In honor of Aaron Swartz

Dr Margie Holmes

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Aaron showed that depression can affect even the brightest, kindest, most intelligent, most creative, funny, heart-warming people in the world

DR MARGARITA HOLMESI admit being a Johnny-come-lately. I hadn’t heard of Aaron Swartz till he committed suicide on January 11 this year. Had I been interested enough in the deeper and more nuanced aspects of info sharing and technology standards culture in the early 2000s, I definitely would’ve come across his work.

Aaron Swartz was a visionary activist devoted to making locked-up information of public interest freely available.

Jack Riley, Head of Digital Audience & Content Development for the British paper The Independent, said of Swartz on January 14: “Aged just 14 he assisted Tim Berners-Lee in founding RSS, one of the earliest ways that data on the internet was freed from the websites that provide it. Criticizing the mainstream news media for being a “closed system” of PR, politics and journalists, he took it on himself to open that system up, co-founding the social news website Reddit which has subsequently grown to be one of the largest news websites in the world. In his support for the SOPA movement in the US and other digital activism he helped shape the battleground on the politics of the internet for an ideological contest that will likely continue for many years to come.”

I wished I had known about this courageous and loving man before he died. But I didn’t, so I shall honor him the only way I know how: by making his life (and death) stand for something more than a person who, many say, killed himself because he couldn’t face the criminal trial in April 2013 on charges arising from his effort to “liberate” the JSTOR database.

No doubt the specter of 35 years in prison and fines of over $1 million added to his stress. But, as the website Upworthy wrote, “no one can force someone like A Swartz to commit suicide.”

Swartz was brilliant, an Internet prodigy, a technology wunderkind. These were the words that those who knew, and worked with, him consistently used to describe him. Despite the threat of bankruptcy, imprisonment, and all the other horrors that go with being a felon, someone like him does not commit suicide unless there was another factor in the mix.

That other factor could well have been clinical depression or another mental disorder.


Being the envelope-pushing activist that he was, Swartz had talked and written about his own battle with the beast. His feelings, described in a 2007 speech, are the classic symptoms of clinical depression:

“I thought of suicide. You feel worthless. You wonder whether it’s worth going on. Everything you think about seems bleak — the things you’ve done, the things you hope to do, the people around you…..You want to lie in bed and keep the lights off. Depressed mood is like that, only it doesn’t come for any reason and it doesn’t go for any either. Go outside and get some fresh air or cuddle with a loved one and you don’t feel any better, only more upset at being unable to feel the joy that everyone else seems to feel. Everything gets colored by the sadness.”

Depression was such a stigma then (and now) that to openly admit one suffered from it was already a big deal.  How I wish he could’ve pushed the envelope further by describing what he did to combat it.

But doing something about it, if only because it would enable him to do more for his advocacies, was not something he ever expressed. Perhaps he wasn’t even aware that was possible.

For someone who was capable of being so focused, to the extent of studying topics as esoteric as supertasting, I wonder why he didn’t apply the same focus on studying clinical depression.

Perhaps it was because techies and psychologists have diametrically opposed interpretations of life. The very processes they use to understand and share their knowledge support that. A techie is quick, instantly interpreting data and trends with a confidence (often well-earned) that is anathema to the psychologist. 

A good reason for this difference (aside from the fact that we psychologists may be plodders by nature—hahaha) is that psychology deals with people, who only an arrogant non-professional would pigeonhole immediately. Thus, a good clinical psychologist is measured when diagnosing disorders. We deal with the verities of life….so there is not so much of a rush. With the exception of a suicide risk, what is there today will be there tomorrow and the tomorrows after.


I can’t help thinking that how Oxford psychologist Kevin Dutton describes psychopaths in his book, “The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success” (2012) fits techies to a T: “Psychopaths don’t procrastinate,…(They) tend to focus on the positive. Psychopaths don’t take things personally; they don’t beat themselves up if things go wrong, even if they’re to blame. And they’re pretty cool under pressure.”

So, c’mon techies, don’t hate me! Focus on the positive and understand that my comparing you to psychopaths is done in the most loving, generous way.

I doubt tech columnists, his admirers, or even his family and lawyers (more of that in a future column) knew enough to help him. Exceptions are Cristina Warren and Brian A. Hernandez.

This is not an indictment of one of the brightest, most creative, generous and engaging people of our time. It is merely a sad recognition that knowing more about depression—not just what it is, but what can be done about it—can literally save lives.

Aaron showed that depression can affect even the brightest, kindest, most intelligent, most creative, funny, heart-warming people in the world.

Knowing how painful depression must’ve been for him, and how painful it must have been for those who watched him going through this, makes it all the more necessary to realize that, notwithstanding the fact that it is not a mind-over-matter thing and so something techies are not used to, depression is one of the easiest mental disorders to cure.

Maybe, just maybe, we should be more passionate in letting people know that depression is nothing to be ashamed of. 

Mabuhay ka, Aaron Swartz. Maraming salamat para sa lahat ng ibinigay mo sa amin. (Long live Aaron Swartz. Thank you very much for everything you gave us.) –






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