A brilliant tech wizard meets a sad end

One would think the world of technology wouldn’t have the kind of darkness we would see in say, the entertainment business, or in many regular walks of life.

After all, if you understand technology, you can change the world, and write your own check as well. But as we all know all too well, depression hits people everywhere, and it was one factor that caused Aaron Swartz to end his life at the end of 26. 

For those who aren’t technology inclined, Swartz has been termed an “Internet activist” throughout the press reports of his death, and he co-created RSS when he was 14. As the New York Times reports, Swartz became “an Internet folk hero” because he made a big effort to make a lot of web files open to everyone. 

Swartz dropped out of Stanford, and he created a company that eventually merged with Reddit. Then Swartz, like a lot of young tech mavens, got in trouble with the feds. Swartz’s offense was illegally getting into JSTOR, which was an MIT scientific / literary service that was available only by subscription.

For downloading 4.8 million articles, which was practically the whole JSTOR library, Swartz was brought up on charges of wire and computer fraud. According to the Times, Swartz was facing 35 years in prison and a million dollars in fines. (Other reports put his potential sentence at over fifty years and $4 million in fines). 

Swartz fought hard to make a lot of material public like this, and as one professor told the Times, “Aaron built surprising new things that changed the flow of information around the world.” 

Swartz was also a fragile young man who struggled with depression, and one can imagine how scared anyone would be with these kinds of legal problems hanging over their heads. According to Deadline, his trial was coming up next month, and one of his friends told the Times the federal charges “pushed him to exhaustion. It pushed him beyond.” 

Reporting on the widespread reaction to Swartz’s passing, Cnet reposted messages from blogger Cory Doctorow, as well as a statement from Swartz’s family. Doctorow wrote,

“Aaron had an unbeatable combination of political insight, technical skill, and intelligence about people and issues. I think he could have revolutionized American (and worldwide) politics. His legacy may still yet do so.”

The family statement said, in part, “Aaron’s insatiable curiosity, creativity, and brilliance; his reflexive empathy and capacity for selfless, boundless love; his refusal to accept injustice as inevitable – these gifts made the world, and our lives far brighter. We’re grateful for our time with him, to those who loved him and stood with him, and to all of those who continue his work for a better world….Today, we grieve for the extraordinary and irreplaceable man that we have lost.”