Death in the age of social media is instant and pervasive. I remember the days when it might be weeks, months, and sometimes years before news of a death reaches you. No more. Now when someone of significance dies, their death creates a ripple of emotion that envelops all who would be exposed to it.
Certainly this is true when it comes to the death of Aaron Swartz. His suicide has sent a shock wave through the North American technology sector, and from there the world.
As the grief turns into anger, many, including Aaron's family, are pointing their fingers at the US Government, and their aggressive prosecution of his protest against restrictive copyright practices and policies.
Aaron was a dedicated activist, and it is appropriate that others take up his causes and advocacy to celebrate his life and mourn his death.
However I think we are missing a huge warning, and symptom of what was wrong with Aaron, and the technology sector in general.
While the penalties Aaron faced if convicted were severe, I feel he committed suicide for reasons of mental health and not criminal persecution. Which is not to say the stress and pressures that arise when facing the full might of the law are not immense, but it is how we deal with such things that is a manifestation of our emotional, mental, and physical health.
He was brilliant, and funny. A kid genius. A soul, a conscience, the source of a question I have asked myself a million times: What would Aaron think? That person is gone today, driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying.
I often argue that bullying is just another word to describe a mental health incident, often in which the victim has no choice but to confront their own mental health due to the power and manipulation wielded by the bully.
Further most people who are smart, especially people who's intellect emerges at a young age, wrestle with mental health issues if only because they are not always in sync with the rest of society.
And let me state for the record that there is nothing wrong with mental health. Just like physical health it is something we should and must be conscious of, deal with, and maintain if we want to be healthy.
Unfortunately it is still largely stigmatized and something people are not comfortable speaking openly about, or even addressing privately.
Aaron had powerful, deeply felt ideals, but he was also always an impressionable young man, someone who often found himself moved by new passions. He always seemed somehow in search of mentors, and none of those mentors ever seemed to match the impossible standards he held them (and himself) to.
This was cause for real pain and distress for Aaron, and it was the root of his really unfortunate pattern of making high-profile, public denunciations of his friends and mentors. And it's a testament to Aaron's intellect, heart, and friendship that he was always forgiven for this. Many of us "grown ups" in Aaron's life have, over the years, sat down to talk about this, and about our protective feelings for him, and to check in with one another and make sure that no one was too stung by Aaron's disappointment in us. I think we all knew that, whatever the disappointment that Aaron expressed about us, it also reflected a disappointment in himself and the world.
I have to assume that Aaron is not alone. That there are many other (young) people in the technology sector whose smarts both allow them to access fantastic worlds of ideas and action, while also allowing them to get away with weird or anti-social behaviour. Further Aaron had access to some of the smartest and generous people in the technology sector and it seems it was not enough.
Don Connolly, the host of Information Morning on CBC Radio One in Halifax, asked me what I felt needed to change in the technology world to prevent this kind of tragedy from recurring. I was quick to offer two suggestions:
1) Mental Health needs to be destigmatized. We need to recognize it is a natural part of human health, everyone deals with it, and we should feel encouraged to be open about such issues, and feel safe doing so.
2) The Technology sector needs to embrace work/life balance as more than just lip service, but a rule to live by. The industry celebrates and often demands the kind of commitment where you stay up all night, code for all hours, rush to meet deadlines, and sacrifice your body as a result. Game Jams or Hack-a-thons that go 24 or even 48 hours straight and encourage the type of abuse that inevitably leads to health problems, including and especially mental health problems.
It is wrong that we as a society accept this kind of abuse and allow people to harm themselves in such a way. Perhaps in certain circumstances "interventions" are an appropriate action to take. That we should reach out to the people we love who are allowing their use (and love) of technology to undermine the need to have stable mental and physical health.
Dear hacker, friend, fellow nerd, please take the time to step back, take a deep breath, and find a counter-balance to this world of technology that so consumes you, me, us.
Love, play, move, and say what you need to be happy and healthy.