The Aaron Swartz Suicide Note
His parents blame the “overreaching” District Attorney threatening 30+ years incarceration for Swartz’s theft of research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Faced with long prison time and huge fines, his parents claim their outspoken, media savvy son took his life but left no suicide note.
Or maybe they just didn’t look in the right places.
Those who know me, know when it comes to the values of activists, I speak from experience; any dedicated activist like Swartz expects prosecution for their “crimes.” Some would argue they welcome it as vindication.
Which, coupled with recent discoveries: that the DA offered Swartz a plea bargain with a paltry six-month term; that Swartz’s lawyer, Elliot Peters, discouraged the deal– feeling the case was winnable; and an announcement days before the tragedy that MIT was freeing the stolen files and objecting to felony charges, creates frustration for the support of Aaron’s Law, and challenges the image of Swartz as a persecuted victim driven to a desperate act.
Activist/singer, Pete Seeger said of the incident, “… it was a tragedy for this brilliant young man to be so threatened that he hanged himself.”
True. But what we may not agree on, is what exactly threatened him. According to Swartz’s girlfriend, who discovered his body, there was no note, but perhaps in her shock she didn’t look in the right places.
THE VIRTUAL PLEA
Contrary to popular belief suicide notes are rare. Only one in three suicides are accompanied by anything written. Even when one applies a filter to Swartz’s demographic: educated, male and publicly outspoken, there is no certainty. Hemingway left nothing, letting his work speak for itself.
Given Swartz’s canvas of choice I wonder if either the family or the police have asked the following:
What were Swartz’s last computer entries? Did he Google methods of suicide, or were his thoughts elsewhere? What sites did he visit; emails did he send; links did he click on?
His Twitter feed shows nothing since December 8th, two days before his death. Yet he sent daily Tweets to his 12,000+ followers in the weeks prior. Was Swartz trying to cope with something he was hesitant to reveal? Did he email anyone for clarity?
Whatever it was, his final bread crumbs are stored in his now famous Acer lap top.
A virtual suicide note, as it were.
History shows that “note writers” can choose creative mediums if they are creative thinkers:
Sergei Esenin, a Russian poet in 1925 wrote in his own blood before hanging himself, “There’s nothing new in dying now. Though living is no newer.”
And news anchor, Chris Chubbuck in 1974 shot herself in the head during her live broadcast after stating, “And now, in keeping with Channel 40’s policy of always bringing you the latest in blood and guts, in living color, you’re about to see another first– an attempted suicide.”
No rule says you have to pin your note to the refrigerator, “Back in five minutes…” Or something like that.
So far the family has not shared Swartz’s final key-strokes with the public, closing interpretations.
ASKING THE TOUGH QUESTIONS
According to one study a common reason why outspoken people may not leave a note is:
With which survivors might Swartz be angry? Are there clues?
It is intellectually dishonest to ponder Swartz’s wish of a “free and open Internet” yet confine the discussion only to “freeing” academic research or products protected by copyright. Swartz must have seen that hypocrisy speeding towards him. (Especially with SOPA in retrograde.)
Eventually his definition of “free Internet” would have to expand beyond democratizing information. The next logical step would be democratizing how information is filtered in Search, specifically a Google Search.
Or, how about decentralization of access to the Internet itself. The average household spends over $900/year with just a handful of options for access. Why shouldn’t that be free?
And so, what if it turns out that his new idea of “free” no longer romanticized those for whom he once fell on his sword– the Big Data Internet Service Providers? Maybe he began to see, like most adults approaching 30, that freedom is not so black and white?
But, this type of pax humana would surely be in conflict with his mentor, Lawrence Lessig. Swartz’s death has inspired a deep sleeplessness within him. Why? Did Lessig, like others in the movement push Swartz to turn down the plea, but refuse to help him pay for his defense? Does Lessig know that such a revision of ideology would also make more aggressive enemies for his protege than past attacks on musicians, authors, or even MIT; enemies whose tactics Lessig is very familiar?
Maybe from Swartz’s view, to shift his position even slightly would be distressing to family and followers, but to go forward to the next level, too dangerous for himself. On one hand he was being pushed to be defiant, but on the other the word is that the trial was too financially draining. Would no one help him?
Could this be the pressure he was experiencing in the end and not the thought of adding a few more lower-class felonies to his existing felony resume?
If true, he would be in good company. History is rife with prophets who felt trapped between their conscience and benefactors thus preempting their own demise.
Expanding views on a “free Internet” is not easy
when you are already an Internet icon.
There is no criticism intended of his family here . Clearly his inner circle while grieving might not be equipped to entertain theories like this. It’s simpler to maintain the enigma and say, “We didn’t find a note.”
I hope this soon changes.
There is a great deal to be learned from the last actions of a young genius working on the inside rail of the country’s most evolutionary technology. A lesson forever suppressed as long as those controlling the conversation focus on soft targets and ignore the bread crumbs left by a brilliant man’s final interests in life.