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Aaron Swartz at Risk

These are, as I began, cumbersome ways to kill a man.
Simpler, direct, and much more neat is to see
that he is living somewhere in the middle
of the twentieth century, and leave him there.
--Edwin Brock

Twenty-first century. As Matt Stoller shows, Aaron Swartz was killed by corruption. His destroyers were placeholders in a weak, vicious, and corrupt rentier state.

Immanuel Wallerstein describes such a state in World-Systems Analysis:

[W]hat does it mean to be a strong state internally? Strength certainly is not indicated by the degree of arbitrariness or ruthlessness of the central authority. … Dictatorial behavior by state authorities is more often a sign of weakness than of strength. … The weaker the state, the less wealth can be accumulated through economically productive activities. This consequently makes the state machinery itself a prime locus, perhaps the prime locus, of wealth accumulation—through larceny and bribery, at high and low levels. It is not that this does not occur in strong states—it does—but that in weak [e.g.] states it becomes the preferred means of capital accumulation ["savvy businessmen"], which in turn weakens the ability of the state to perform its other tasks. … In states that have raw materials which are very lucrative on the world market (such as oil [or some forms of intellectual property]), the income available to the state is essentially rent, and here too the actual control of the machinery guarantees that much of the rent can be siphoned off into private hands.

Sound familiar? For our rentier state then, siphoning rents on intellectual property into private hands is central to mission. Swartz stopped SOPA because his mission (or vision) was radically different:

There is no justice in following unjust laws. It’s time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture.

We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that's out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access.

Which is what Swartz did, and for which he was punished. (empty wheel points to the procedural sloppiness of the charges, but that's hardly the point when a rentier's rice bowl is broken, and weak states are lousy at law anyhow.)

This isn't a post about intellectual property rights, so I'll merely present an example of the good that Swartz's vision can do. As is well known, Swartz wrote the spec for RSS (Really Simple Syndication). At age 14. And so:

RSS changed our lives

I need to let the people who knew and loved Aaron know that his work changed my son’s life for the better, forever.

Diagnosed with autism at age 2, My son’s best help came from the RSS feeds and papers that I could get access to that offered the truth and science about autism. Every morning I read the RSS feeds from academic journals world wide to find out more about my son’s regressive autism, fragile X premutation (which is only known in scientific academic circles) the MTHFR gene and new and critical treatments. Because of his work I was able to find out about UC Davis, about current scientific treatment, and research studies to get us this treatment. My son is now four and his is doing great… BECAUSE of the scientific information I had access to. I have an MLIS. I interned at Elsevier. I have seen all sides of the academic pay wall and I have felt my ignorance around my neck like a boulder, at great cost to my son’s health. But Aaron, you helped us. Thank you. Until we see that the populace will never be scientifically aware UNLESS we have access to the information we will not be able to go from a people of belief to a people of ideas [not a bug].

In other words, Swartz helped this woman and her son by removing information from the grasp of rentiers. That's what "open access" means, operationally. (See also on PACER, where Swartz provided open access to the law.)

I would now like to dolly back from Swartz's views on open access, and show how three overlapping lethal systems, each one structured for its own corrupt purposes by our rentier state, narrowed his life chances by piling on risk factors, and set him up for an untimely death. First, I'll look at the health care system, then at health in the tech community, and finally at health in the technical activist community. In each system, Aaron Swartz was at risk -- or the nature of our current arrangements in political economy put him at risk.

Risk Factors from the Health Care System

As Swartz wrote in "How to Get a Job Like Mine":

Undoubtedly, the first step is to choose the right genes: I was born white, male, American.

Unfortunately for Swartz, he should also have chosen to be born in a different generation: My own, for example. Check out this chart from the New York Times:

Clearly, we are failing millions of our young people -- of whom Swartz, 26, was one -- in the most basic way imaginable, by shortening their lives! Of course, I don't claim that there was a linear relation between Swartz's death and health care he would have gotten under a humane system, had he needed it (although depression, though often treatable, is hard to treat). What I do claim, and what the chart shows, is that Swartz, because of his age, was at risk of dying younger than I will (drawing me into collusion as a rentier, come to think of it; I didn't do anything to this life chance). And of course, our system of health-care-for profit is both uniquely profitable and uniquely bad at delivering health, dominated as it is by health insurance companies -- rentiers -- who contribute no value to any of the transactions in which they participate, and who have corruptly used the power of the state to entrench themselves (shocker, I know). I'd also note that suicide* is a problem our health care system seems unable to address.

Risk Factors in the Tech Community

Zooming in to civil society, Swartz was not the only tech genius to commit suicide**. Two examples; see if you can find a common factor with Swartz.

First, Ilya Zhitomirskiy (22). His project was Diaspora:

Instead of creating a central database like Facebook’s, where information about hundreds of millions of members is stored and mined for advertising and marketing purposes, their idea was to develop freely shared software that would allow every member of the network to 'own' his or her personal information.

Second, Len Sassaman (36). His project was Mixmaster:

Len Sassaman, [was] a highly-regarded 31 year-old cryptographer who helped create secure communication systems. … The former engineer for Anonymizer, which obscures a user's IP address, was a well-known “cypherpunk” who maintained the open source Mixmaster remailer software. The Mixmaster protocol was designed to protect against traffic analysis and offer users a way to send email anonymously. Sassaman’s work focussed on 'attacking and defending anonymous communication systems, exploring the applicability of information-theoretic secure systems for privacy solutions, and designing protocols which satisfy the specific needs of the use case for which they are applied', according to his profile at the computer security and industrial cryptography research department of Belgium’s Leuven University.

Before you ask, Sassaman, like Swartz, suffered from depression, and Zhitomirskiy was bipolar. However, if you look again at their work, you will also see that both men had an additional risk factor in common with Swartz: They too were directly assaulting the interests of rentiers with a vision of open access, Zhitomirskiy with the radical notion that users should own their own data (the nerve!), and Sassaman with the equally radical notion that people should be able to communicate without having their own byte streams monetized.

Adding to the risk factors for Swartz in the tech community, entrepreneurs suffer massive stress -- and Swartz, a co-founder of Reddit, was an entrepreneur. From commenter debasishbera in a long thread at YCombinator, the entrepreneurial incubator:

As a startup owner I feel like I am a sinking man and each floating wood chip around is a hope - Learning to float between moving from one wood chip to other is the key to me.

I guess I will fail that day when I will conclude that I am too tired of trying (not really, really tried -- and still failed).

I don't believe "The truth is ... that it takes a special and lucky person". The truth is we need one or two hands on our shoulder and someone to stand during the darkest hours and say "darkest hours are always before the sun comes"

And a final risk factor Swartz shared with other tech entrepreneurs is being on the wrong side of the law (however righteously). From a long thread on Reddit:

Most people should check out just how most people in Tech start out their careers. Every person I know that starts a successful company, has to do illegal things at the start. Why? Because being legitimate isn't profitable for a small business in the US... you cannot make it through the first year without skating that line.

In other words, corruption is part of the bootstrapping process, beyond the corruption imposed by rentiers. I could tell a story about my entrepreneurial grandfather, but Steve Jobs is a better example. The "blue box" is a device, back in the analog days, that was widely used for making free—and illegal—phone calls. "Open access" again:

[Jobs] told me about how the blue box article had inspired him and Wozniak. How they'd taken down the cycles-per-second of the tones AT&T used to translate phone numbers into audio signals, some of which I'd disclosed in the article, and how they’d found the others in some obscure technical journals and had begun building their own blue boxes, hoping to sell them on the underground market. (Gamblers and mobsters liked to use them to keep their communications outside the system.)

Mobsters? Well, alrighty. Today's Steve Jobs would have been thrown in jail and tortured by solitary confinement: No Apple! (But as Wallerstein says, weak states aren't really about economically productive activities.) I'm not equating Swartz's community service-level offense with being mobbed up, but pointing out that getting on the wrong side of the law is yet another tech stressor, and hence a risk factor for anyone fragile (not the first word that comes to mind when thinking of Steve Jobs).

Risk Factors in the Activist Community

Zooming in to Swartz's associates, friends, and family, we find additional risk factors when the power of the state*** was brought to bear on him. Stoller explains:

Corruption isn’t just people profiting from betraying the public interest. It’s also people being punished for upholding the public interest. In our institutions of power, when you do the right thing and challenge abusive power, you end up destroying a job prospect, an economic opportunity, a political or social connection, or an opportunity for media. Or … you are bankrupted and destroyed. … Corrupt self-interest, when it goes systemwide, demands that it protect rentiers from people like Aaron, that it intimidate, co-opt, humiliate, fire, destroy, and/or bankrupt those who stand for justice. … [T]he person who warned about the downside in a meeting gets cut out of the loop, or the former politician who tries to reform an industry sector finds his or her job opportunities sparse and unappealing next to his soon to be millionaire go along get along colleagues. I’ve seen this happen to high level former officials who have done good, and among students who challenge power as their colleagues go to become junior analysts on Wall Street.

And such an additional stressor — and I'm sure there were many others besides this one — put Swartz at risk. Quinn Norton's howl of pain:

We were destroyed by the investigation, and by enduring so much together in the five years of the difficult love affair of difficult people. In the end he told me he needed to get away from me. I let him go, and waited for the day he’d come back. I knew that one day we’d have a day to be together again, though probably not as lovers. Together, as something that doesn’t have a word. He went on to another relationship, and I know he touched her like he did me, because that’s how he touched people.


I don't have the right word for the way that the rentier state zeroed in on Swartz until he cracked: How it piled a rentier-directed health care system on top of a rentier-optimized technical ecology on top of a rentier-driven justice system. But perhaps I have a metaphor: The Salem Witch trials, where those convicted by the justice system of that time were "pressed" to death with stone after stone after stone:




Simple, direct, neat.

However, I am hopeful because I believe that our state acts as it does because it is weak, not strong. And I expect to have a way to use the cold and burning anger I too feel in the service of justice.

NOTE *,** If you or anyone you know is considering suicide, do, please, seek help (for example). Multiple asterisks for emphasis!

NOTE *** Ortiz was a leader in collecting fines for lawbreaking:

Ortiz and her office have won attention for taking on a number of high-profile cases, including the ongoing murder prosecution of notorious mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger. Her office also announced in December that it was the largest contributor to the $13.1 billion in criminal and civil fines recovered in 2012 by the nation’s 94 U.S. Attorney’s offices. Ortiz’s office collected $8.8 billion during the fiscal year, accounting for almost 67 percent of the total collection.

These cost-of-doing-business fines are corrupt, as Yves points out. They are the precise equivalent of shell game operators passing the cop on the beat a fiver while they continue to rope in the shills. Ortiz is, as one would expect, a rising star in the Democratic party, and she's not spending more time with her family. Yet.

NOTE *** One very, very obvious thing the left should be seeking to redress is the different life expectancies shown in Chart 1. Single payer health care would be of great help to the Aaron Swartz's of this world who are still alive. And we shouldn't be fighting merely to "save" Social Security, but to make the benefits age neutral. How the elites must laugh among themselves for having inveigled us into selling out our own children!

NOTE Originally published at Naked Capitalism.

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