If the Internet were a thing that could grieve, it would be in full mourning at the news that Aaron Swartz, a young activist with an impressive record of accomplishment, committed suicide Friday night. He was 26.
At age 14, Swartz co-wrote the RSS specification that turbo-boosted the art of blogging into the lingua franca of the Web. He was instrumental in the creation of Reddit -- the so-called "front page of the Internet." He was renowned -- and drew considerable negative legal attention for -- his efforts to increase public access to case law and scholarly journals. He was an information-wants-to-free hacker in the purest sense, but he was arrested in July 2011 on charges of illegally stealing 4 million documents from M.I.T. and the online scholarly archive JSTOR.
For the full story, Cory Doctorow's obituary at Boing Boing is the essential read, a memorial drenched in sadness and love.
Why did Swartz kill himself? Some are pointing the finger at ferocious hounding from federal prosecutors. But Doctorow suggests that his well-known struggles with depression were another possible culprit.
But Aaron was also a person who'd had problems with depression for many years. He'd written about the subject publicly, and talked about it with his friends.
I don't know if it's productive to speculate about that, but here's a thing that I do wonder about this morning, and that I hope you'll think about, too. I don't know for sure whether Aaron understood that any of us, any of his friends, would have taken a call from him at any hour of the day or night. I don't know if he understood that wherever he was, there were people who cared about him, who admired him, who would get on a plane or a bus or on a video-call and talk to him.
Because whatever problems Aaron was facing, killing himself didn't solve them. Whatever problems Aaron was facing, they will go unsolved forever. If he was lonely, he will never again be embraced by his friends. If he was despairing of the fight, he will never again rally his comrades with brilliant strategies and leadership. If he was sorrowing, he will never again be lifted from it.
Depression strikes so many of us. I've struggled with it, been so low I couldn't see the sky, and found my way back again, though I never thought I would. Talking to people, doing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, seeking out a counsellor or a Samaritan -- all of these have a chance of bringing you back from those depths. Where there's life, there's hope. Living people can change things, dead people cannot.