I’ve been thinking a lot about Aaron Swartz after reading the wonderful homage“Requiem for a Dream”–you could call it a memorial or an obituary– in this week’s New Yorker (March 11, 2013 issue). The author, Larissa MacFarquhar, did a brilliant job matching format to philosophy. She interwove snippets of Aaron’s blogposts with quotations from family, friends, and digital rights icons like Lawrence Lessig. The pieces come together like the tiles of the mosaic portrait of Aaron that accompanies the article, and by the end, you’ve created a whole person. There are still questions–what really sparked his suicide that day, what might he have become, is the freedom of the Internet really dead– but somehow these fall away into the margins, acting like the mysterious mortar that holds the bricks together. Visually and verbally, by recreating an online forum on the printed page (yes, I read the article in the print copy of the New Yorker), it honors Aaron Swartz, young creator of the RSS feed and Reddit, and encourages us to stretch these fractured internet-born formats into something more artistic, more weighty, more true.
I’ve heard about people penning poetry on Twitter, 140 characters at a time. And haiku. I’ve heard about people self-publishing novels on LiveJournal or Google Docs, inviting others into their private creative process. People are putting their ebooks online for free. Others are locking them down. Then the reversal–thank you Capitalism!– took place. The microblog Shit My Dad Says became a book and a TV series. Twilight Fan Fiction was brought from screen to print seemingly without the intermediary process of good editing. It all seemed so gimmicky to me. Performance art. Ephemera. The next Hemmingway won’t write on Twitter, even if he does chose short sentences. This is all an interesting exercise, but it’s not how real art happens. It’s not how real change happens.
Yet for the first time, this article by MacFarquhar made me see the potential. New structures, new ways of telling a story, ways that reflect and refract the character, turning Aaron Swartz’s life back into pixels, reorganizing him. I’m not mystical but if we are all made of carbon atoms that can be neither created nor destroyed, then perhaps some of Aaron’s atoms will wind up as fiber optic cables, as ethernet cords, as bytes. Maybe he’s still waiting there– a man, an assortment of code and data packets– waiting to be reassembled. Maybe he just had to break himself into smaller and smaller parts so that his message could travel faster.
Why has his death caused such an Internet frenzy? Because it’s our John Henry moment. It’s Charlie Chaplin in “Modern Times” getting stuck in the cogs of a machine. It’s man versus industry. Man versus government oppression. Man versus himself. MacFarquhar makes a strong case that Aaron’s fatal flaw was a heart-wrenching compassion for others limited by his inability to rely on others. And stemming from that, his inability to completely commit to civil disobedience like Thoreau or SNCC. But it’s not his fault really. Our culture presently has no examples of true civil disobedience. PETA and treehuggers stage melodramatic, low stakes protests and are never taken seriously. Occupy Oakland could barely stand up to one can of pepper spray. Our cultural moment is too obsessed with individual identity to get behind anyone for longer than it takes a viral video to start losing hits.
Our moment in time is best exemplified by the Blog as a medium. The Blog with all its anonymity, narcissism, freedom of speech, and self-aggrandizement. The Blog that allows millions of people to publish their diaries, their prejudices, their dreams, their plans to save the world. And enables so few of us to do anything more than scream into the ether. Reading the excerpts from Aaron’s blog, the audience is unclear. Were these personal musings meant to be private? He would chastise his friends for repeating stories he wrote on his blog. Were his writings public manifestos meant to start a larger conversation? Both. Neither. It was a blog. It was all of that. The seed of every greatness contains the germ of its own destruction.
It’s as true for me as it was for Aaron Swartz, even though I didn’t know him, had only heard of him in passing in the library world as the guy who thwarted Big Publishing and helped create Creative Commons licenses. It’s easy to say of someone who commits suicide that he was his own worst enemy. But what chance did he have in a culture that can’t hold on to a hero for more than a millisecond? What chance did he have as a young person in the most self-serving, youth-obsessed era of prolonged adolescence we’ve seen? As someone with ideals and ethics in a world of such disparities and inequalities?
I don’t envy his genius, his demons, or his enemies, but I do envy his courage. And with this blog, may I join the silent ruckus of public anonymity and private solidarity. The emptiness and the noise. The sound and fury. Huh. If only Aaron Swartz met Quentin Compson. The article says he didn’t read much fiction. But I bet they’d have a lot to talk about.