Remembering Aaron Swartz Again

There was a memorial service for Aaron in DC last week. Like Rick Perlstein, I wasn’t able to go. Unlike Aaron’s funeral, it was a specifically political event, intended to draw publicity both to Aaron’s causes and the causes of Aaron’s death.

Public deaths are strange. When someone dies, what is left is an imperfect aggregation of different people’s memories, which can never surprise you in the way that the real person could. But when the aggregation of memories is mostly made up of the memories of people who never knew Aaron directly, it is stranger again. The person whom you knew becomes a mythological figure, onto whom others map all sorts of things that may, or may not, have anything to do with the actual individual. It must be much stranger for the people who knew Aaron much better than I did (we were good friends, but not intimate ones).

Some of this comes through when you read what other people make of Aaron’s death. David Byrne, whom I admire enormously for all the obvious reasons, wrote a long piece a couple of days ago on Aaron’s death and gets an awful lot of things wrong. He repeatedly describes Aaron as “disturbed,” which is wildly off the mark, and sees him as a practitioner of civil disobedience who in the end wasn’t prepared to face up to the consequences in the way that real, consistent civil libertarians did.

Both of these claims are badly off. Aaron was as imperfect as any human being, but he certainly wasn’t disturbed. He was one of the most clear thinking people I’ve ever known, devoted to an extraordinary degree to persistent and continual level-headed self-examination. After his death, I’ve found myself coming back again and again to a few lines of the post that he wrote for our seminar on open data. After criticizing the open data movement, he says

Most ideas for helping people that seem reasonable in the abstract, turn out to fall apart upon close confrontation with reality. The real question is what happens then. There’s no shame in admitting your mistakes, learning from them, and trying again. Indeed, as my old professor Carol Dweck has shown, that’s the only real route to success. But most of us are too vain or too proud to take that route. We insist that the purity of our intentions reduces the need for careful scrutiny of our effects. Or we try to make ourselves feel better by grasping at any factoid that suggests we had an impact.

These sentences combine a semi-apology and an apologia. The unstated background is that Aaron had seriously pissed off some people in the open data movement, which he had once espoused, but then turned away from, when he decided that it simply couldn’t do what needed to be done. That we needed not only open information, but structural political change. Aaron’s rapid change of heart made some of his former allies angry, for quite understandable reasons. But his own ethos is perfectly understandable too – that one has to perpetually re-examine one’s life and one’s work, figure out what is working and what is not, and make the necessary changes. In an entirely characteristic way, it mixes together extraordinary self-confidence with radical epistemological humbleness. His description of it certainly isn’t the writing of a disturbed person.

Nor did Aaron set out to be a martyr for civil disobedience. I don’t know his specific motivations for downloading all the data from JSTOR- the legal consequences meant that I never asked. But I do know that he never expected to have to face felony charges and jail time, and had what seemed to him to be good legal reasons for thinking that what he did was legally defensible. What David Byrne is doing, I suspect, without really realizing it, is extrapolating motivations from the myth that Aaron has become and mistakenly attributing them to the person that he actually was.

While this leads, in this case, to some egregious mistakes, I think some version of mythologization is unavoidable. Aaron’s public memory has become less specific individual memories of a concrete person and more generic identification of a person’s name and stylized history with a cause or set of causes. This feels strange to me, but it’s inevitable, and (to the extent that most of these causes were indeed Aaron’s causes) plausibly desirable. The actual Aaron would likely have dropped many of these causes and moved onto others, as he did – he was always politically restless. But the actual Aaron is dead.

I’m not able to talk about his private self – we weren’t the kind of friends who spoke about intimate concerns. However, I do worry that one aspect of his public persona is being lost or underplayed – the extent to which he not only tirelessly worked on various causes and ideas, but built links between them. I don’t know anyone who did as much as he did to bring together the worlds of technology, activism and ideas into contact with each other. He not only built silent connections between individuals in an admirably pragmatic way (e.g. I don’t think that Matt Yglesias and Mike Elk had many other shared interlocutors), but worried that there weren’t enough bridges between the techies who build things, the intellectuals who think about them and the activists who use them, and did everything that he could to bring these worlds together. I was one beneficiary of this – he got me and a couple of other social science types invited to Foo Camp, on the argument that technology people needed to know a lot more about the social sciences (I ended up learning a lot more than I imparted – so it goes), but I know that there were many others. If I had the money and the organizational chops, what I would do in Aaron’s honor would be to organize something like SwartzCamp – a venue where all these kinds of people and others could come together, argue with each other, and help figure out how best to change the world. Since I don’t have either, I’ll do what I can do here and elsewhere to write with Aaron (as he always was) as a key member of my imagined audience. The memory of Aaron Swartz is a piss-poor substitute for the delightful, vexing, always surprising person who has died. But it’s all that we’ve got.

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

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Henry Farrell

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.