Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?


That line from Alexander Pope came to mind time and time again last night as I watched a marvellous Storyville film about the short life and tragic death of Aaron Schwartz. At the end, I was left with the same mixture of anger and despair that I felt when news broke of his suicide, hounded to his death by a vindictive and disproportionate prosecution by the Feds for organising a massive download of scholarly articles from JSTOR.

I never met him, but I followed him through his writing and his work from the first time he surfaced on the Net. I vividly remember his blog posts about his reactions to Stanford, especially the way he tried to figure out why the world (and specifically that particular corner of it) was so weird and dysfunctional. And every day I use Markdown and RSS, two of the tools he helped to create. So like legions of others, I am in his debt.

I knew most of the story of his life. He and I shared a mutual friend (who was truly heartbroken by his death). What I hadn’t known — and the film revealed — was what he was like as a very young child. And the truth turns out to be that he was remarkable from the very beginning, one of the brightest, most engaging toddlers I’ve ever seen.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the film was the way it managed to be deeply moving without being sentimental: that’s a hard balance to strike, but the film-makers pulled it off. In the end, as I said, it left one with a burning sense of injustice and anger. Two things stand out. The first is the hypocrisy of an administration (Obama’s) which vindictively pursues this idealistic young genius while failing to prosecute the criminals who wrecked the banking system. And secondly there is the thought that the real significance of Aaron’s treatment is that it heralds a future in which the established order will do whatever it takes to suppress uses of the Internet that challenge it. Aaron was, after all, well on his way to becoming a powerful political activist.