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[liberationtech] Tragic News: Aaron Swartz commits suicide

Nadim Kobeissi nadim at
Sat Jan 12 19:52:42 PST 2013

I've written a blog post inspired by this:

Why Young Hackers Are Killing Themselves

“The hacker community needs more mutual support, empathy, and
forgiveness. The cattiness and paranoia serves no one but those with
the most resilient egos.”

This quote was sent to me just five days ago by an old friend. The
conversation we were having was one of reconciliation, and I had
half-jokingly blamed being part of the hacker community as the reason
why I can be so abrasive sometimes. But there was no humour in what
she answered. That quote was exactly true.

There are sometimes a couple of blog posts, a couple of discussions on
some social, behavioural issues we may have in hacker culture.

But there haven’t been discussions as to why young hackers, especially
those striving towards new methods of sociopolitical change, are
killing themselves. And there was no discussion as to whether the
hacker community itself might have something to do with it.

I cannot speak for Aaron Swartz. I knew Aaron only briefly and
distantly. But Aaron Swartz wasn’t the first. There were other
suicides: Ilya Zhitomirskiy, the co-founder of Diaspora. Len Sassaman,
the renowned cryptographer. They are united with Aaron Swartz via
their goals, their methods, their drive and their youth.

The hacker community is plagued, and our plague is a plague of
ruthlessness, of a lack of mutual reinforcement. A plague of keeping
up appearances. A plague that has managed to convince us that seeing
people and their efforts in black and white is alright. A plague that
makes us believe that personal attacks are valid against hackers,
programmers and entrepreneurs we don’t agree with, that defamation and
harassment are valid weapons when our online personas are attacked,
when there’s a project we don’t like or that we feel somehow threatens
us. And the harassment can be ugly. It can be pervasive, as if those
committing it see their target as part of a video game that they just
know they can beat. It can involve race, sex, and intense gas-lighting
and demoralization. It’s a plague that makes us all busy in regular
part-time, making each other feel like failures. Criticize ideas, not

Hackers are unique in that for some, federal subpoenas are a fact of
daily life. Handling zero-days that can bankrupt corporations may
happen weekly, amongst many other surreal, Hollywood scenario

On top of this, the community is not supportive, but jealous. Not
empathetic, but insecure. Not forgiving, but spiteful. Hackers, all
together facing the same surreal problems that alienate them
permanently from the rest of natural society, find themselves stuck in
a bubble of self-destruction and self-deprecation. This is what drives
young hackers to kill themselves. This may not have been what drove
Aaron Swartz specifically, but it is a contributing factor and a
serious problem in our community.

Criticize ideas, not people. Stop it with all the lip service. Public
discourse of the most difficult issues has largely only been elevating
the jealousy, insecurity and spite. Endless discussions without any
reconciliation as our community so slowly falls apart.


On Sat, Jan 12, 2013 at 5:18 PM, Gabe Gossett <Gabe.Gossett at> wrote:
> While I sympathize with the open access spirit of this thread, and have no intention to detract from the eulogizing of Aaron Swartz, I think that in all fairness a few things should be pointed out.
> JSTOR is not a journal publisher. This is an important distinction since it means that JSTOR's terms are, at least in part, influenced by the journal publishers. It also means that it will not always be clear whether or not an article you publish will end up in JSTOR unless you make sure that you are publishing in a fully open access (OA) journal (which is the route I would recommend for anyone concerned with information equity). A directory of OA journals can be found here
> Also, as a librarian, I have found JSTOR to be one of the least problematic of the academic content providers. This is probably due to the fact that they are non-profit, distribute little in the way of current content (where the profit margins are higher), allow for perpetual access to back runs that are bought, and was established as a way to expand access to journal content in academia. If there was an effective business model to allow for total open access I would not be surprised if JSTOR would be one of the content aggregators most open to such a model.
> The real bad guys in the academic publishing world are for-profits like Elsevier, which was the target of a recent boycott:
> Regards,
> Gabe
> On Jan 12, 2013, at 10:53 AM, "Julian Oliver" <julian at<mailto:julian at>> wrote:
> ..on Sat, Jan 12, 2013 at 01:03:52PM -0500, Shava Nerad wrote:
> Irony:
> This is JSTOR going 'freeware' rather than Free Software. In the programming
> domain it's comparable to source code that is technically open for reading yet
> disallows modification or redistribution. Aaron would've been just as pissed
> about this.
> On their site they say 'A New Chapter Begins'. There's the irony.
> We should all stop supporting knowledge mafia like JSTOR by discouraging our
> peers to publish there. It's bad enough that publicly funded universities push
> their knowledge output to a private business interest.
> A great way to channel any despair from Aaron's death is to encourage peers to
> publish openly.
> Cheers,
> Julian
> On Jan 12, 2013 3:36 AM, "Yosem Companys" <companys at<mailto:companys at>> wrote:
> This is a tragic loss and a terrible blow to the liberationtech community.
> Yosem
> Aaron Swartz commits suicide
> Web Update
> By Anne Cai
> NEWS EDITOR; UPDATED AT 2:15 A.M. 1/12/13
> Computer activist Aaron H. Swartz committed suicide in New York City
> yesterday, Jan. 11, according to his uncle, Michael Wolf, in a comment
> to The Tech. Swartz was 26.
> “The tragic and heartbreaking information you received is,
> regrettably, true,” confirmed Swartz’ attorney, Elliot R. Peters of
> Kecker and Van Nest, in an email to The Tech.
> Swartz was indicted in July 2011 by a federal grand jury for allegedly
> mass downloading documents from the JSTOR online journal archive with
> the intent to distribute them. He subsequently moved to Brooklyn, New
> York, where he then worked for Avaaz Foundation, a nonprofit “global
> web movement to bring people-powered politics to decision-making
> everywhere.” Swartz appeared in court on Sept. 24, 2012 and pleaded
> not guilty.
> The accomplished Swartz co-authored the now widely-used RSS 1.0
> specification at age 14, was one of the three co-owners of the popular
> social news site Reddit, and completed a fellowship at Harvard’s
> Ethics Center Lab on Institutional Corruption. In 2010, he founded
><>, a “campaign against the Internet censorship bills
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