Of Respect Disproportionated

In the first half of the year called 2013, MIT witnessed the tragic loss of two very different people, Aaron Swartz and Sean Collier, both of whose deaths reverberated in extensive aftershock through the MIT community. Both were heroes that lost their lives as part of thread that dared to bridge at least some of the countless deep lesions of society.

Reflective respect for Sean Collier escalated dramatically and immediately after his death in the line of duty. MIT took a school day off to honor Sean Collier in a ceremony so large it spanned Briggs Field and brought over the Vice President of the United States. The hacking community of MIT was quick to thoroughly honor Collier across campus. “Collier Strong” spread across Cambridge like “Boston Strong” (a move that I find very fit and indeed newly unifying). The number 179 became symbolic. An award was event made in his commemoration. And yet at the 2014 Excellence Awards, L. Rafael Reif still claimed Collier was undercelebrated, despite the fact the there is probably no name heard more in the past year here at MIT than his.

But there is something wrong with this picture. There were two of them. There were two heroes with a significant connection with MIT that died tragically early that year. What happened to Aaron Swartz? Sure, Swartz was exploiting MIT’s openness, but MIT prides itself in its openness that it wishes to contribute to aiding anyone yearning to carry the world to progress. Why did we not have a Briggs-spanning ceremony in honor of Aaron Swartz? Why have memorial slogans for Swartz not made their way into our discourse? Why wasn’t there a Swartz award to be handed out in the Excellence Awards?

To any reasonable standard, Swartz was clearly the greater hero. I hate to mention it, but the person who phoned in information about the Tsarnaevs’ flight from MIT contributed more to saving Boston than Sean Collier did. The only reason why Collier was notable was because he was killed: he died honorably in the line of duty. The impact of Collier’s work was at most local. But Swartz was much more.

Aaron Swartz’s work and life dedication to openness and freedom of the internet and the world was indubitably global in impact. Swartz’s contributions, from Reddit to spreading awareness of the dangers of SOPA, quake the farthest fibers of the electronic and outside world in the wavelength of openness. He is certainly a hero of the internet, and in the age of the internet that we are currently in, a hero of the world. And he is thoroughly forgotten here at MIT, ironically modulo the times in which actually unethical internet hackers vandalized whatever came to their minds as relating to MIT and its slightly regrettable decisions in the case of Aaron Swartz.

But this is a smaller part of a general issue. The “heroes” that American society celebrates are in general not the ones that actually allowed society to become the way it is right now. When it comes to scientists and engineers, America finds it awkward and strange, perhaps taboo, to consider those people heroes and worth dedicating extensive memorial to, and it has generally permeated our society that those we should be celebrating are not the ones actually building the world. Swartz is a victim of this “science curtain.” And evidently, this social standard is so strong that even MIT is unwilling to admit that the man more achieved of Sean Collier and Aaron Swartz was the latter, one who wasn’t one of us, but was unquestionably one who reflected the inner spirit of MIT.


1 thought on “Of Respect Disproportionated”

  1. I think a bigger deal is that celebrating Sean Collier is uncontroversial. Call him a hero, call him whatever you want, but like it or not Aaron Swartz was indicted for wire fraud and had yet to go to trial. The entire situation was a clusterfuck of plea bargains, presumptive sentencing, and nebulous prosecutory rationale. Here are some choice quotes that illustrate why Aaron Swartz, amazing though he was, is simply not someone that MIT can turn around and celebrate:

    “Marty Weinberg, who took the case over from [Swartz’ inital lawyer], said he nearly negotiated a plea bargain in which Swartz would not serve any time. ‘JSTOR signed off on it,’ he said, ‘but MIT would not.’ ”

    “Speaking at his son’s funeral, Robert Swartz said, ‘[Aaron] was killed by the government, and MIT betrayed all of its basic principles.’ “

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