As we read the tributes pouring in for Aaron Swartz (e.g., this one at Big Think), we should pause and really think.
I feel the reaction myself. My first thought when I heard was, Well, he was obviously hounded into this by an overzealous government and corporate interests. And I thought what was he was doing was noble and just, part of a great tradition of civil disobedience. If what he did was illegal, it should not have been. And the government did go overboard. It clearly set out to make him an example. Like Bradley Manning, Swartz had the misfortune to become an emblem and to thus receive the whole fury of the system. A similar sort of thing happened with one of the founders of Diaspora. Many souls were searched (this article does a good job of looking at the question).
At the same time, I find it hard to believe it was only the JSTOR case that led Swartz to his sad act. Even reading the quotes in the story linked above, I see references to “stress” being “through the roof” from difficulties saying no to projects. And–it’s not a moral failing on his part, but simply a fact–some people face these kinds of situations and don’t kill themselves. The point being, the government didn’t help (wow, did it not help), and it was in the wrong, but we run the risk of painting suicide as an action with no escape if we don’t acknowledge that there had to be other factors here, and to do that would be a great disservice to those out there who are suffering with similar problems.
We must be careful with our memories of these events. It’s natural to try to place them into narratives, to make “good guys” and “bad guys.” But it’s never that simple, and I worry that we’re communicating that suicide is an answer for those facing such situations. The online world is one where “personas” can be carefully managed, effectively hiding emotional realities … until they can’t be hidden any longer.
If you’re reading this, there are answers. The story linked above about Diaspora has some great resources in it. There are other ways to solve this problem. You’ve just got to get in there and rewrite some ineffective code. Maybe we all do.