The Myths Around A Man In The Internet Hall Of Fame - Plush Ink The Myths Around A Man In The Internet Hall Of Fame - Plush Ink

The myths around a man in the internet hall of fame

Around this time, every year, I wait for a mother’s proclamation of love for her dead son. As she did on 11 January, in a tweet: “10 years without this face, without this voice, without this mind, without this love, without this light.” I find laments of the grieving and their honest cliches more stirring than the high prose of good writers, who are a class of actors. Maybe the origin of human language was in sorrow. Some years, the message of Susan Swartz is shorter. “9 years. 9 YEARS,” she tweeted last year. “Unbelievably, 8 years have gone by. RIP my darling boy,” she wrote before that. A mother does not need anniversaries to remember her son. So, “6 years, 2 months. RIP my darling boy.” Her messages are always accompanied by the image of a smiling young man, or of a picture when he was a child.

He is Aaron Swartz, a programming prodigy. When he was 14, he worked on an early version of Really Simple Syndication, better known as the RSS feed. At 15, he helped develop Creative Commons licence, which is a way of making copyrighted material free. At 19, he was among the founding figures of Reddit. Eventually, he became an activist and fought for a cause that seemed noble 10 years ago but might not make as much sense today: “a free internet”. He hanged himself in Brooklyn on 11 January 2013. He was 26.

After he made a small fortune when his startup was merged into Reddit, and Reddit was then sold, he got involved in activism, chiefly to make information free. He hacked the servers of MIT and stole a large number of academic papers from a journal that were behind a paywall, probably to make them accessible to the public. He was caught and faced charges that were more serious than he may have imagined. He seemed to have no intention to be a martyr. But he did reject an offer to plead guilty, which would have got him a maximum jail sentence of six months. At the time of his suicide, in his Brooklyn apartment, he faced 35 years in prison, apart from financial ruin.

Many believe that MIT and US federal government had overreacted to a boy’s symbolic act of defiance against capitalism. Ten years after his death, his position as a pre-eminent internet martyr is beyond dispute. Yet, the truth is probably more unremarkable than the myths surrounding a hero. After every suicide, people try to find reasons, which tend to align with their own grouses and ambitions and griefs.

Swartz was an activist, but by the time he died, he had moved beyond the ambiguous space of internet freedom. The net itself had become complex. By 2013, it had begun to resemble the world, and no one fights to keep anything in the real world ‘free’.

As in the case of many successful activists, Swartz had some conditions that made normal life and its banal joys difficult. He had dietary problems, oversensitivity to ordinary experiences, ulcerative colitis, and possibly other worries. A few weeks after his death, Larissa MacFarquhar wrote about him in The New Yorker magazine. I was struck by this portion: “His girlfriend Taren always dealt with taxi-drivers, with waitresses. He hated feeling that he was in a position of power over someone, and he hated asking for help.”

Swartz once wrote in his blog: “When I go to a library and I see the librarian at her desk reading, I’m afraid to interrupt her, even though she sits there specifically so that she may be interrupted, even though being interrupted for reasons like this by people like me is her very job.”

MacFarquhar writes, “This wasn’t a simple matter of humility. Having power over other people made you into something he disdained. Being a boss wasn’t just immoral; bosses were stupid.”

He tried a corporate job but did not survive too long.

In an interview conducted on Reddit, the interviewer asks Swartz, “Are you working for Reddit as full-time programmer?”

Swartz: “No, I left reddit several months ago.”

Interviewer: “Why did you leave?”

Swartz: “My boss asked me to.”

Interviewer: “Can you explain what happened?”

Swartz then gives a vague answer about holidaying in Europe and getting back to work in US where he was surprised to be sacked. But what happened was when he was in Europe his ulcerative colitis flared up. He did not tell anyone. This condition can trigger suicidal thoughts. When his boss at Reddit checked his blog he found a short fiction about a character named Aaron who got sacked and then committed suicide. He was fired, in real life, a few days after this episode.

In a blog post written in 2005, he says he has left computer programming and taken up sociology because “I want to save the world.”

There was someone else, closer home, who did something similar. A student of microbiology, Rohith Vemula, shifted to sociology because, as he stated, he wanted to make the world a better place. He too killed himself, and by hanging. On 17 January, six days after the third anniversary of Swartz death.

Sociology is an odd field for those who wish to save the world. One of the fathers of sociology is Auguste Comte, who invented and wore attire that had buttons only at the back so that he would not be able to wear it without assistance, thus requiring the attendance of another person for the simple act of dressing up. What good can come from such minds?

The hidden darkness in some ideas endures the way only darkness can, and infects the young, who writhe in their own anguish, searching for a glorious reason to hang their reasonless pain.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, novelist, and the creator of the Netflix series, ‘Decoupled’

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