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What The New Yorker doesn’t say about Aaron

I first read Larissa MacFarquhar’s New Yorker article on Aaron Swartz too quickly. But it doesn’t skim well. I found that encouraging.

I finally sat down to read it thoroughly a couple of days ago, and liked it very much. It’s beautifully written. More important, she does not have an hypothesis to bolster or an explanation to flog. She begins and ends with long quotes from the people around Aaron, without commenting on them. She is not arguing that he killed himself because he was clinically depressed — with the political subtext that comes from that reading — and she is not arguing that he killed himself because grownups overly burdened him, or even because of prosecutorial overreach. Larissa lets Aaron, his friends, and his family speak for themselves.

You come out of the piece with the idea that Aaron was complex, and that life wasn’t easy for him. The writer of the article’s subhead over-simplifies this into the sort of simple Theory of Aaron that the article itself avoids: “Aaron Swartz was brilliant and beloved. But the people who knew him best saw a darker side.” The article is more about complexity than darkness. It ties Aaron’s path from idea to cause to his moral commitments and to his many-cornered personality. Given the impossibility of capturing any human life in words, it does a good job.

But in the days after reading it, I’ve been bothered by something that Larissa leaves out. You don’t come out of it with a sense of what Aaron accomplished or of the impact of those accomplishments. I understand that Larissa was not attempting to write the definitive biography, and that she was more interested in exploring Aaron’s character in the context of those who loved him. But I’m afraid that a reader who comes to her article without knowing what Aaron actually did will leave with the impression that Aaron was too feckless and inconstant to translate his passions into achievement.

If Larissa decides to turn her article into a book, it will be important to bring readers to understand the maturity of Aaron’s achievements. Without that, a portrait of Aaron — no matter how open and beautiful — is necessarily misleading.

6 Responses to “What The New Yorker doesn’t say about Aaron”

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  2. Thanks for writing this, I’ve been bugged by this lack in nearly al of the articles that I’ve read about Aaron, which is excusable in the shorter ones, but there have been plenty of long ones that give no sense of the breadth and depth of what he had already done, and what he was up to generally. Here’s the best article I’ve run across covering his non-tech work – – curious what you think of it, and if you have come across any similar or better capturings online of his work.

  3. Thanks again – this actually prompted me to finally write something that has been gestating in me since Aaron died, on the personal development journey he had started last August, which I haven’t heard referenced much if at all in all of what I’ve read about him this year:

  4. What did Aaron Swartz accomplish? He was a corporate astroturfer — or, perhaps, a “useful idiot” — for Google, which spearheaded the anti-SOPA movement because it might cause copyrights to be enforced. He broke into computer systems to steal data. And then, when confronted with prosecution for hhis criminal activities, he committed suicide. There is nothing noble in this. Aaaron’s is the tragic case of a self-styled “activist” who broke the law and then couldn’t take the heat when he was caught.

  5. I probably shouldn’t do this, but Brett:

    1) The vast majority of Aaron’s work – syndication (“RSS”), Reddit, Creative Commons, general politics – took place either before Google got heavily into lobbying, or didn’t have anything to do with Google. Note, I know Google now supports Creative Commons extensively. But when CC was first getting started, they didn’t have much to do with one another except in a very vague way (at the start, CC was driven by copyright term extension opposition, which wasn’t a Google concern).
    Google also hardly cares much about academic journals (very little ad revenue there).
    Don’t project the current hot YouTube battles years back, into in the past.

    2) Is any activist who does even the smallest arguable legal violation morally obligated then to smile while having their life destroyed? That is, is there no sense of proportion in your framework? By the way, you do know that the State physical breaking-and-entering charges were dropped, right? (likely because some key elements required for criminal conviction would probably fail).

    This second part really bothers me. It was one of the aspects which was used to destroy my censorware decryption research. The idea that, if you do anything, take any risk, and the system comes down on you like a ton of bricks, there’s a legion of scolds then ready to finger-wag at you, “Nyah, nyah, nyah, TAKE IT TAKE IT TAKE IT!!!”. Even aside from any possible issues of clinical depression, that sort of thing is very stressful.

  6. Dear Brett,

    If you took the time to read and learn about the events that unfolded earlier during the SOPA campaign, your opinion would probably be very different.

    Arriving here as a guest in a time of sorrow for many of us, adding insult to injury, putting together a crass display of stubborn ignorance and insensitive demeanour is something you would have probably wanted to avoid doing, had you been aware of the things you ignore, and had you been aware of the things you do.

    For your information, the impression you make is similar to that caused by the occasional errant, ranting madman, arriving in a funeral without a clear notion of what’s going on, who has passed away, or the unfortunate circumstances you happen to have crashed into.

    I don’t hope that you read or understand this, but maybe others can avoid uninformed crashing in the future, if only for the sake of their own dignity.

    Best regards,


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