Smart people are a-dime-a-dozen. Very smart people are common. Though geniuses are statistically uncommon, humanity's surging tide produces tens of thousands of them in every generation.
But even geniuses are people, and people tend to play the hand that is dealt to them, or else discard just a few cards to draw new ones. Few question the rules of the game or why they should play it at all.
The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz depicts a rare genius who questioned the premise of the game. It's terrific and moving. I bought it, downloaded it, and watched it on my iPad on a plane trip, all of which seemed very appropriate. It was well worth the time and attention and money.
Writer, director, and producer Brian Knappenberger has delivered the sort of documentary I like: one in which the art is mostly transparent. Knappenberger has technique, and a viewpoint, but he deftly employs interviews and archival video and narration to drive the tale of Swartz's life so that it's easy to forget you're watching a documentary rather than hearing a story told by friends. He uses a light touch with art direction and music and editing so that a piece that could have been an outraged screed is instead a compelling portrait of an unusual man with unusual views. Knappenberger avoids bogging down in technical details or legal procedures, using a level of description that is accessible but takes the viewer seriously. He falls into the easy trap of talking about maximum potential federal sentences rather than likely sentences, which is misleading, but doesn't dwell on it.
Swartz wasn't different because he was so smart; he was different because of what he did with his gifts. He questioned. Most of us think of government and private entities as being distinct, and even adverse to each other. Swartz questioned that premise and pointed out how private companies reap benefits from the public fisc, as in the case of private companies selling access to scholarly articles backed by public money. Conventional wisdom held that SOPA and PIPA were unstoppable and that grassroots efforts could not prevail against entertainment industry money; Swartz questioned that premise and became an effective leader in the successful fight against those measures. Swartz could have cashed in any number of ways, but questioned whether being silicon-rich was how he wanted to live his life.
But the movie shows that Swartz and his supporters failed to question premises when he encountered the criminal justice system. Most people make that mistake. When Swartz's friend Quinn Norton talks about being interrogated by the FBI, she is outraged that they seem indifferent and bored when presented with facts that don't fit their worldview. Norton accepted the premise that law enforcement is trying to find out what really happened, rather than gathering facts to support their version of events. She seems shocked that the FBI agents lied to her repeatedly as they questioned her; she did not appear to question the premise that the government tells the truth. Swartz's backers were enthused when JSTOR announced it was not pressing for charges against him; they did not question the premise that the criminal justice system acts based on what alleged victims need or want. Swartz's friends express disbelief that the federal government would spend resources to prosecute him rather than on far more worthy cases; they do not question the premise that the system makes rational decisions based on resource allocation. Swartz's allies are shocked that AUSA Stephen Heymann says things like "stealing is stealing" and "all hackers are alike"; they don't question the premise that the government's stated motives are its actual motives, or that the system cares whether it is right. Swartz and his supporters are appalled that a federal prosecutor might have been motivated by animus towards Swartz's political and social activism; they don't question the premise that the system is made to protect citizens from the idiosyncrasies and petty malice of its component parts. Swartz and his supporters are amazed that an outdated computer fraud law threatens harsh penalties for downloading scientific journals; they do not question the premise that the law forbids specified acts democratically selected. They do not suspect that the law is a flexible tool made to empower prosecutors to charge whomever they want to charge. You don't need to be particularly smart or creative to figure out a way to charge someone with a federal crime in America.
In short, Swartz's team seemed to view this as an unjust and broken application of a system to an undeserving man, not recognizing that the system is rigged and unjust and broken from the start. That's common among smart, educated, fortunate people. As I have discussed before, my fortunate clients are the most outraged at how they are treated by the criminal justice system, and most prone to seeing conspiracies and vendettas, because they are new to it — they have not questioned the premise that the system's goal is justice. My clients who have lived difficult lives in hard neighborhoods don't see a conspiracy; they recognize incompetence and brutal indifference and injustice as features, not bugs. "Justice system" is a label, not a description. The furnace on a steam locomotive bound for San Francisco does not have a goal of reaching San Francisco; the furnace just burns what you throw into it to move the train along.
Does Knappenberger mean to convey that the system singled out Aaron Swartz for special persecution, or that it is broken? It's a testament to his skill as a filmmaker that I'm not sure. Knappenberger seems comfortable with some ambiguity, and allows his subjects occasionally to undermine their own premises.
Knappenberger permits the same ambiguity to color Aaron Swartz's tragic death. You can take the film's narrative as suggesting that an unprincipled prosecution drove a man past his limits to suicide. But Swartz's loved ones also supply evidence of his long battle with depression. He "didn't want to be a burden," someone says. "None of this made any sense and it still doesn't," his brother says. "Things were a lot harder for him," his girlfriend says. She also says that Swartz probably had clinical depression before "but not when I was with him." I'm very biased on the subject, as I've said before, but to my ear her claim is deliberately presented by Knappenberger as unconvincing.
Aaron Swartz suffered. He suffered long before the implacable system began to grind him up. He was open about his depression and the pain it caused him. Even the government knew it.
But we don't want to believe that a person like Aaron Swartz — strong, brilliant, beloved, with hopes and goals and ideals, supported by family and friends — would take his own life despite all those things because of a disease. It is, strangely, less terrifying to think that a cruel government persecution overcame his ability to cope. It's awful thing, but an notable thing, an unusual thing, not something we imagine happening to us or the people we love. Accepting that the government drove Aaron Swartz to kill himself doesn't force us to ask this question: what if we gave someone we love everything we have, and they had every reason to live, and it wasn't enough? What if someone we love were suffering that much, and we didn't see it?
It's more comfortable to believe that circumstance drives people to kill themselves. That's the premise, and we don't question it. We should. It's wrong. Depression lies, and depression kills. It kills the forgotten and the cherished alike. It kills rich and poor, genius and dolt, the scattered and the capable. It kills the strong with the weak. It kills people undergoing terrible hardship and people who seem to have everything. It can be killing the person you know and love best in the world and you might not see it.
These are hard things to accept. But if we want to help people who suffer from depression, we must question the premise.
Watch the movie. Watch Aaron Swartz question premises, and question some yourself.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
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