The spectacular life and tragic downfall of an American iconoclast.
In his debut, Slate correspondent and Columbia Journalism Review contributing editor Peters attempts to bring controversial concepts around content ownership and open access into context by examining the life and untimely death of one of the country’s most visible advocates for “content liberation,” Aaron Swartz (1986-2013). However, the book is an expansion of the author’s 2013 Slate article of the same name, so the new material feels like filler at times. But Peters presents a compelling sketch of a genius with real troubles, much of it presented through his subject’s own words. Swartz was many things, from a serial entrepreneur to a fundamental agent in the creation of initiatives like Creative Commons and Reddit. What put the Internet activist in hot water was his raid on JSTOR, a repository for academic journals, from which Swartz downloaded a significant number of articles. After he was arrested, his legal prosecution was excessive, even by the most conservative standards. Swartz was hit with more than a dozen felony charges that potentially carried with them more than 30 years in prison and $1 million in fines. Despite the zeal of prosecutors to single him out as a cautionary tale, their case ultimately failed. Sadly, Swartz turned down a plea bargain and two days later committed suicide. The book is a strange hybrid of biography, cultural journalism, and speculation that relies too heavily on legal documentation, hacker lore, and questionable conjecture based on close readings of blog posts made by Swartz. While he does present a detailed timeline of Swartz’s life and legacy, Peters’ analysis of the history and culture surrounding the book’s central thesis fails to find a solid point of view. Readers seeking a more nuanced portrait of Aaron Swartz might find more insightful commentary in the 2014 documentary The Internet’s Own Boy.
A hard look at Internet culture and the wunderkind it failed in the end.