A consummate boundary-crosser

In his column for Inside Higher Ed, Scott McLemee remembers a modern-day rebel.

Aaron Swartz (Sage Ross)Aaron Swartz (Sage Ross)

AARON SWARTZ committed suicide last week at the age of 26. I would like to pay tribute to him by writing calm, elegiac prose conveying something of his intelligence, his passion, and the distinctive quality of puckishness that photographs of him managed to capture surprisingly well.

Unfortunately it does not look like that is going to be possible. Things would need to make more sense than they have, so far. Feelings of sadness and anger, which are perfectly appropriate responses, keep giving way to the paradoxical and incoherent state of mind in which I both grasp what has happened and simultaneously think that it can't really be true. This reached its worst and most absurd expression in the passing thought that news of his suicide might be part of a scheme in which Aaron is alive and well, living under a new identity someplace where U.S. government prosecutors will never find him.

It's possible! Well, no, of course it isn't. This state of mind is what they call "being in denial," and it's embarrassing to recognize. But it hardly seems more irrational than the reality in question. For the government's prosecution of Aaron for hacking into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's system to download a few million articles from scholarly journals was not just a case of intellectual-property law being enforced with too much zeal. It seems more like an expression of vindictiveness.

Consider something just reported by the Associated Press: "Andrew Good, a Boston attorney who represented Swartz in the case last year, said he told federal prosecutors in Massachusetts that Swartz was a suicide risk. 'Their response was, put him in jail, he'll be safe there,' Good said." It is too hard to think about that. Better to imagine him escaping, carrying on his work in silence, cunning and exile.

He was already something of a legend when we met for lunch not quite five years ago, having already been in touch for a couple of years. At the time, he was known for his role in the creation of RSS and Infogami; his Internet-freedom activism and legal troubles were to come. Among his projects had been the online archive he created for Lingua Franca magazine, then defunct though still widely admired. I had been a contributing writer for Lingua Franca and heard about Aaron from a couple of friends, and was very glad to be able to interview him about the Open Library cataloging initiative he was helping to launch.

Not that long before we were able to meet face-to-face, Aaron had given a talk called "How to Get a Job Like Mine" which covered his career up through the age of 20. In person, he was modest about his teenage coding career, or at least disinclined to say much about it, and I never got the feeling that his later exploits in taking on the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) database and JSTOR involved anything like hacker vainglory.

In his activism (legal and otherwise) as in his early coding projects, the emphasis was always squarely on making access to information and tools more widely available on the grounds that restricting the flow of knowledge served only to make already-powerful people still more powerful. Aaron seemed earnest without being dour or humorless, which struck me as giving him one leg up on his hero Noam Chomsky.

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WHILE TRYING to pull these impressions together, I had a moment of seeing something about Aaron that never crossed my mind while he was alive, although it seems, with hindsight, pretty obvious: He was as perfect an embodiment of the mythological being known as the trickster as anyone could possibly be.

My copy of Lewis Hyde's brilliant book Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art (1998) has gone missing, but the author's website has a pertinent description. Trickster figures in various cultures:

are the consummate boundary-crossers, slipping through keyholes, breaching walls, subverting defense systems. Always out to satisfy their inordinate appetites, lying, cheating and stealing, tricksters are a great bother to have around, but paradoxically, they are also indispensable heroes of culture. In North America, Coyote taught the race how to catch salmon, sing and shoot arrows. In West Africa, Eshu introduced the art of divination so that suffering humans might know the purposes of heaven. In Greece, Hermes the Thief invented the art of sacrifice, the trick of making fire, and even language itself.

The gods and worldly authorities alike think of the trickster as a criminal, or at least a bad apple. Furthermore, tricksters tend to be prodigies--their genius for invention and disruption already evident in childhood, if not infancy. In the introduction to his book, Hyde writes that the trickster's disregard for the rules "isn't so much to get away with something or to get rich as to disturb the established categories of truth and property and, by so doing, open the road to possible new worlds."

That names Aaron's attitude beautifully, and my fleeting daydream that he might somehow be pulling a fast one on the authorities is like something out of a trickster narrative. The resemblance also goes some way towards explaining why, more than anyone I've ever met, he seems destined to be remembered as a hero for a long time to come. You don't get to make that many friends who are archetypes, but Aaron was an exceptional person no matter how you look at him.

First published at Inside Higher Ed.