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I didn’t know Aaron Swartz personally. We never spoke, not in person nor by email.
Yet, his suicide today has left a big hole in the world for me.
I found my own sadness baffling. I didn’t know the guy. Why did I, deep down, feel such a void in the world?
The reason was: I felt a rare connection to Aaron because of his thoughts and actions. An invisible connection that only existed at the intellectual level, not a social one, through his writing, technology, politics, and his willingness to show humanness.
His writing and thoughts connected with me, especially his Raw Nerve series on how to become better at being human. His writing showed me that other people were thinking about the same things I was, in terms of the “backstory” of being human, the inner. I felt like I was on the same wavelength with another human that was thinking and devoting time to these inner pursuits.
His code and contributions to software were inspiring, in Python, RSS, and elsewhere. Relentlessly making progress and thinking about the macro game of software and technology. Same wavelength.
His JSTOR incident? Not exactly the same wavelength. But fighting for progressive policies in government, liberating information in science and law, using the closer-to-democracy tool of the Internet to do that? Absolutely.
His writings on depression showed that, like all of us, he was human, and, like all of us, he suffered. But few of us show vulnerability and humanity. Many of us hide behind facades of “how are you?” “great!”, smiling photos, and upbeat Facebook statuses, preferring not to talk about what really goes on inside our heads.
Here’s a guy who I felt a deep connection to, because we were on the same wavelength – through openly showing humanity, a devotion to improving oneself, using technology for change, and changing the macro political environment. There aren’t a lot of people that I feel a multi-faceted intellectual connection with, but Aaron was one of them.
And despite not knowing him at all, his death left me feeling a void in the world. Because the world lost a brilliant person, but also because the world lost someone whose ideas I believed so much in, whose ability to put those thoughts into action was admirable, whose willingness to show vulnerability and humanness was something I feel like the world desperately needs more of.
But good often comes from bad. And the good, in this case, is the realization that we should aim to connect with more people, on a deeper wavelength. We should all be working relentlessly to put our feelings into words and into action, and not be afraid to show that, yes, we are actually human, and yes, we do have things we really believe in but haven’t yet acted upon, and we do have moments where we feel on top of the world and also the moments where we feel absolutely hopeless.
And we should all be working to make the most of our time in the world, to make sure we don’t squander our most limited resource, and instead maximize it, to connect to and affect more lives in this world.
We might not all be socially connected, but the work that we do connects us as a community. And our collective work makes history.
I hear about the idea of ‘choosing to be happy’ frequently. When we talk about improving our lives during our short existence, it’s oft-repeated advice.
Here’s the idea: when you’re not happy, or when you’re not satisfied, or even when you’re depressed, you can make the decision to be happy instead. You have the choice to be happy or sad – and, given the fact that you only have limited time on Earth, which one do you want to pick? Happy, of course.
So, ‘always choose to be happy.’
I find this approach to be extremely ineffective. Although it’s nice to acknowledge that you always have the choice to be happy or not when dealing with a situation, I think that there is less value in simply ‘choosing to be happy’ and more value in choosing to be unhappy and doing something about it.
In my personal life, changes have often stemmed from my unhappiness with something and making a decision to change it. I’ve made positive changes because I chose to be unhappy (or even angry) about something that needed to change.
I feel like the idea of ‘choosing to be happy’ is simply a temporary escape, a band-aid that treats the surface, but not the root cause. It solves the symptom of unhappiness, but not the problem itself. That mindset robs us of the anger and impetus we need to make a change and attack the root of the problem.
For example, you might not be happy because you’re out of shape, which is making dating difficult. In that instance, you can choose to reject being unhappy and be happy instead, which allows you to relax and feel not so bad about the problems you’re facing.
But what does that change? What progress have you made? In this instance, choosing to be happy is only a temporary solution to the symptom, not the actual root cause, of your unhappiness. Here, choosing to be happy only solves, “I’m unhappy because I’m overweight”, the symptom, not “I’m overweight, and need to start exercising and eating better”, the problem.
Being unhappy is difficult, and it’s far from satisfying. However, I think some of the most important developments in your life can come from being unhappy and choosing to do something about it. Choosing to do something about the root cause of your unhappiness isn’t the same as choosing to solve the symptom of unhappiness itself. Lasting happiness comes from understanding that root cause and making something happen, not from numbing the resulting unhappiness by ignoring it.
Conquering the root causes of unhappiness is very difficult to do, because it requires so much willpower, and the alternative options – wallowing in sadness, or choosing to be happy for the short-term and treating the symptom – are so much easier to do (and are so much more tempting) than working to cure the true underlying issue.
But choosing to be unhappy and doing something about it is the only way that you will solve the actual problem. It’s the only way you can make progress in your life, by solving the real problems that are holding you back.
I’ve been reading “The Unabomber’s Pen Pal,” an article about Ted Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber (a former professor serving a life sentence for mail bombing), and David Skrbina, a professor of philosophy trying to make Kaczynski’s voice and manifesto heard.
Kaczynski espouses the philosophy that technology has had disastrous effects on the human race, as he writes in his manifesto Industrial Society and Its Future (PDF). Skrbina communicates with Kaczynski about the effects of technology and the negative implications of it on the world at large, and published a collection of Kaczynski’s writings in a book called Technological Slavery.
One thing that jumped out was this question: is it right to study—and, in Skrbina’s case, disseminate—the views and work of the Unabomber? Purely intellectually, I think the answer is a definitive yes. Regardless of who espouses an idea, it should be considered, even if the person with the idea was a terrorist.
However, not everyone holds the view that ideas should be truthfully considered, even though the person behind is a terrorist. If Skrbina’s goal is to push forward Kaczynski’s anti-technology manifesto and make him be heard, especially to the general public, it may actually be detrimental for the anti-technology philosophy. Since these views would be tied to Kaczynski, people would be able to point to him and say that the views are simply the result of a crazy murderer, and refuse to give the views any consideration outside of an ad hominem attack.
The article quotes Langdon Winner, a “vocal critic of technology,” who fears this result:
…he [Winner] admitted that “there are glimpses of insight” in the manifesto. He wrote that it is “sad,” however, that the ideas Kaczynski put forward would now be linked with a perceived madman, making them easier for some to dismiss.
These ideas are not original, either: Winner goes on to describe others who have also questioned the effects of technology’s meteoric rise.
Winner tells me that plenty of other thinkers have provided similar arguments without taking them to murderous extremes. Jacques Ellul’s seminal book The Technological Society, for example, argues that the technological system will overwhelm and absorb anything that doesn’t sustain its basic logic, and that it risks corrupting human values. Winner lists other like-minded authors, including William Morris, Lewis Mumford, and Ivan Illich. Those thinkers, not Kaczynski, are the ones scholars should focus on, he says, adding that they are more original than Kaczynski.
These won’t be the people we’ll be hearing about, though. We’ll be hearing about Kaczynski: former professor, mail bomber, and questioner of the detrimental effects that technology has had on humanity.
Scrutiny on the disadvantages of technology is growing, especially in the general public. But if these views are associated with Kaczynski, it becomes much easier to dismiss them as the views of a terrorist and an anarchist against the status quo, a reaction that is especially appealing to the general public. It is already the popular choice to dismiss arguments against technology, given what technology has done for us. The fact that Kaczynski is the one pushing these ideas makes it easier to exclude scrutinizing the negative effects of technology from serious consideration.
And it makes it easier for these ideas—and the call to stop looking at technology as something that’s unquestionably good—to die, by association with Kaczynski. And that’s dangerous, because the development of technology is one of the most important forces of the past few hundred years, and there is little scrutiny, especially in the general public, on whether the effects of technology are all good.
Technology in medicine has been instrumental in saving lives and preventing diseases. In other cases, it’s not as clear. Has public dependence on technology resulted in a higher attention to mass media? Has it made interpersonal relationships better, or do we interact with other people on more shallow levels today?
Regardless of what we think now, greater scrutiny on the effects of technology is worth serious thought. However, if this greater scrutiny on technology becomes increasingly associated with Kaczynski, the ideas, marred by its association with Kaczynski, may never receive the attention and serious consideration that they deserve, especially with the general public.
Steve Jobs, you are an inspiration like no other. No one else has pushed the boundaries of modern technology, innovated beyond what we thought was possible, and influenced the future, quite like Steve. Perhaps more importantly, no one else has made us believe like Steve has. We look up to Steve because he shows that it’s possible to have an incredible impact on the world with one’s work and innovation. Now, we live in an era without Steve. We have to look at Steve’s work and let it inspire us to build our vision of the future. We have Steve to remind us of how much of an impact we can make on the world, and to realize that we only have a finite amount of time to do so. Thank you, Steve, for inspiring us and making us believe. You made a lasting larger-than-life influence, and not even death can take that away. Your legacy lives on and will continue to inspire us.