Two years ago today, internet activist Aaron Swartz took his own life. At the time, Swartz was in the midst of being prosecuted for downloading academic journal articles.
While 27 at the time of his suicide, Swartz is a reminder that it is not the number of days that we live that determines our ultimate value to the world and ourselves but rather what we do with the time we have. Never interested in making money, he was interested in something much more important, something larger, something he couldn’t just walk away from.
Bringing to mind the words of William J. Reilly, who in How to Avoid Work, said “Altogether too much emphasis, I think, is being placed on what we ought to do, rather than what we want to do,” Swartz, in one interview, said:
I feel very strongly, that it is not enough to just live in the world as it is and just take what you are given, to follow the things that adults told you to do … and that society tells you to do. I think you should always be questioning. I take this very scientific attitude that everything you’ve learned is just provisional, that it’s always open to recantation, refutation, or questioning. And I think the same applies to society. Once I realized that there were real serious problems that I could do something to address, I didn’t see a way to forget that. I didn’t see a way not to.
At his memorial service in 2013, a speaker read a section of David Foster Wallace’s famous Kenyon College commencement address. The speech was so good it was put into a small book which I occasionally give to graduating students titled This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life. Elaborating on what it means to live a meaningful life, Wallace was quoted:
If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.
Featuring interviews with friends, family, and internet luminaries, The Internet’s Own Boy, depicts the life of Swartz. More importantly, the film makes us question what it means to live a meaningful life, how we spend our time, what information should be free, as well as the removal of civil liberties that serve as the foundation of our free society.
“That was his whole thing. “Are you normal?” “Are you normal?” I think one of the true ways I’ve gotten smarter is that I’ve realized that there are ways other people are a lot smarter than me. My biggest asset as a writer is that I’m pretty much like everybody else. The parts of me that used to think I was different or smarter or whatever almost made me die.”