Aaron Swartz, 1986—2013

by Kieran Healy on January 12, 2013

I just woke up to the terrible news that Aaron Swartz took his own life yesterday. He was twenty six years old. I don’t have much else to say at the moment other than that I am so, so sorry. Aaron was such a force for good in the world.



Katherine 01.12.13 at 11:03 am

I just read about the news myself. I’m not sure I was 100% with him but I appreciated what he was standing up for. How dreadful.


Slerik 01.12.13 at 11:05 am

This is awful.


Henry 01.12.13 at 12:34 pm

This is truly, truly terrible news. He was brilliant, sweet and utterly decent.


Chris Bertram 01.12.13 at 12:55 pm

So sorry to hear this.


Barry Freed 01.12.13 at 1:36 pm

Oh my god. That is horrible, horrible news. Just awful. My heart goes out to his family and close friends. Oh how terrible.


Hidden Heart 01.12.13 at 2:49 pm

Oh no. Depression is so damnably insidious, and suicide is such a terrible burden on the survivors. I hope that people are there to see that family and friends get some good support and counsel right away.


Substance McGravitas 01.12.13 at 3:27 pm

Thanks for the good work Aaron.


Daily and forever thankful RSS user 01.12.13 at 3:44 pm

Depression is cruel. It’s very sad news and a very sad day. The Earth has a very limited supply of gentle, talented people. Aaron Swartz has been in my little personal pantheon for a long time and will stay there for ever.


geo 01.12.13 at 3:55 pm

To know him was to love him. Goodbye, Aaron.


Salient 01.12.13 at 3:57 pm

…this is painful news. god, Aaron, we’ll miss you. <3


LFC 01.12.13 at 4:04 pm

I didn’t know him but I echo the comments above.


Main Street Muse 01.12.13 at 4:36 pm

He was a brilliant young man. This is a terrible loss.

A friend of mine killed herself two years ago. What I learned from that – the pain she felt was unimaginable to the rest of us who loved her. Utterly unimaginable. And that the pain she felt was as devastating, as debilitating and as terminal as pancreatic cancer.


js. 01.12.13 at 5:18 pm

Terribly sorry to hear. Didn’t know him, but always very much enjoyed his stuff. Depressing really.


Phil 01.12.13 at 5:29 pm

What awful, awful news. I didn’t always think Aaron’s tactics were wise, but I always thought – knew – he was one of the good guys. A dreadful loss.


rageahol 01.12.13 at 5:51 pm

This is absolutely terrible news. I didn’t know Mr. Swartz, but I definitely thought of him as one of the good guys.


tomslee 01.12.13 at 6:07 pm

I do hope that today’s outpouring of sadness and admiration is a little consolation for his loved ones, showing a little of what Aaron achieved and the number of people he reached. Like many others, I never met him but did bump into him virtually a few times. I was shocked by his precocity, challenged by his creativity and, more importantly, hugely impressed by his obvious commitment and integrity.


rageahol 01.12.13 at 6:22 pm

I want to be mindful of the grieving process, but I do hope that this horrible event can catalyze a broader discussion of IP and its value to society. Mr. Swartz was prosecuted for domestic violations of copyright, but the US also aggressively pursues IP maximalist policies at the international level, which leads to many more people in low and middle income countries dying for lack of essential medicines.

I wish I had the facility with language to say that in a softer way.


Neville Morley 01.12.13 at 6:43 pm

Above all, this is very sad. This may not be an event that transforms the debate, even if it should, but I do think it’s something that will not be forgotten in ten years’ time.


engels 01.12.13 at 10:45 pm

Terribly sad news.


Eli Rabett 01.12.13 at 11:33 pm

The person responsible for persecuting Aaron Swartz is Carmen M. Ortiz. In addition to mentioning her moral responsibility in every post and comment about Swartz, who was an immense source of good on the net, having, among other things, invented the RSS reader, we need to petition the White House asking for an explanation and condemning the Department of Justice and Ms. Ortiz (who will probably want to be a judge at some time in the future). It would be a fitting memorial if we could get 25K+ signatures.


TLG 01.13.13 at 1:08 am

About your website in September – “Nobody is more thoughtful, erudite, and funny at the same time.”


mek 01.13.13 at 2:27 am

The family has made a statement, which is remarkable insofar as it does not mention depression and blames prosecutors and MIT in part for his death. Good for them, really. This is a monstrous tragedy, wherein the tools of “justice” have been used to quell legitimate dissent and support a despicable status quo.


Main Street Muse 01.13.13 at 2:49 am

I do not understand why downloading a slew of academic articles was a crime worthy of up to 50 years in jail + a million dollar fine (http://bit.ly/13qPXoo) – and people who crashed the economy and laundered money (http://to.pbs.org/V1vAOo) are not at all held accountable.

But as Lawrence Lessig said (http://bit.ly/13qPXoo), “For remember, we live in a world where the architects of the financial crisis regularly dine at the White House — and where even those brought to ‘justice’ never even have to admit any wrongdoing, let alone be labeled ‘felons.'”


Peter Murphy 01.13.13 at 3:08 am

Aaron Schwarz co-authored the RSS spec. But doing at at the age of 14 is worthy of note in itself, and he later became the sole maintainer for the specification.


Charles Peterson 01.13.13 at 7:35 am

Somehow, just looking at Wikipedia and other sites, including Swartz own website, I see nothing about him that seems to indicate depression, irrationality, or tendency toward suicide. (Of course I have no particular expertise in such judgements or personal knowledge of Mr Swartz.) The alleged crime looks almost insignificant, even in an upside down legal system. The prosecution of Arron Swartz would not have gone unnoticed.

I want to see the suicide allegation proven.


PGD 01.13.13 at 7:43 am

This is about persecution, not depression.


nick s 01.13.13 at 5:50 pm

I see nothing about him that seems to indicate depression, irrationality, or tendency toward suicide.

Oh, for crying out loud, it’s there if you take more than three seconds, so please, could you not tinfoil-plate things? As PGD says, this is about a thuggish prosecutor who wanted to break Aaron Swartz and his circle. Well done, that man.


Tim Wilkinson 01.16.13 at 4:25 pm

**Anyone who is personally mourning AS may not wish to consider what follows, and I apologise if my comments cause some – presumably relatively minuscule – increment of distress to anyone who does so.**

nick s: The accusation of tinfoilery is, as you are aware, one of the most effective smears among the educated classes, and a great way to close down discussion of parapolitical realities.

The link you provide is actually about the misery associated with an eating disorder – and is of course fiction. There are other writings on that site about such adolescent anguish, mentioning depression – and ‘depressed mood’ – so far as I can see, all from to the same period back in 2007. I have seen nothing to suggest AS was ever diagnosed with clinical depression, and no first-hand account suggesting he suffered from the condition, certainly not recently.

Instead, I see a lot of speculation presented as settled fact, musing about his supposed depression. That’s not to say he wasn’t depressed, even diagnosed with clinical depression – but much of the willingness to pick up the depression theme and run with it seems to be based on an inference from suicide to depression. That may be fair enough so far as it goes, but can’t licence an inference in the opposite direction.

Unfortunately the climate underlying your display of exasperation means that anyone who has a history of depression (even an episode of unknown severity, many years earlier, at the age of about 20) – that is perhaps 15% of the population – can be suicided with impunity, with all doubts ruthlessly (self-) censored by the guardians of acceptable discourse.

People with a prior diagnosis of depression are more likely than others to commit suicide. So finding that a person has some history of depression should certainly, cet. par., increase one’s credence that they committed suicide, if one knows only that they have died and no more. If one knows that it was apparently suicide, and the only alternative possibility – disguised murder – is in itself considered too implausible (foil-hatted) to consider, then speculation about depression is going to have a vanishingly slight theoretical influence, and no operative influence, on one’s conclusion.

In the case of a death known to be apparent suicide, though, the choice is between actual suicide and deliberately concealed and disguised murder. If a murder hypothesis is to be countenanced and evaluated for credibility (as your appeal to the evidence for depression tends to concede it might be) the methods used to do so must take cognisance of the ‘hostile epistemic environment’ intentionally created by clandestine assassins with knowledge of what kind of death is likely to appear most plausible.

If the victim is older or has a history of cardiovascular ill health, then a heart attack might be induced. If the victim flies light aircraft, a crash might be arranged. If the victim uses depressants like barbs, opiates or alcohol, an overdose might be arranged.

The fact that a person has a public profile suggestive of depression tends to increase the credibility of the proposition that they committed suicide, but also to increase the credibility of the proposition that their suicide would be faked. In cases like this, where it’s known that there was an apparent suicide, these two tendencies push in opposite directions: they might cancel out so as to render no change in relative credences, or either one might outweight the other so as to give a (small) net change in either direction. In any case this is a probabilistic and relatively abstract argument, and has to go into the mix alongside circumstantial considerations relating to possible perpetrators and, more importantly, relatively hard evidence about the actual circumstances of death. If the possibility of foul play is discounted from the outset, such evidence is unlikely to be gathered and made public.

The fact is that it is not that hard for a powerful constituency to arrange a fake suicide without leaving conclusive evidence. All down the line, from police to coroners to the media to blog comments, influence can be and often is exerted – including, for a whole raft of reasons, by those with no involvement or knowledge of the operation – so as to prevent suspicions from being substantiated or even expressed. (Like it or not, the hostile epistemic environment generated by the live possibility of deception means the usual – not always very cogent in any case – stuff about ‘falsifiability’ or ‘Occam’s razor’ tends to be inapplicable.)

Re: the warning at the top of this comment – I’ve noticed that it’s very often third parties with dubious motives who express such concern – often very aggressively – on behalf of relatives, the presumption of whose distress conveniently outweighs the need for an inquest, etc. (Only allegations of possible foul play are capable of making an inquest so intolerable for the relatives, of course – everyone else just has to put up with it, as do the relatives of the alleged victim in murder trials, etc etc.)

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