October 7, 2013

Abelson on Aaron

Hal Abelson tries to sum up the lesson of Aaron Swartz in MIT’s Tech Review.

Though Aaron Swartz was not an MIT student, he was like many of our students: brilliant, passionate, technically empowered. Yet he was also dangerously naïve about the reality of exercising that power, to the extent that he destroyed himself.

This bland passivity echoes the Abelson Report. The author of the great The Structure And Interpretation Of Computer Programs and of Turtle Geometry is capable of better, and Aaron deserved better.

Was Swartz in fact “dangerously naïve” to download those articles? I’m not convinced, and I’ve seen nothing in the record that convinces me. If Swartz was in fact pursuing the research project I believe he had in mind, there was no real need to use that utility closet: he knew plenty of MIT professors and postdocs and grad students who'd have been interested in the work and who would have been happy to plug his laptop into a socket in their office. And, yes, they might perhaps have gotten a knock on the door from the men in black, or a call from JSTOR. But nobody would be accusing them of dangerous naïveté or of lacking seykhel, not if they had grey hair and tenure.

Aaron was pursuing knowledge, using university facilities dedicated to that pursuit.

To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

As sometimes happens, his pursuit inconvenienced other people. He adapted his work both to minimize the inconvenience, and also to make it harder to blame him. Similar things happen in every lab and every dorm. Then an ambitious prosecutor thought she had found a high-profile case perfectly timed in advance of the governor’s race.

There but for fortune go you or I.