We were just talking the other day about suicide and someone mentioned that MIT students (maybe graduates, too) have a higher than average suicide rate. Something about the smarter the student, the greater the risk. Don't be jealous of the smartest kid in the class.
|ThoughtWorks/ Associated Press, Aaron Swartz|
Aaron's family and friends are blaming MIT and an overzealous prosecutorial system for refusing to let his stunt, stealing nearly five million scholarly articles, go unpunished. Facing up to thirty-five years in prison, Aaron couldn't take it. He hung himself by a belt in his bedroom.
He probably would have got off altogether. He had a case of psychotic depression (you won't find it phrased quite this way in the DSM) or he would be with us today.
He intended to upload the articles, among them recent findings of scientific inquiry, to an open access website. From there, people like you and me could research whatever we like, and we could do it for free.
Good intentions, an ideologue sure. But bet your life, it is mental illness that killed the young man, not a prosecutorial zealot or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Before his death, Aaron Swartz had lived many of his 26 years in a different kind of prison. Depression. He talked about it, wrote about it. If you read Aaron you can feel his disease. He related to Alex in the short story below.
Maybe people did know the intensity of his depression, and maybe he was in therapy, on medication. Maybe his partner did worry, every passing day, that he might do something extraordinary, take that leap from a tall building, play out some sort of bad dream, end his pain.
A dreamer in real time, he wanted to change the world, make writing that term paper easier.
But piracy, hacking, is a crime, a breech of privacy, and in therapy-speak, an invasion of boundaries. Not incidentally, some who suffer mental illness, especially severe mental illness, have boundary problems. Aaron didn't have to be sociopathic, didn't need to be a criminal, to imagine a different kind of world, one with different boundaries. He might Imagine all the people reading stuff in peace, like in the John Lennon song, except his people have their digital databases and don't even need a password. A better quality of life if you are an intellectual.
If we think about it, this isn't a new idea. Remember your first library card? Free.
Hopefully we'll come full circle one day, find what we need in that great big library in a the sky, on a cloud, surely, and it will be free. It should be at our fingertips, knowledge, for those who have the initiative, the wherewithal to find it. It isn't yet, but Mr. Swartz, being brilliant, had that wherewithal, and he stole with it, a modern day Robin Hood for the mind.
Except that intellectual property is still someone's property. Academic publishers are staffed with well-meaning, hard-working (if you have ever expereinced peer review, you know) grunts with PhD's. It costs money to put ink on paper and subscribers and students pay, as do occasional users, those of us who wish to read just one article. There's a price, no different than the one on the cover of Conde Nast publications like The New Yorker, or Time, Inc's People Magazine.
A crime, sure, and yet he did so much for us, is a martyr of his generation, up there with the founders of the Internet, responsible for the ways we link to one another, ways we follow. He co-founded Reddit, co-invented the RSS feed (at age 14). Rather than make money with a start-up, venture capitalists at his command, Aaron used his time and the Internet to spread his philosophy.
He died at 26 on January 11, 2013, an activist.
So. What can we do to stop this sort of thing?
People tell us when they are depressed. And they tell us when they are under inordinate stress. From this we should worry, pay more attention. When we know that one of the topics a person is writing about is suicide consider a suicide watch, either a hospitalization or a partial outpatient program, certainly an evaluation for medication, and you go with him, find out the treatment plan. Read the suicide contract to do no harm.
And you don't let that person alone. When suicide is the option, there's no alone time, no privacy.
It might have made sense for a guy who didn't respect boundaries all that much, anyway.
From his blog, Raw Thought, on January 18, 2007: