Chance Encounter with a Genius (or Two)

by Robert Nagle on 1/13/2013

in obituaries,observations

Surprised and saddened to learn about the suicide death of Aaron Swartz, hacker par excellence.

It just so happens that I met Aaron once. The meeting was short and trivial, certainly no big deal. I was at Bruce Sterling’s End of South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive party, talking to random people. I think it was 2005 (or maybe 2004). I had  been using a cocktail party question that year, “What’s your passion?” (or maybe it was “what’s your thing?”, I can’t remember).

At parties like this I pretty much end up talking to everybody for at least 3 minutes; I even ended up talking to Cory Doctorow – who, hilariously enough, had laryngitis! I was vaguely aware of the people who attend SXSW (who’s a blogger, who’s a coder, who’s a designer, who’s a business person, etc). I certainly knew who Mr. Swartz was; he was the guy who invented RSS feeds, python guy,  attending Stanford and helping Larry Lessig with various creative commons/political projects.

He also seemed horribly out of place there. Now SXSW can generally be intimidating, and half the people there are socially dysfunctional, so there is no shame in being a wallflower.  When you’re 18 or 19 (as Mr. Swartz was), you tend to be uncomfortable and resort to your geek  persona  (whether it be coder, music collector, political junkie, literary snob, etc).  Aaron wasn’t really socializing – perhaps he had merely run out of steam or was tired. Who knows? So I swept in, introduced myself and asked him my cocktail party question.

In response to this kind of question, most people would hem and haw and then say something off the wall. I didn’t care what kind of reply you gave; I just needed something to start the conversation. But with Aaron, after I asked the question, he just fell into silence. Clearly he was flummoxed; it was a combination of believing that the question was childish and thinking that it was hard to boil his passions down to a single statement. I started talking a bit, and then after a minute or so, he gave a reply that was abstract, but inelegant. Something like, “My passion is emergent technology and how to harness it for businesses and organizations.”

That sounded good enough to me (“emergent technology” was the buzz phrase of the conference, and I remember thinking that it wasn’t particularly original, although coding geniuses were never really known for being profound or eloquent). After that, the conversation just dwindled away; I tried to ask him some more questions, but he didn’t want to continue; maybe he didn’t like small talk, or perhaps wanted to talk to the girl next to him. No biggie, some people are like that. Besides, he was the youngest person in the room (and he looked REALLY young), so he gets a pass.

Aaron was adopted by the copyright reform group, and he soon found himself working with various projects highly visible in the geek world. He was also a moderately interesting blogger who was on the cutting edge of web technologies. And then what happened?

He dropped out of school to work for various Internet companies. He went into political activism (which I’ll be blunt – doesn’t come naturally for most geeks).  There comes that point where every wunderkind has to manage and survive and accept that his  personal world has limits. That’s called “learning about the real world.”  Before it happens and you have settled into some comfortable bit of manageable mediocrity, it’s easy to get into trouble.  It’s easy to do fun and stupid things (Yes, I had that phase  once upon a time too).

Some might call it a “fall from grace.” I would not be so melodramatic, but simply describe it as adapting to one’s circumstances.  But maintaining a full time job just doesn’t sound as cool as the things one did at the university. The youthful world of hacking and breaking a few rules no longer attracted attention. Even your peers (if they even knew who you were) regarded you as “old hat”.  Suddenly getting a salary and maintaining a full time job seemed uninteresting and pointless and also very hard.

Also, there were the legal problems. Aaron tried some wacky trick of downloading zillions of academic articles from a site behind a paywall. It’s the kind of thing you  know you shouldn’t do, but the challenge of doing so plus the certainty that professors don’t REALLY want their articles behind a paywall only encourages you to do it.  One thing ingrained in programmers is looking for ways to circumvent the system,  and that’s what he did. And succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.

As it happens, the journal database and DA wanted to throw the book at him. Aaron was in a heap of trouble.  Surely, it’s likely that this thing would have been plea bargained to community service at some point, but the process can be grueling and demeaning. In a way, his infraction would command respect and awe; at the same time some of his friends might say he had gone over the deep end, and people who did not know him would automatically assume the worst. Things like filling out job applications and applying for credit cards and renting an apartment would require a complete disclosure. Suddenly you have a past that you ought to be embarrassed about.

I honestly have no idea what drive him to the edge. It’s likely that the charges aggravated his state of mind – though if he had reasonably good coping skills, he would have been able to deal with it.  Idealists tend to lose in a big and grandiloquent way.

The tragedy of his life is that he lacked perspective.  He was a brilliant programmer who had received lots of breaks early in life. He could learn new technologies effortlessly and was eminently employable.  He had lots of friends in big places and an overall good reputation. I tend to doubt that the charges drove him to suicide (although it must have convinced him of the utter absurdity of this world).  Perhaps his lack of perspective came in part from being a victim of his early successes and being trapped by his own high expectations.

This case reminds me somewhat of the death of  author Daniel Foster Wallace.  A philosophical postmodernist author with a generally good reputation and slightly older than myself. I was not in love with this author (I found his prose style ponderous), but I had read selected things he wrote and found them great.  This guy was manic-depressive, but at the same time had managed to win lots of awards. He had also gotten published, made some good money and found some tenure track jobs (which are practically impossible to find in the humanities, much less creative writing).  A few years before his death, Wallace  gave a pretty wild commencement address, and let me quote a significant part:

By way of example, let’s say it’s an average adult day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job, and you work hard for eight or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired and somewhat stressed and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for an hour, and then hit the sack early because, of course, you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there’s no food at home. You haven’t had time to shop this week because of your challenging job, and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the work day and the traffic is apt to be: very bad. So getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping. And the store is hideously lit and infused with soul-killing muzak or corporate pop and it’s pretty much the last place you want to be but you can’t just get in and quickly out; you have to wander all over the huge, over-lit store’s confusing aisles to find the stuff you want and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts (et cetera, et cetera, cutting stuff out because this is a long ceremony) and eventually you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough check-out lanes open even though it’s the end-of-the-day rush. So the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating. But you can’t take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college.

But anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and you pay for your food, and you get told to “Have a nice day” in a voice that is the absolute voice of death. Then you have to take your creepy, flimsy, plastic bags of groceries in your cart with the one crazy wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left, all the way out through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive, rush-hour traffic, et cetera et cetera.

Everyone here has done this, of course. But it hasn’t yet been part of you graduates’ actual life routine, day after week after month after year.

But it will be. And many more dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines besides. But that is not the point. The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is.

I’ll give Mr. Wallace the benefit of the doubt and say that he was exaggerating the horrors of mundane life to make a point  to his audience (as inappropriate as it was for a commencement address).  But  I couldn’t help but be struck by the contrast between his academic success and his sense of  suburban anomie.

Mr. Wallace, did you realize that many people are homeless? Many are out-of-work. Many have to struggle just to make ends meet. Many don’t have health insurance or even the ability to seek treatment for psychological disorders. Even among writers, many would kill for the opportunities Mr. Wallace received.     Many lone geniuses struggle with making ends meet and  winning a modicum of respect  in an indifferent or absurd world.

Both Mr. Swartz and Mr. Wallace  were sick and probably lonely people.  But both still had the intellectual potential and social resources to make a rich and fulfilling life. They had talent and good physical health, and yet they threw it all away for a runaway feeling.  What a loss! And what a waste!

Perhaps genius does not recognize or accept the urgent necessity of coping with disappointment. Ordinary people have to deal with disappointment all the time.  It  does not have to strike a mortal blow unless you are willing to realign your view of what you need to do to remain a part of it.

Postscript. I remain amazed at how much media coverage this person’s suicide has received (CNN, PBS, NYTimes, Slashdot, etc). Granted,  there was politics involved, and the crowd Aaron hung around with were tech-savvy and media-savvy.  I find it interesting how many people  have focused on the criminal charges and not on the aspect of personal tragedy. The question should not be: “Why did the DA’s decision to press charges cause this person’s suicide?” but  “Why did this well-liked and multi-talented individual decide — after getting a bum rap —  that there was nothing else to live for?” This is one live lost, but he is hardly the only person lost in this manner and hardly the most significant.  I have always felt that you don’t need to be a genius to have your voluntary exit from life be mourned by all.

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