Wednesday, October 17, 2018

‘But there are dreams that cannot be And there are storms we cannot weather.’ Of Aaron Swartz, 26, Internet visionary. Dead by his own hand, January 11, 2013.

January 10, 2014 by  

Author’s program note. Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman and Aaron Swartz had been an item for 18 months or so. She was sharply aware of the dark melancholy that could come at any time out of nowhere, seizing him, casting him into a despair without end, without mercy, without reason and with utterly no hope whatsoever. It was always frightening for both of them because it left both exhausted, anxious, never knowing when it might return… only to stay forever, locking her out and him within, lovers separated by bleak futility. So were their young lives and love blighted and made uncertain.

On Friday, January 11, Taren was up, getting ready for work. Aaron was still in bed. Instinctively, she knew that if she could get him up, entice a little food in him, put a smile on his pale face, he was better positioned to meet another day and his particular demons. And so as she told The Boston Globe in a telephone interview, “I really tried everything I could think of to get him out of bed. I opened the curtains, played music, tickled him, and eventually it got to the point of throwing water on him.” Nothing worked. She was terribly worried… knew he was in a “really difficult place” with his trial dead ahead… didn’t want to leave him, was already late for work.

He smiled and told her he needed rest, that he’d be fine, that he’d stay in bed and sleep. Yes, he’d be fine, urging her on her way. Then he smiled again, perhaps the last smile of his young life. So she smiled and shut the door. He and the melancholy he called “Raw Nerve” were now alone together… together with God Almighty, omniscient, omnipotent, omniparous…

Throughout the morning, Taren texted him with affectionate messages and the ideas he loved. There was no answer, no response at all to the concern of his beloved. Nor to anything else. Aaron, firebrand, computer prodigy, revolutionary, lover of humanity, seeker after truth… was already beyond the cares of men, free of even the miseries that had assailed him just minutes before, turning life into unendurable burden.

At last, and by his own determined hand, he was at peace… the countenance of God lighting his way, lightening his load; inscrutable no longer but welcoming, accepting, the God of eternal love.

“I Dreamed a Dream.”

For this tale of our wired times and one of its gifted creators gone awry, now gone forever, I have selected one of the greatest achievements from the fertile partnership of Claude-Michel Schonberg (music) and Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel (lyrics). It is “I Dreamed a Dream” from “Les Miserables” (1985). It is a tune that bites deep and makes the tears run hot and fast, for like Fantine we have all believed… and been disillusioned; loved and been abandoned; given and been spurned…

… oppressed by “dreams that cannot be And… storms we cannot weather.”  Thus we have all known our own particular version of Aaron Swartz’ story… and can therefore attest to its validity… and its excruciating pain, searing, so fundamental a part of our human experience. You’ll find many fine versions in any search engine. Go now… and let it move you.

Aaron’s story.

Swartz was born November 8, 1986 in Chicago, the son of Susan and Robert Swartz. His father had founded a software company and from an early day young Aaron was obsessed by technology, ardently studying computers, the Internet and its unique culture. When he was just 13, Swartz was a winner of the ArsDigita Prize, a competition for young people who created “useful, educational, and collaborative” Web sites.

The prize included a trip to Cambridge, Massachusetts to the august Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Thus, unknowingly on both sides, did the protagonist of the tale, American computer programmer, writer, political organizer and Internet activist and the “scene of the crime” come together in an uneasy embrace, from which even death did not part them.

MIT, of course, citadel of America’s technical might and constant innovation, knew prodigies of course; they were common along Massachusetts Avenue in the inelegant concrete bunkers which disdained any grace or artistry whatsoever. Harvard students, on the other side of Central Square, might sniff and condescend to the “nerds” but these nerds wore their social awkwardness and bad manners like the red badge of courage. They knew that the planet’s future and the well being of millions would be shaped by them, however socially inept, ill at ease, unwashed and disheveled they might be.

Swartz, slight, a wisp of a lad, looking like a child up too late, hair an outrageous mop, eager to know you, befriend you, learn from you loved the 24-hour-a-day, projects-always-percolating environment. Its high energy, high stakes, high destiny lifestyle grabbed him like fly paper. He was to this manner born… and it took him, quirks and all, to its ample and exuberant heart. Aaron was home…

“I dreamed a dream in days gone by/ When hope was high / And life worth living”

To understand what happened next you must know something of the Internet, something of the tech community and something about MIT, at once corporate giant and bubbling cauldron of constantly new and exciting ideas. It is a place of the youthful enthusiasm that only comes once in life; a place where the best and the brightest constantly advance, discuss, shape and discard ideas, all night, all day, thereby inventing our future.

It is a place where change, transforming change, is the object of the day and the ideas of the past, no matter how serviceable they may once have been, are derided as old hat and unapologetically cast aside, only to be replaced in their turn.

Swartz loved this culture and its unending focus on making the world, in every aspect, better and better still. He approached this objective from many directions for he was a man glad to share, hoping you’d share with him as people were generally glad to do. Sharing, not selling, information became his mantra… and his downfall; increasingly because what he “shared” did not belong to him, was not his to give.

In late 2010 and early 2011, Swartz downloaded about 4 million documents from the JSTOR (“Journal Storage”) archives. In the process he crashed some of JSTOR’s servers. By now a host of people were involved in this matter, including officials at MIT, JSTOR… and the FBI.

On January 6, 2011 Swartz got the knock on the door he must have hoped would never come. He was arrested and charged by Carmen Ortiz, U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, with wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer and recklessly damaging a protected computer.

This was a felony charge; the kind of charge major criminals get. Not least the kind of charge which, if proven, would deprive Swartz of his right to vote, give him up to 35 years in prison and a million in fines.

All of a sudden the world was a very different place, threatening, ominous, determined to crush and obliterate.

“I had a dream my life would be/ So different from this hell I’m living.”

Once Swartz was arrested all the characters of the final chapter began to assemble… Aaron’s lawyers and supporters… prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s office and other law enforcement agencies… representatives of JSTOR and MIT… partisans of the prosecutors who wanted to “make an example” and his supporters who cited his previous squeaky clean record and willingness to sign an agreement not to do anything like this again.

But perhaps most important of all there was “Raw Nerve” which wiped out all hope and exacerbated all despair until Aaron Swartz bore only a semblance to the high energy, far seeing, joyful reformer he had once been, and not so long ago.

Now was the moment for humanity… to read Swartz the riot act for he had transgressed… but without locking him away for even the four to six months proposed; convicted felon; no right to vote ever again. Now was the moment for empathy… for understanding… for an appropriate deal; a deal that would admonish Swartz without destroying him… for the nation needs such audacious thinkers with their profound knowledge of the Internet, its technology, and its burgeoning uses.

Where was this person? How could so many who knew Aaron and his plight see him and yet fail to perceive his need… how could this happen?

“There was a time when men were kind/ When their voices were soft/ And their words inviting… /There was a time/ Then it all went wrong.” No more so than with Aaron Swartz..

Envoi, Aaron’s words, his timeless warning to us…

“And it will happen again; sure, it will have another name, and maybe a different excuse, and probably do its damage in a different way, but make no mistake, the enemies of the freedom to connect have not disappeared. The fire in those politicians’ eyes has not been put out.”

Thus does dead Aaron Swartz, far too soon taken, show us what we must do. Now we must do it and keep the faith.

by Dr. Jeffrey Lant

About the Author

Harvard-educated Dr. Jeffrey Lant is CEO of Worldprofit, Inc., providing a wide range of online services for small and-home based businesses. Services include home business training, affiliate marketing training, earn-at-home programs, traffic tools, advertising, webcasting, hosting, design, WordPress Blogs and more. Find out why Worldprofit is considered the # 1 online Home Business Training program by getting a free Associate Membership today at: http://20waystoprofit.com/associates

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