“Back in the day” I used to know some pretty amazing people. I still know-of them, like in the way everyone does now. We know their names. Might recognize their faces. We use their platforms and software. The things they create are what we use everyday to share our photos, blogs, ideas, and other articles. I presented on panels with them, I posed questions at their Q&As, I went to cons, stayed up talking all night in what seems like another lifetime. I have been online for over half my life. I remember java chat forms, when AOL was cool, IRC, ICQ, and various online forums and communities. Some of the best experiences I’ve had offline are products of the internet. Some of the sweetest memories of youth are with boys who created these things. I’d never say the tech community is perfect. Yes, they were brilliant boys and yes they were also sometimes misogynist assholes. It’s sometimes hard to reconcile knowing how brilliant they are and being inspired to be creative in your own way, with their encouragement and support, while also being the chick one of them is planning on taking back to their room.
My own history with the community aside, Aaron Swartz‘s suicide hurts. Not because he was such a nice guy, or anything, truthfully I’m sure he was and I’m sure we’ve been at the same places with the same people and I don’t remember. In other places on the internet we have been on opposite and sometimes the same sides in debates and forums. It hurts because Swartz was taken down, not just by mental illness (though I’ll address that) but by outside forces. Swartz’s suicide was prompted by a federal court cases prosecuted at the federal government’s whim as if this brilliant American kid were an real terrorist. Swartz faced an insurmountable task and I’m not sure you can call it “mental illness” when realistically, logically: you are sky-high and fucked. Does that make right to take your own life? I can’t answer that. I can say that if you are facing down a federal court trial and you have nothing to do but watch as the government first financially devastates not just you, but then your family, and then go to prison: I can see how you would come of the conclusion to commit suicide and I don’t think it’s crazy. Abbie Hoffman went underground in the 1970s but in this digital age there’s no such thing as “underground” – and there’s no such thing as a fresh start. Trust me you DON’T want to be labeled a felon. Not if you want to work again.
We have come a long way since the 1970s both legally and culturally, some ways good and some ways bad. This is an example of the bad. We punish vandals and vagrants like murderers: the real murderers and thieves are safe and happy in their homes with their private security around the gates. Swartz made a logical, if brutal decision faced with this new and brutal world designed to destroy its young to protect the old and dying order. His act of youthful defiance and insistence that we create new and equal world with equal access to information was smashed by the system that benefits from keeping individuals in the United States and entire nations ignorant. Releasing academic articles to the public while problematic and against the rules, certainly is not a federal crime. It is definitely not if you didn’t actually release the information but only downloaded it. Legally downloaded even from a database you had access to. I won’t tell you how many articles I have downloaded to this hard drive right now. But that’s not the point is it? Because someone, somewhere was out to get Aaron maybe for SOPA and maybe because they really thought he was a threat if he would steal JSTOR articles and release them so bloggers like me can quit paying for college classes just to have access to their libraries what next? Or worse, if the articles were released students in poorer countries might have access to the fountains of knowledge of the Western world. Why would all of that be frightening it? Easy, because information is NOT free in America.
As a disenfranchised Gen Y slacker, it hurt to see one of my peers get taken down by the old system. As an activist, it hurt to see a cause be effectively silenced, if not defeated. As a girl who has loved hacker boys – more than programing and computers, I loved the sweet brilliant boys who encouraged my talents – it hurt to think it could have been any one of them. Those boys who have sent terrifying text messages talking about suicide in the middle of the night. Those boys who cried themselves to sleep in my dorm room bed after sex. Those boys who have called from across the country to say they’re tired, cold, stressed out, and all alone: just wanting someone to hear them and CARE. They have been also some of the kindest souls and sweetest guys I’ve known too: sensitive and fragile even. One word could literally destroy them, as “that girl they’re seeing” one quickly learns to choose words carefully. The tech world is brutal. To succeed takes so much focus and effort and while if it works it pays off in the end, when it doesn’t the effects can be devastating. Swartz was, I’m sure, just as wonderful and invariably as much of a misogynist asshole like those boys. We lost a wonderful, brilliant mind – I can only hope we can learn from this as a whole society before we lose more. As I light a candle to remember Swartz, I also pray that the next hacker name in the paper going to jail or committing suicide won’t be one close to my heart.