“I’d not really read much Kafka before and had grown up led to believe that it was a paranoid and hyperbolic work, dystopian fiction in the style of George Orwell,” Aaron Swartz wrote of The Trial at the end of 2011. “Yet I read it and found it was precisely accurate—every single detail perfectly mirrored my own experience.” Earlier that year, in January, Swartz had been arrested by police in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for downloading several million articles from JSTOR, a database of academic journals. Six months later, he was indicted on multiple felony counts by a federal grand jury.
At the time of his arrest, Swartz was a brilliant computer programmer, well-known activist, and prolific writer. He had helped to develop, among other projects, RSS, which syndicates news from across the Internet onto one reader; Reddit, a message board that allows users to curate the front page; and SecureDrop, a platform for protecting anonymous leaks used by The New Yorker, The Guardian, and The Intercept, among others.
The government, his family later said, wanted to make an example out of him: The charges were extreme, the federal prosecutors overzealous. For downloading a small fraction of JSTOR’s data—which remained unaltered on JSTOR’s own servers—Swartz was charged with 11 violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and two counts of wire fraud, for which the maximum penalty includes up to 50 years in prison, $1 million in fines, restitution, and asset forfeiture. Whether Swartz intended to use the downloaded articles for his own research or to distribute them to other people remains unclear.
In retrospect, the aggressive prosecution was, as Swartz wrote of Kafka’s novel, “a vivid illustration that bureaucracies, once they get started, continue doing whatever mindless thing they’ve been set up to do, regardless of whether the people in them particularly want to do it or whether it’s even a good idea.” Swartz committed suicide in his Brooklyn apartment two years after his arrest and weeks before his trial. He was 26 years old.
His thoughts on Kafka appeared in his annual “Review of Books,” an annotated list of the books he had read. Swartz averaged about 100 books each year, but in 2011, he noted, he had read less than usual because it had been “a stressful year, in many ways.” Titles bolded on that year’s list of 70 volumes—among them The Lean Startup and Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality—were “those that were so great my heart leaps at the chance to tell you about them even now.” This enthusiasm—intimate, casual, urgent—animated each of the posts on his blog, which he kept regularly from the age of 15 until his death.
A suicide invites those in its wake to read the life lost as a trail of clues, whose mystery, if only deciphered sooner, might have led to a different resolution. It is tempting, and not difficult, to comb the 1,478 posts that Swartz published on his personal blog for signs and warnings. The Boy Who Could Change the World, an edited collection of these writings from Swartz’s blog and elsewhere, largely avoids this temptation.