One More On Swartz (and MIT)

I want to respond to a couple of things mistermix wrote this morning over at Balloon Juice about what I had previously written concerning MIT’s response to Aaron Swartz’s death, but first, some preliminaries.

1:  This topic has become a lightening rod for a stunningly unproductive comment war between those who see Swartz as presumptively criminal who couldn’t take the heat his own actions had invited, and those who see him as  a martyr to the positive cause of internet and data freedom and to the defensive one of resistance to overweening corporate and government interests.

My own view is much closer to the side of those who see Swartz as a driven idealist, on the side of the angels, largely unprepared for real life.  It’s overwhelmingly clear that he believed deeply in acting morally according to a particular moral code and that he was aware that this commitment could bring him into conflict with existing legal (and more everyday) constraints. It is clear, to me at least, that his goals, what he thought the good was for which he was willing to enter into such conflict, is in fact a major social benefit:  information, if it doesn’t always want to be free* wants to be genuinely accessible — or rather, we as citizens, members of a polity that utterly depends on an informed electorate, need to have ready access to the words, numbers and wisdom required to perform our civic work.  Does that mean Swartz or anyone else should get out of jail free when they challenge someone else’s intellectual property claims?  No, and Swartz and his legal team did not seek do so, according to the Kevin Cullen/Boston Globe column to which mistermix linked.  For those without access to the Globe, here’s the datum:

Swartz and his lawyers were not looking for a free pass. They had offered to accept a deferred prosecution or probation, so that if Swartz pulled a stunt like that again, he would end up in prison.

I have no problem with that proposed resolution; seems about right to me.  Much more appropriate than this:


That said, YMMV, on either side.

But here’s my point and my plea:  we’ve had now four threads on this matter.  I get it that some of you think otherwise, and have been fully in keeping with Balloon Juice traditions in the…how to put it…forcefulness of your expression of such views.  Now, please, just consider putting a sock in it.  The young man — I’m old enough to think of him as a very young man — is dead, and clearly suffered distress; whether or not you are convinced he was in the wrong just doesn’t f**king matter.  With absolutely no authority, and no intention of wielding a ban hammer for anything short of heinous, directly personal racism, bigotry, sexism and the like — mere insult and uninventive invective don’t cut it (that’s what pie filters are for, folks) –I’d just ask that you all try to stay on the actual argument, with some respect for the family, friends and those bereft by the loss of Aaron Swartz.  I’m asking as nicely as I can, OK?

2:   And while I’m at it, can I ask for some reflection before anyone spouts off about depression?  I’ve mentioned before that it’s been a big deal in my family, and I’m struck by the degree of careless and uninformed talk that’s run around Swartz’s loss.  No, depression should not be a get out of jail free card.  Yes, it is a serious, potentially fatal illness.  And yes, emphatically yes, I agree with one Swartz’s lawyer’s that the US Attorney’s office could and should have taken the risks posed to their defendent by the combination of a very aggressive prosecutorial approach and Swartz’s mental history:

Andy Good, Swartz’s initial lawyer, is ­alternately sad and furious.

“The thing that galls me is that I told Heymann the kid was a suicide risk,” Good told me. “His reaction was a standard reaction in that office, not unique to Steve. He said, ‘Fine, we’ll lock him up.’ I’m not saying they made Aaron kill himself. Aaron might have done this anyway. I’m saying they were aware of the risk, and they were heedless.”

It is worth remembering that prosecutors do have specific responsibilities to those under investigation or indictment, and a penumbra of duty that includes moral judgment.  I’m pretty sure the US Attorney’s office in Boston failed to meet at least some parts of that obligation.  But again, whether or not you agree, I’d ask anyone anxious to speak up on the role depression did play in Swartz’s death and any impact it should have had on the prosecution to think hard and write carefully.  This is not an area in which a snappy retort is likely to shed light, or, as important in my book, to contain what should be sympathy in the original sense of the word for a truly terrible and intensely complicated disease.

3:  A couple of links.  There’s a memorial site up for Aaron Swartz that any  so moved might find it worthwhile to visit.  And for those of you interested in actions that honor Swartz’s ambitions, MuckRock, a site dedicated to helping folks file Freedom of Information Act requests is offering free FOIA filing for the day in Aaron Swartz’s honor.

Alright, with those out of the way, onto the argument mistermix advanced in response to my piece about MIT President Rafael Reif’s announcement made in the wake of Swartz’s suicide and his family’s direct indictment of the Institute’s role in that tragedy. On that matter, mistermix writes:

When I read Tom’s piece about MIT’s President appointing a panel to study MIT’s response to Swartz, I figured that President’s haste indicated that there were some dirty hands at MIT who wanted to kick the can down the road. And what better way to do that than to follow the blue-ribbon example of Linda P.B. Katehi, still Chancellor of the UC Davis system, who used a panel to wiggle out of any accountability for her role in the pepper spraying of the Occupy protest on her campus. It doesn’t matter what the panel reports. What matters is that the panel’s report will be a long time in coming. When the report finally arrives, the outrage at those who insisted on draconian punishments for a “crime”–from which Swartz didn’t profit, which was completely non-violent, and which probably had minimal effect on the alleged victim (JSTOR)–will be attenuated by the passage at time.

To which my first reaction is, what would you have President Reif, and MIT do?  Not investigate?  Not formalize the process, identify decisions and the timing of those choices, name names?  That’s what I expect of Hal Abelson’s panel; if that’s not what I get, I will write again in this space acknowledging my error.

But until you see the document, roll with me on my assumption (as discussed in both my prior post and by several commenters in that thread) that Abelson is the real deal, in sympathy (I think) with Swartz’s take on open access, a man of formidable intelligence, as expert as you could hope for in the specific areas of computation and information most important to this case, and of previously tested and affirmed personal integrity and intellectual courage.  He may of course screw up; he may pull punches; he may be undermined by other institutional powers.  We will find out in time.  But for now, the rest of this post follows through the notion that Reif has requested a genuine inquiry and that Abelson intends to deliver one.

Given that, mistermix’s argument boils down to two related planks:  panels are devices to avoid action, and the way that this process arrives at the desired indecision is through delay.


You know what: mistermix is right.  Just not always — and more to the point, some version of this approach is in fact how academic (and other) institutions both work and don’t work.  I can’t speak for other universities, but in the 8 years I’ve been at MIT I’ve come both to know and value its particular data-driven culture.  Assertions do not fly well in governance here — not as rhetoric, and not as robust foundations for the decisions they may be used to justify.

More, if you want to enact faculty governance as something more than form, you have to approach certain questions this way:  I don’t believethe faculty would not accept Reif’s say-so on this or many other matters — for all that he rose to his present position through the MIT faculty ranks.  Rather, on crucial questions, the recognized approach here (and perhaps everywhere else — again, I’m a latecomer to the academy and my knowledge of its practices, as opposed to those of my home institution falls somewhere between very little and none) is to create finders and interpreters (judges) of fact independent of the central administration.

So perhaps a reasonable question is whether or not this process is anything more than form; it’s certainly not beyond the realm of possibility to think of a committee made up of faculty close to the administration, who could be trusted to keep troubling matters at bay.  But there’s also evidence that the process does not have to happen that way, at least not at the one venue for which I have direct knowledge.

As some of you may recall, a couple of months ago I interviewed my colleague Nancy Hopkins on my internet science broadcast.  Hopkins was the leader of the first panel created to assess whether or not MIT was discriminating against women faculty in ways that directly and crucially affected their research and their possibilities for advancement at the Institute.  Her panel and the one that followed it demonstrated exactly that, and produced both MIT – specific and national results as a consequence.

So, no, I don’t accept as a simple assertion of fact that Rafael Reif’s appointing a committee led by a prominent MIT scholar is prima facie evidence of the desire to kick this matter down the road.

Nor is the issue of time is important; justice delayed and all that.  But first — I don’t know when Abelson plans to report.  My guess is that it would be relatively soon, and speaking purely for me, I’d hope to hear from this panel before the end of the coming spring term in May.  (I know that’s not exactly a blazing pace, but that’s pretty quick by local standards.)

But whether or not that’s the case, its still not clear to me that taking an extended period to come to a conclusion is itself an obvious tell for the desire to sweep matters under the rug.  Rather, the test for me will be in the recommendations that flow from this investigation, and the administration’s response to those suggestions.  And anyway, taking time enough to nail one’s case is not in and of itself a sign of ill faith. Note that the Hopkins committee and its sequels took a couple of years to get their work done.  They did it in the way most likely to persuade an MIT constituency:  to prove the claim that women received less lab space than men under equivalent needs, they went out with tape measures and gathered the dimensions themselves.  That and a host of other efforts to accumulate unequivocal numbers took a while.  When their work was done, the picture was clear, and its implications unmistakable.  That it had taken a couple of years did not diminish it’s impact; rather the reverse.

So many words, when what I’m really trying to say is that simply pointing to the UC Davis travesty (I agree w. mistermix on that one) is not sufficient to arrive at the conclusion that MIT will similarly try to avoid taking institutional note of what happened here and what should be done about it.

*Why yes, damn, straight: I want you to run, not walk, to the electronic book store of your choice and buy my last work, for which I’ll score roughly $3.50 in royalties against a still-unearned-out advance.

**functionally a department, but as a historical rhetoric, MIT still boasts a Department of Humanities, of which several department-equivalents are sections.  A detail of interest to just about no one.

Images: Vincent van Gogh, Prisoners Exercising, 1890

Simon Vouet, Father Time Overcome By Love, Hope and Beauty, 1627

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2 Comments on “One More On Swartz (and MIT)”

  1. jre Says:

    I’ve only just discovered that Aaron Swartz was publishing startlingly insightful, well-crafted work over ten years ago:

    It is hard, even for those of us who never knew him, to think about what we’ve lost.

  2. sohbet Says:

    insight, how original! Your work makes it increasingly difficult for me to ingest the gruel served up by New York Times columnists (they favour speculation leading to cliche). Sorry for the gushing but I am genuinely appreciative.

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