“The tyrant dies and his rule is over, the martyr dies and his rule begins.” — Soren Kierkegaard
As much as I would love to seem more hip than I am and claim to have been a big follower of Aaron Swarz’s work and activism before his death, this simply isn’t the case and sadly I’m just not a good liar. But the fact that just about every libertarian activist throughout my social media chains were mourning his loss and touting his work was enough for me to look further into the life and tragic death of this young man. Aaron Swarz a prodigy in the field of internet communication, playing essential roles in the creation of RSS software as well as the website Reddit as a teenager. And this is all one might know about him from glancing through the headlines, most of which read something like “Reddit Co-Founder Dead At 26.”
None of this is why his name and image and videos had seemingly taken over my Facebook news feed for 24 hours or so. Aaron Swarz is hailed by activists not simply for his creative genius or entrepreneurial skill, but rather for his own relentless activism and advocacy of information freedom. We often drive home the importance of educating the masses in order to advance the ideals
of liberty, and nothing has enabled this like the internet and the ability to freely share information that comes along with it. Swarz made a point to target institutions that he felt were stifling the freedom of information, and was not afraid to put himself at great personal risk in order to do so.
I won’t go into the details of the charges he was up against, but Glenn Greenwald of the Guardian has written an excellent piece detailing Swarz’s activism and subsequent harassment by the Justice Department. I also will not speculate about exactly why he committed suicide. Nobody can truly know what goes on in the mind of another person and everyone has demons. But it is clear that, for whatever reason, the Justice Department was pursuing Aaron Swarz for what essentially amounted to a non-crime, with no victim pursuing damages. It was the Justice Department alone that was taking a hard line against Swarz, who was facing several decades in prision and millions of dollars in fines. At the same time, he was a key player in the fight to stop SOPA, the internet censorship bill that Congress attempted to pass earlier this year but was forced to back down from thanks to the public outcry resulting from online viral activism.
It is well worth taking the twenty minutes to listen to Aaron Swarz recount just how SOPA was stopped and how internet censorship has subsequently become a taboo subject for any politician to even attempt.
The most fascinating part about Swarz’s account is his emphasis on how the various activities going on to put a stop to SOPA were completely decentralized. There was no “leader” sending down commands to his activist minions. People simply began to become aware of the issue and take action in whatever way they felt appropriate, as we did here on this very site. The fact that I wasn’t even aware that Aaron Swarz was a major player in spurring the movement against SOPA is a testament to this.
Swarz’s description of the battle against SOPA might set off some light bulbs for those familiar with Austrian economics. What Swarz is describing sounds a lot like what F.A. Hayek called “spontaneous order”, which refers to the sudden emergence of order that can occur out of seeming chaos. The internet is essentially a giant experiment in spontaneous order, and it’s effectiveness has been apparent as the world has been drastically transformed in the last several years due to the still largely unregulated internet. I have no idea if Swarz had any familiarity with F.A. Hayek or Austrian economics, but he certainly understood the concept, and this is why he fought so hard for internet freedom.
Here he is discussing what he calls “Network Transformation”.
If there are any positives that come from the death of Aaron Swarz it is that his work and activism will likely now reach a much larger audience than they ever did before. Sadly and with regret, I likely would not have watched the above videos or written this post if Aaron Swarz was not found dead two days ago.
What we can learn from Aaron Swarz is that the ideas behind spontaneous order do indeed have major implications for our society, and they will affect everything from how commerce is done to how activist goals are achieved. And more than anything else, we must do everything in our power to protect the internet and the freedom of communication that has enabled this effect to unfold unlike ever before in the known history of the man.
While we hope that whatever demons faced by Aaron Swarz have been put to rest, we are confident that his example and his ideas will live forever.