Life Inside the Aaron Swartz Investigation

The letter to Stephen Heymann:


Dear Steve,

I can't stop thinking about the last moments of yesterday, when I asked you why and you said you couldn't give me the answer yet.

You are invested with the power to change everything about a person, to destroy lives, to inflict such harm as ripples through years, through people, through communities. Each time this power is used it leaves its small, but indelible, mark on history. I have this too, to a lessor degree. I also have the happy power to elevate, and leave ripples in history that way. This is as close as anything can come to sacred in a secular world. Using it should humble us both, which is something I try to keep in mind every time I write a story.

Over the last few years I've seen so many stories that gutted me. The loss of New Orleans, the oil spill, my own government openly admitting to torture, the erasure of nearly half of the world economy, taking countless quiet lives. All of these with their ripples, stories of lives destroyed that won't ever be told. I have what they used to call a melancholy temperament. Sometimes I just think of these things, and I rock and cry. The entire time I've been surrounded by lawyers. I've badgered them about why there have been so few or no cases related to the truly major crimes that have been tearing down society. I always get the same answer: that these things are simply too hard to prove, too politicly tainted, that law enforcement doesn't like to take cases they might lose.

I can't tell you how disappointing this answer is. It's too hard? You might lose? Then do hard things and risk failure. What else are we on this earth for?

I've been living through the collapse of my industry as well over the last few years. After so many barrels of ink have been wasted on media's navel gazing (and my god can we navel gaze) I have talked to may of my colleagues, and read much of the studies and analyses of the public consumption of media and news. For all of our gnashing teeth, it turns out either we're doing our job, or someone else is. The public is more well informed than any other time such things have been studied in history. Yet scandals don't carry the weight to reform they once did at anything but the most local level, and maybe even then only rural, where prosecutors still follow up. I have worried for some time that part of the public apathy we see is this: your profession has stopped taking the baton from mine.

Then there's the matter at hand; you have accused Aaron of downloading a million journal articles. You've said you can prove this. You've asked me to contextualize this, and I've given you the only context that I can imagine-- giving the global poor tools to better their state. I believe it's the only context you have. I am still wondering how, in all a sea of troubles, that can really be worth your time and energy, how that can be worth the awesome and sacred destructive power you've been given. If you can tell me how spending your precious time on that, time you will never get back, time that can never be given to so many unaddressed oppressions on the human spirit, makes the world a better place, I will rest. Even if I disagree with you, I can rest. But I think I will know if you're lying. If the actual answer is the other things are too hard, that you might fail, then you are already part of a grand failure. A failure so great and so close to us we can barely see it, mistaking it for the sky itself.



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Quinn Norton is a science and technology journalist whose work has appeared at and inThe GuardianMAKESeed,, and The Irish Times.

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