picture. I feel I understand more of him each time. But at the same time, I feel there are more and more things I still don't know about him.


Great article. The most interesting part for me is that the JSTOR servers couldn't sustain continuous download from a wireless connection. If only they have more competent developers...


Seems like writing about Aaron Swartz still generates traffic.


"Aaron Swartz wanted to save the world, so why couldn't he save himself?"

...Really? There are implicit assumptions in that title, and the way in which it was presented, which I find somewhat disrespectful.

Why do we need to question that he couldn't "save himself"? Why do we need to assume he had that responsibility at all?

And why does attempting to save the world beg the question of inability to save oneself?

The answer: it's just a title to get you to read it, hoping to have enough pathos that you don't think too critically about it.

Why do we force ourselves to take on the burden of overanalyzing the man? It's obviously a sad passing, but people are dwelling on it in what I believe to be the wrong way. Stop questioning and just appreciate for its own sake. It wasn't preventable. At least not for the reporters and readers of these articles. And I'm sure his loved ones are not appreciating news articles that implicitly try to find something wrong - it delays peace.


The full title is: "The idealist: Aaron Swartz wanted to save the world, so why couldn't he save himself"

The article itself, is good journalism in the in-depth detailed vein. After finishing it, I found the question in the title to be relevant.

There was no over-analysis of the man.

edit: missing quotation marks.


I agree with you, I have no difficulty with the article itself. The article was well-written.

And while this is admittedly subjective, I find the title itself to invite the sort of things I mentioned above, borderline to link-bait.


Maybe he did, only our reservation of what he did prevents us to recognize that.




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