The rise and tragic fall of “hacktivist” Aaron Swartz, “America’s youngest public-domain enthusiast.”
Aaron Swartz was a shy computer prodigy who couldn’t bear to be constrained by institutional hierarchies. As a teen, he was already an independent thinker, programmer, writer, and activist deeply concerned with free and open access to information for the public good. Raised in a moneyed Chicago suburb, he came of age during the vehement first battles over music downloading, the canary in the Internet mine. Swartz’s tragically shortened life was defined by the clash between his idealistic beliefs about “free culture” and the ever-morphing laws governing intellectual property. Two forthcoming books slated for release on the third anniversary of his death take thoughtful, caring measure of Swartz, his extraordinary achievements, and the overly aggressive prosecution that led to his suicide at age 26.
The Boy Who Could Change the World is a remarkably substantial collection of writings given the terrible brevity of Swartz’s intellectually daring life, from his geeky ardor for code to his collaborative, web-driven dreams of saving the world. Swartz’s mentor and friend, Lawrence Lessig, a professor of law at Harvard and U.S. presidential candidate, introduces the collection, in which Swartz reveals himself to be ardently inquisitive, self-deprecating, funny, brilliant, radical, and quixotic. The book organizes his writings according to his primary fascinations: computers, politics, and free culture, the last a concept rooted in the belief that access to knowledge and the ability to use it constitute the way to empowerment and justice. Swartz’s multifaceted activism included orchestrating massive online petitions protesting copyright and antipiracy bills. Swartz also wrote passionately about books (Kafka and David Foster Wallace were particular favorites), magazines, movies, music, and education. Each section is preceded by an illuminating essay by Swartz’s associates, including science fiction writer Cory Doctorow, Slate columnist David Auerbach, and David Segal, with whom Swartz cofounded the activism organization, Demand Progress.
For all his lofty ideals about open access, Swartz chose
an ignoble form of digital civil disobedience.
Journalist Peters tells Swartz’s story in full in The Idealist: Aaron Swartz and the Rise of Free Culture on the Internet. In this impressively nimble and engrossing big-picture biography, Peters places hacktivist Swartz within a pantheon of intellectual property trailblazers and presents a colorful history of American publishing, public libraries, censorship, and copyright law. He begins with Noah Webster, the founding editor of New York City’s first daily newspaper, an author’s rights champion in a time of brazen pirate publishers, and the determined compiler of the revolutionary American Dictionary of the English Language. Peters is equally intrigued by Henry Putnam, who served for 40 years as a progressive librarian of Congress. Moving forward to the first wave of “digital utopians,” Peters profiles Michael Hart, founder of Project Gutenberg, and tracks the drama and irony implicit in the coevolution of the digital realm and the laws meant to control it.
As “America’s youngest public-domain enthusiast,” eighth-grader Swartz came up with a crowd-sourced encyclopedia that predated Wikipedia. He dropped out of his private high school, then followed Lessig to Stanford University, but college was also a disappointment. This painfully self-conscious, articulate, dogmatic, finicky “free culture” advocate maintained a spiky, popular blog, worked for the online startup Reddit, and became a millionaire when it was bought by Condé Nast. Swartz then launched a succession of innovative and impactive activist websites, and in 2008 put his name to a text that fatally complicated his ensuing legal nightmare, the “Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto.”
For all his lofty ideals about open access, Swartz chose an ignoble form of digital civil disobedience, the massive downloading of scientific journals on JSTOR, an online journal storage site. He got caught, and as the humiliating and alarming investigation rolled on, this brainy, influential activist was charged with 13 felonies in an act of legal grandstanding and overkill. Even JSTOR objected to the severity of the indictment, and many felt sure that Swartz would prevail. But he became increasingly terrified, ashamed, and hopeless and, as always, chose to go his own way, taking his life in January 2013.
All that fascinated, concerned, inspired, and provoked Swartz remains complex and in flux, problematic and promising as every facet of our lives is yoked to the Internet, and we struggle with issues of privacy, security, livelihood, and sociopolitical power. Swartz’s writings and Peters’ historically grounded and deeply involving biography illuminate the roots of today’s thorny quandaries.
This review first appeared in the December 1, 2015, issue of Booklist.