More than a hacktivist

Many of you will have heard by now of the tragic death, by suicide, of Aaron Swartz, who was facing felony charges for an alleged attempt to distribute academic articles free of charge. It’s probably inevitable, as Henry Farrell says at Crooked Timber, that coverage of Aaron Swartz’ tragic death will focus narrowly on the story of Aaron as persecuted hacker. My main debt to him is almost entirely outside the tech sphere in which he made such big contributions. Early on in my blogging career, I came across the rightwing myth, that bans on DDT, inspired by Rachel Carson cost millions of lives. In fact, this was one of my first encounters with the rightwing parallel universe with which we are all familiar nowadays. At the time, most people hadn’t woken up to this, and the DDT myth was promulgated with great success. Tim Lambert and I spent years fighting the myth, ending up with this piece in Prospect. Along the way, we discovered the surprising fact that the myth was originally pushed by the tobacco industry, as a flank attack on public health bodies like WHO, which were trying to fight tobacco, and had (quite correctly) scaled back use of DDT, after early campaigns were defeated by the growth of resistance.

A crucial piece of the puzzle came from Aaron, who pointed out the central role of Roger Bate, an all-purpose anti-science activist based at the American Enterprise Institute (he’s largely moved on from DDT these days and is now fighting “counterfeit”, that is, unlicensed, versions of patented drugs). The DDT myth lives on in various corners of the blogosphere and still pops up from time to time in the mainstream media, but it’s now at least as easy to find refutations.

I honestly can’t imagine how someone could pack so much achievement into 26 years. Aaron’s loss is a tragedy for all of us, and the vindictive campaign against him by the Massachusetts prosecutors office (whose head, Carmen M. Ortiz, is regularly mentioned as being destined for higher office) was a crime.

23 thoughts on “More than a hacktivist

  1. Yes in deed PrQ — This is dreadful news. The death of Swartz — someone I’ve spoken about in class when I explain the possibilities of IT to juniors at school — is a terrible loss.

    He was not only, obviously, a very sharp guy, but even more impressively, a guy with an unusual commitment to the public good in one so young and with other lifestyle options.

  2. This is a tragedy.

    John, do you see any similarity between this bullying that’s led to a suicide and any other recent events? I’m not having a go, just asking.

  3. Sadly, as I gather depression may have been central (but not the only variable) to this sad event. It is no respecter of gender, orientation, age or commitment. Beyond the personal suffering of those close to him, we are all diminished by the loss of such people.

  4. Another of Aaron’s achievements (and the one that first brought him to prominence in his early teens) was his co-authoring of the RSS specification, via which many of us subscribe to this blog.

  5. It’s troubling that the state via its judicial arms can bring so much weight to the law. The average citizen can be overwhelmed by the costs of defence and suffers the consequences.

  6. He was also instrumental in stopping the US S.O.P.A. (here in Aus we got it without a whimper from anyone) and in setting up Creative Commons.

    Australia is a joke.

  7. The Slipper and Thomson affairs share some of the same characteristics, the use (and willful abuse) of the legal process for personal gain.

  8. @David Allen

    I’m reminded of the 2GB 2DAY-FM radio hoax that led to a nurse’s suicide, and of the earlier suicide of an Iraq whistleblower (Kelly?) in the UK. The 2DAY-FM thing was just silly and irresponsible, but the UK case is an instance of the power of a vindictive security state to crush lives.

    Of course, some people stand up to this kind of thing better than others. But it seems as if the urge to speak out when others remain silent often goes hand in hand with a vulnerable personality.

  9. Professor Quiggin writes: ” … it seems as if the urge to speak out when others remain silent often goes hand in hand with a vulnerable personality.”

    I think this is a very deep insight. My father was often enough a whistleblower, and eventually he killed himself. Whatever my disagreements with Aaron Swartz, I was shocked both at the earliness and at the manner of his death.

  10. John Quiggin :
    @David Allen
    … and of the earlier suicide of an Iraq whistleblower (Kelly?) in the UK.

    nb. Kelly may have committed suicide but there were suspicious circumstances and credible doubts about the official story.

  11. In the SMH obit which Tom has posted, there is no mention of a wife, a sweetheart, or even siblings. It could well be that Aaron Swartz was not only clinically depressed but, when away from the computer and when not engaged in activism, hideously lonely. Thanks be to God, one close friend of his (Simon Sheikh) is mentioned in the piece.

  12. John @10, Robert @12, at the risk of stating the obvous it’s also usually the case that speaking out when others remain silent, and where there are potentially severe consequences for speaking out, is very psychologically stressful. That said, the kind of person who speaks out is also often the kind of person who is alive to the wrongs of the world in a way which contributes to “rational depression”.

  13. @Bring back Birdy at Catallaxy

    That’s true. There’s also a well attested phenomenon in the mental health literature called “depressive realism”, by which (according to experiments undertaken by two American psychologists, Lauren Alloy and Lyn Abrahamson, in 1979) depressives are actually better at estimating the amount of control they have in a specific situation, than the non-depressed are.

    “Sadder but wiser” in other words. And a useful counter-blast to Oprah-style happy talk.

  14. By the looks of it, he was bipolar. In a manic episode, grandiose thinking and terrible judgement as to consequences go hand in glove – hence, his legal problems. His moods would eventually come crashing down and his legal problems completed a tragic spiral.

    Bipolar people can also be immensely creative and have great energy when they are high but are not actually manic, which does not help with compliance with medications.

  15. On a similar theme Fair Work Australia have issued another 17 subpoenas in an effort to obtain evidence of Craig Thomsons guilt. This is after the failure of the last lot of subpoenas to produce any evidence. At some point FWA has to admit they have no case and withdraw. The effect on Craig Thomson of these allegations must be grinding.

  16. @Bring back Birdy at Catallaxy
    Yes, isolation and stress on those who take on powerful forces is a worthy subject for discussion, yet it is not discussed enough. Virtually by definition, the whistleblower (slight segue) is taking a stand as an individual, without the comfort of group validation, and in fact “betraying” their (work/religion/family etc.) tribe. A most uncomfortable position and a risk to reputation and career: a big price to pay for…honesty. But the benefits to society of their actions can be major: think of the Qld nurse who pushed for action over the Dr Patel situation, or the NSW policeman who broke ranks and was the catalyst for the Royal Commission into institutional child abuse.

    Wider issue here is what structural arrangements are needed to entrench a countervailing power for whistleblowers in society. Despite all the anti-corruption and police integrity commissions, their external status (“come to me and make a complaint”) seems inadequate. From one of my experiences, a smirking clerk at the Auditor-General’s office was not much comfort that the issue would be handled rigorously and confidentially. Without the support I had from a MP of integrity, it probably would have gone into the “disgruntled employee” file.

    Internalising the obligation to blow the whistle into the work culture of public authorities would seem a no-brainer, and it should start by saying the right things. Words from the top people to their staff which solicit and legitimise grievances around abuse of process. Words in position descriptions, combined with user-friendly internal complaint mechanisms which convey independence and professionalism.

    The abominations of Jimmy Saville (a “Sir” no less!) over decades must have been known and whispered about by many, but even the victims (and their parents) for some reason seem to have been ineffectual in finding ways to raise this as a public issue, and stop him. Louis Theroux raised this stuff with him in 1990, but still no followup!

    With the Royal Commission into child abuse to come, it would be a wasted opportunity if it is dominated by chasing down bad guys and the ventilation of personal stories in the interests of healing for those abused, but without a forward looking agenda to heal the institutions whose cancers go unrecognised and treated because there is no “health” plan to improve them. With the UK failure in mind – of the media, all the children’s watchdogs and depts of state, and the police (complaints about Saville from 1959!) – the RC needs to get a better take on why and how this happens, with many institutions responsible. It seems that part of the problem is that some people are “too big to nail”.

  17. Still on the whistleblower theme, Lance A has – sort of – fessed up. (JQ, I’m claiming relevance of this post by grouping hacktivist/crusader/whistleblower together.) As in the other areas where bad guys reigned supreme for too long, there were whispers, rumours and doubts; the cycling correspondent on The Drum tonight mentioned the USMail cyclists taking the top 7 positions during the peloton but shoulders were collectively shrugged. Back in Oct 2012, the president of Cycling Australia called for an amnesty for dopers; one week later his vice president resigns after confessing to doping. Hmm.

    This is just sport – how important is it to social reform? I think it is important because as the “field of dreams” it is fundamental to the way large numbers of us model our behaviour and think about life. I think of kids growing up who adopt puffed up heroes who later fall from grace, and what effect this has on their notions of human potential and social progress. Institutional failure also promotes cynicism amongst youngsters and socialises them into acceptance of a failed and hypocritical world where idealism is a risible value and individualism is all that matters. Seen any of that around? I heard someone say once it’s better to have character rather than be a character, but it’s not the dominant view.

    So, for reformers who want to go beyond whingeing about the foibles and “human nature” of our fellow man, what’s the strategy to improve the institutions which mould their behaviour and values? One aspect of the current “common sense” is that we don’t expect those who benefit from existing arrangements to upset the applecart, as per the cycling saga. Fair enough, but the intrinsic cynicism and pessimism of public choice theory amplifies positivism and discounts normative motivations, and underlines most discourses. (I don’t think this is an argument against the technical role of incentives in economic decisions or policy, which is a subsidiary matter.) Against this, truth telling does break out sometimes, and increasing its incidence by making it easier to happen undermines the cynics and shifts thinking towards optimism, self-development, and doing the right thing without reference to the conservative messages from the “straighteners” in institutions. (IMO, the MSM’s declining role is not just due to technology, and that we have collectively discovered the width and depth of expertise and useful knowledge outside it; we can now choose media which ignore stupid celebrity culture, including sports people.)

    Former world anti-doping chief, Dick Pound has called for cycling at the Olympics to be banned until it is clean. This shock treatment might work but is of limited use elsewhere: we can’t exclude other institutions from society until they demonstrate transformation. I suggest that “flattening” power structures and encouraging truth-telling in various ways inside institutions not only will promote democratic values and improve the way society works, but opens the door for serious consideration of options and social change based on rationalism.

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