Skip to main content
book review

In this Jan. 30, 2009 photo, Internet activist Aaron Swartz poses for a photo in Miami Beach, Fla.Michael Francis McElroy/The Associated Press

What do we mean when we talk about "idealism?"

Well, for one, there's hard philosophical idealism, which holds that our minds shape our understanding of the world and distinguish between things as we perceive them and things as they are, in and of themselves. And there's idealism in politics: the belief in harmonizing foreign policy with internal policy.

Then there's the ethical dimension, from which Slate correspondent Justin Peters's book about Internet activist and online martyr Aaron Swartz takes its name. Best known for his involvement in social news website Reddit, and for fighting against restrictive copyright laws, Swartz was driven by his deep-rooted and unshakeable beliefs. In the context of Swartz's life, ethical idealism relates to pursuing a goal one believes to be morally just and good, often regardless of the consequences. As Peters writes, "Since the days of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, young men and women have yearned to save the world: to live according to their ideals and spend their days fighting social injustice and effective substantive change. This dream is usually abandoned with age, deferred into idle bar-stool radicalism and the occasional protest vote."

It's easy to sound contemptuous when calling someone an "idealist," as if holding fast to such principles is naive and hopelessly at odds with the more negotiated, compromised realism we've become more accustomed to in daily life n– the bar-stool radicalism and occasional protest votes. But Peters doesn't seem to mean it like this. He's not being sly, or ironic, or skeptical. In keeping with the earnest thrust of idealism itself, Peters holds that Aaron Swartz, and those like him, are valiant and noble. Perhaps even too valiant and noble for a world fuelled by cynicism, pragmatism and, more than anything, realism.

Like me, Swartz came of age online. Born in 1986, we're part of a generation who can barely remember life before the Internet, whose hatching into adolescence might as well have been scored to the glitchy squeaks and squawks of an old 14.4k dial-up modem grinding into gear. Unlike me, Swartz took an actual interest in the stakes of life online, instead of merely using the Internet as a delivery system for pornography, Wikipedia entries about D.C. Comics supervillains and YouTube videos of trained walruses dancing to Michael Jackson songs at a Turkish SeaWorld.

Unlike me, Swartz never took the Internet for granted. He understood that the ability to make information – and indeed, the collected body of knowledge of all civilization – accessible to anyone with an Internet connection was immensely powerful. And throughout his short life, Swartz would come to understand that contesting forces would vie for this power. As Peters writes, "Aaron Swartz has become an avatar for a movement, his actions and presumed intentions an argument that the government ought to pass laws that promote, rather than inhibit, the digital dissemination of knowledge."

The Idealist neatly dovetails an abridged biography of Swartz's life with a similarly compressed history of the U.S. government's relationship to the "dissemination of knowledge." Throughout America's history, as Peters notes, intellectual property has been viewed as a "moral crusade." On one side, there are the creators and publishers, who hold that they should be able to materially profit from work they create. On the other, there are the advocates who believe that easy (and free) access to knowledge creates a more informed populace, and even a more functional democracy. Peters sums up the tensions thus: "Was copyright a set of social relationships, or was it an inalienable property right?"

For the average mug such as me and you, the history of copyright and intellectual property can feel a little dusty and academic. But for Aaron Swartz, it was anything but.

In January, 2011, Swartz was busted by MIT campus police. His crime? Hooking up a computer to the school's server to download academic articles from the website JSTOR. The authorities came down hard on Swartz in a way that seemed disproportionate with his "crimes." His apartment was searched, his hard drives and notebooks were seized and he was charged with 11 violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. In the face of such vast, bludgeoning and unfathomable bureaucratic authority, Swartz felt a bit like Joseph K., the hapless protagonist of Kafka's The Trial. "Every single detail perfectly mirrored my own experience," Swartz wrote on his blog. "This isn't fiction, but documentary." The authorities were clearly trying to make an example of Aaron Swartz, and send a stern warning to other idealistic Internet activists who believed that information yearned to be free. Instead, they made a casualty of him.

On Jan. 11, 2013, Swartz was found dead in his Brooklyn apartment. He had hanged himself. There was no suicide note. In The Idealist, Peters (thankfully) makes no real attempt to account for, or decode, Swartz's motives for taking his life. What emerges instead – through Peters's account, as well as Swartz's own writing – is the image of a young man who had been thoroughly ground through "the System." In the course of his young life, Swartz learned that "[s]ystems that were supposed to empower only disempowered. And there's the rub. In the real world, most organizations don't keep learning and improving – they set parameters and stay within them."

The Idealist isn't just the tragic story of Aaron Swartz. Peters uses Swartz's life to look at the broad, "mutable social relationships" that constitute intellectual-property policies. What might otherwise have been a dull book about the history of copyright in America becomes a story of a long battle between the private and public spheres, authority and resistance, the resigned compromises of realism and the noble thrust of idealism.

Interact with The Globe