Aaron Swartz, the activist, programmer and writer, took his own life a couple of days ago. He was the target of a case by the US government, MIT and JSTOR, and was facing possibly decades in prison. (Update: JSTOR was for dropping the case early and had a sense of proportionality, whereas MIT seems to have no such sense. But here is a statement from MIT President L. Rafael Reif indicating that MIT will start an investigation.) Rick Perlstein in The Nation (image via Wikimedia Commons):
I remember a creature who seemed at first almost to be made up of pure data, disembodied—a millionaire, I had to have guessed, given his early success building a company sold to Condé Nast, but one who seemed to live on other people’s couches. (Am I misremebering that someone told me he crashed in his apartment for a while, curling up to sleep under a sink?)
Only slowly, it seems, did he come to learn that he possessed a body. This is my favorite thing he wrote: about the day “I looked up and realized I couldn’t read the street sign. I definitely used to be able to read that sign, but there it was, big and bright and green along the highway, and all I could make out was a blur. I had gone blind.” Legally blind, it turned out; and then when he got contact lenses, he gave us an account of what it felt like to leave Plato’s cave: “I had no idea the world really looked like this, with such infinite clarity. It looks like a modernist photo or a hyperreal film, everything in focus everywhere. Everyone kept saying ‘oh, do you see the leaves now?’ but the first thing I saw was not the leaves but the people. People, individuated, each with brilliant faces and expressions at gaits, the sun streaming down upon them. I couldn’t help but smile. It’s much harder being a misanthrope when you can see people’s faces.”
This man is dead now.
Yes, and not a person of pure data after all. I remember the time, at the height of our friendship, when he announced he was taking a month off from connecting to any computer. I remember him telling me afterward about what it felt like: glorious, radiant, strange, alive, true (he mostly read history books). Dude got to see what it was like outside Plato’s Cave two separate times in his life. How many of us can say that?