Three things about Aaron Swartz:
1. He was extraordinarily precocious and intelligent.
2. He was a militant social-justice activist.
3. He was earnest, emotive, and sensitive.
All three factors make Swartz an extreme representative of a type of person who has only recently been empowered by technology, where raw technical skills can now permit one to wield real societal influence. Prior to the computer/Internet boom, such a person was more likely to become an abstract mathematician, a hobbyist, or a crackpot. The Internet gave Swartz a much bigger voice than would have been possible thirty years ago.
The tech community is often caricatured, not without cause, as a group of libertarian Ayn Rand acolytes, but the savvier among them tend more toward anarchist or progressive principles. Swartz was a less compromising member of a community that had already generated MoveOn and ActBlue. His antecedents include Saul Alinsky, Noam Chomsky, John Kenneth Galbraith, and Alan Sokal.
Swartz’s actions to free information from PACER and JSTOR irritated the government sufficiently that they decided to make an example out of him. Swartz acted out of faith that venality and stupidity could not possibly triumph over what he believed to be the rational self-interest of collective humanity. His faith was not met.
Even before the prosecution, the constant failure of those in power to do right by humanity frustrated Swartz. The frustration is evident in his progressive-pragmatic book reviews. He writes of James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds:
One thing the book does teach (although not clearly) is the wisdom of dissent. You can ensure dissent by collecting a large group and keeping the members from talking to each other (since people are usually smart but afraid of going against the grain), by ensuring some members of the group vocally disagree (since they will force the others to better justify their positions), or by forcing them to try to justify all sides (since that will keep them from prejudging the question).
All of which makes it ironic that Surowiecki’s book fails because of a lack of dissent. Nothing goes against the grain, he doesn’t justify his positions, and he has clearly prejudged the question.… He assumes he is right and only stops to look down upon those who disagree.
This sums up Swartz’s ideology as a self-described “dedicated follower of the left-rationalist-progressive tradition.” Similar anger informs his critiques of higher education, corporations, and government, all of which fall victim to self-satisfied, condescending complacency. For him, computers were the best tool yet invented for raising the volume (in terms of number and amplitude) of voices of dissent against the embedded structures of authority and prejudice. Whatever shortcomings there were in his worldview, it was nonetheless intellectually honest and self-critical.
Yet stupidity’s incessant victories are bound to take a toll on those activists lacking a wholly robust spiritual constitution. As Robert Burton showed at great length four hundred years ago in The Anatomy of Melancholy, an acute combination of intelligence and morality often does foster melancholy—not a clinical mental illness, but a natural intellectual temperament. And Lawrence Lessig points out that Swartz was under far more pressure than most melancholics:
He was depressed because he was increasingly recognizing that the idealism he brought to this fight maybe wasn’t enough. When he saw all of his wealth gone, and he recognized his parents were going to have to mortgage their house so he could afford a lawyer to fight a government that treated him as if he were a 9/11 terrorist, as if what he was doing was threatening the infrastructure of the United States, when he saw that and he recognized how—how incredibly difficult that fight was going to be, of course he was depressed.
Swartz’s antagonists will stigmatize him as mentally ill in order to absolve themselves and dismiss his opinions. It would be more useful to acknowledge that the world does not welcome angry activist melancholics like him, preferring they turn their anger against themselves and go off and become harmless artists, bohemians, or critical theorists. One lesson to take from Swartz’s death is that melancholic maladjustment is a legitimate and even expected response to our society by a painfully intelligent and ethical human being.
This maladjustment, sadly, puts genius melancholics at a great disadvantage against Lloyd Blankfein, Dick Fuld, the Koch brothers, Roger Ailes, Michael Bloomberg, Robert Rubin, and their ilk. There are two wholly opposing sides, one based on a utilitarian progressivism, the other based on exploitative disenfranchisement. They are at war; Swartz is a casualty.