It was with a great mixture of anger and sadness that I read the story this week of the passing of Aaron Swartz. A lot of people have speculated on what may have set off the suicide which ultimately took his life but certainly the spectre of a malicious prosecution for a crime which was arguably not only victimless but served a noble greater purpose that should be deemed civil disobedience at worst and a fundamental right of a free world at best must have put significant stress on a young man who already suffered from depression and could well have contributed to his death.
Today the news announced that M.I.T. has launched an internal investigation into how they handled Aaron's case – an investigation that, based on the comments from the news, is pushing MIT back to reflection on it's once-proud roots as a hive of the free exchange of knowledge which Aaron so deeply believed in.
If some good might come out of this tragic loss to the free software and free culture communities – it may be to give those who still believe in the open culture that made MIT great the ammunition to fight back against the conservative pundits who have been demanding an ever more "like a business" approach from universities and stifling the very sharing of knowledge that forms the heart of all research.
But is it worth his life ? Was it a cause worth dying for – especially since he had no way of knowing that such an outcome may happen and we can probably assume that he didn't do it for the sake of his cause, but because he had given up on himself (and with that on his contribution to that very cause: which is ironic considering how great his contributions have been – this is the man who helped invent RSS after all).
Can the actions of MIT today make it worth while ? I say – certainly not. But perhaps it can give some justice and closure to his loved ones. That the wrong actions of MIT against Aaron which ultimately contributed to his death might lead to them at least realizing that those actions were, in fact, wrong and ceasing in such approaches towards others.
Aaron did not die for a cause. He was killed by a disease. He suffered from depression and ultimately, like so many others, he succumbed to it. I wish he had sought help instead of taking that step, he had so much left to give the world (as ungrateful as that world may have been) and his loss is a tragedy for our community of immense proportions (now considering that it must be infinitely larger for his loved ones I cannot begin to imagine what they are going through). No, his death was not act of heroism, and trying to explain it away that way would be cowardly and wrong.
But it could perhaps, be a warning – a warning to those whose thoughts cycle around ending their lives that they should seek help – that help exists and is worth asking for (I speak from personal experience). I could perhaps be a rallying to change. I am by no means suggesting that we turn Aaron into a martyr – that would be a violation of his dignity and exploitation of his loved ones, instead I am saying: this young man believed in a better world. A world where academic knowledge was freely shared, a world without censorship, in his honour – we must continue the fight for the world he believed in.
Aaron wanted that world but he didn't live to see it, those of us who share his belief should redouble our efforts in the wake of this tragedy. Not to dwell on how he died, but to continue the fight to realize that for which he had lived.