The young Mozart, according to legend, ended one of his earliest concerts by bursting into tears. The audience had erupted in rapturous applause at the spectacle of a tiny little boy playing sonatas with the proficiency of an adult master. So why was Mozart crying? “They were only applauding for me,” the boy told his father. “They weren’t listening to the music.”
I was reminded of this story while reading the collected writings of the campaigner and computer prodigy Aaron Swartz, published in January in paperback as The Boy Who Could Change the World (Verso). Urban legends follow child prodigies as reliably as the FBI follows young men who mess around with computers, and, to some of the finest minds in technology, Swartz will always be the brilliant teenager who started to design software and websites when he was still at school. The collection, along with a new biography of him, The Idealist by Justin Peters, cannot help romanticising Swartz’s early achievements and his early death.
Aaron Swartz was 26 years old and had been pursued by the FBI for two years when he hanged himself at his home in New York in 2013. He had been charged with the victimless crime of copying hundreds of thousands of articles from academic journals – usually restricted, at great cost, to members of universities – through the servers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Copying a document is not, as the prosecutors insisted, equivalent to stealing a wad of bills, for the simple reason that the original document can still be used. Nonetheless, Swartz was facing years in prison, a felony conviction and the end of his dreams of working in public policy.
His life was shaped, as Benjamin Mako Hill and Seth Schoen observe in the collection, “by an ethical belief that information should be shared freely and openly”. Swartz was a leader in the “free culture” movement, a polymath who had already led and won a global battle to prevent the privatisation of swaths of the internet under the terms of the Stop Online Piracy Act in the United States. He could have chosen an easy life of influence and affluence in Silicon Valley or, perhaps, in academia. But Swartz could not live with, or in, systems that were inefficient and unfair. And he was punished for it.
In his short life, Aaron Swartz appears never to have met an institution that could hold his respect and patience. He dropped out of high school and Stanford University and walked out of projects and start-ups that did not meet his standards of efficiency and clarity of purpose. He had a horror of systems that did not work as they should on any scale; an obvious impatience with inefficiency, bureaucracy and slowness of thought seeps through both his words and others’ words about him.
We know how to handle very clever children who do as they are told. The problem comes when prodigies start to question the systems in which they are asked to operate. In a blog entry that is not included in the new collection, Swartz quotes Martin Luther King’s speech about being proud to be “maladjusted” to a system that was unjust. The same traits that made him an inspired computer programmer and thinker – his refusal to accept broken and archaic systems of thought, infrastructure and government – were the reason he was pursued by the forces of law and order.
I never met Swartz, but I am close to a number of people who knew him well and feel his absence keenly. I believe that communication should not be hampered by states or bartered by corporations. I believe that the early web’s promise of open and easy access to information, whether it be government records, academic journals or creative works, is something to treasure and protect against what Swartz called the “private theft of public culture”. I agree, as Swartz wrote in 2008, that “there is no justice in following unjust laws”. Information is power and, accordingly, there are those who want to keep it for themselves.
You do not have to have a particular interest in copyright law to recognise the pettiness of the US government’s hounding of a vulnerable young man who happened to believe passionately that information should be free. In generations to come, Swartz will doubtless be remembered as an early martyr of the free culture and transparency movements, along with Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Jeremy Hammond and many others.
After spending 48 hours immersed in writing by and about Swartz, I found myself shaken and angry: full of rage at the US government’s small-minded crusade against the changes brought about by the information age, a crusade as doggedly pointless as the 16th-century Catholic Church’s efforts to quash the printing press.
These books are not perfect; you can see the sainthood of Aaron Swartz being written in real time, excising the difficulties and inconsistencies of his personality. Peters’s biography strips his story of its most contentious political implications. Likewise, Verso’s decision to put his age at the time of writing at the head of every piece cheapens the work, drawing repeated attention to the phenomenon of his youth.
The dawn of the Information Age is not just about new ideas but about new paradigms of communication and control, and the movement to protect the free internet from the interests of governments and corporations is urgent and ongoing. Martyrs have a way of clarifying the purpose of a movement. For this reason, if no other, Swartz might not have been upset by this particular use of his life’s work.
To honour properly what Swartz and others like him stand for, it is not enough for us to applaud the prodigy cut down too soon. We must also make sure we are listening to the music.
This article appears in the 02 Mar 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Germany's migrant crisis