Many of you already know that Aaron Swartz, an online activist, committed suicide earlier this week. I didn’t know much about him, but now I’ve learned two things.
One, he was a victim of depression. I’ve never experienced this personally — at worst I can say I’ve been sad and stressed at time — but let’s be clear about something: depression is something altogether different. Swartz wrote about his depression, and got across a little bit about what it actually feels like. This is good communication.
Your face falls. Perhaps you cry. You feel worthless. You wonder whether it’s worth going on. Everything you think about seems bleak – the things you’ve done, the things you hope to do, the people around you. You want to lie in bed and keep the lights off. Depressed mood is like that, only it doesn’t come for any reason and it doesn’t go for any either. Go outside and get some fresh air or cuddle with a loved one and you don’t feel any better, only more upset at being unable to feel the joy that everyone else seems to feel. Everything gets colored by the sadness.
At best, you tell yourself that your thinking is irrational, that it is simply a mood disorder, that you should get on with your life. But sometimes that is worse. You feel as if streaks of pain are running through your head, you thrash your body, you search for some escape but find none.
Two, I’m outraged at the criminal abuse by the justice system that exacerbated his problems. The man was hounded to death, threatened with long prison terms by MIT and JSTOR, the journal archive service.
Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.
You might be wondering what awful crime he committed that justified arresting him and confronting him with a 50 year prison sentence: he downloaded scientific research articles and then made them available to others. Uh-oh. I’ve done this…just not on the scale of Swartz’s efforts.
This is the problem: not that Swartz opened the door to scientific research, but that we’re laboring under an antiquated system of scientific information storage that privileges profit-making over open access to the results of publicly-funded research.