The article below was written as an article intended for The Star newspaper, Malaysia. They, however, declined to publish it. So, too, did the New York Times and the Sunday Times, so decline. The latter two newspapers were not even polite enough to reply - though the Star was, at least.
I rather think that the key idea proposed within this article found disapproval with these news organs...they couldn't bring themselves, it seems, to air my suggested solution to the problem I raise and discuss. To me, that seems closed minded. My solution should, at least, be brought out into the open for discussion. Having been rejected by three newspapers, however, I think it is best if I, at least, publish this article on my blog, so that it might, at least, get a small readership...which is better than no readership at all.
If any newspaper does wish to run the article...just ask me, and I shall arrange it. Thanks.
Aaron Swartz and the failure to value genius.
It is striking to note that, throughout
history, geniuses are more often valued dead, than alive. In life, a genius can
expect much opposition, not a little hostility and a complete absence of
support. Yet, in death, “Humanity” finds it in itself to heap praise on the
corpse of the now unthreatening genius.
So, too, it is in the nature of genius to
be apart from the mainstream; to hold different viewpoints, which, though
unique at first, might, in time, become commonplace, if the genius’ ideas are
ever accepted. Yet, during the course of their working lives, it is common for
geniuses to strive against the “system”, to be ever seeking change, and
improvement - revolution even. It is
this tendency which, of course, leads on many occasions to the persecution of
geniuses, their loss of liberty and even loss of life.
What can a genius do for society? A genius,
properly enabled to do their work, can bring into being a new world, a new way
of doing something old, a new science, a new technology and a new culture. A
genius can give us a world we would never know without them. One genius is more
valuable to a society than millions of ordinary workers – because those
ordinary workers will never bring anything new into being – they only ever work
with what already exists and the boundaries that have already been laid out. A
genius should, therefore, be treasured, however awkward it might be, at times,
to have them around.
The recent case of Aaron Swartz, the
internet pioneer, writer, computer programmer, political organizer and internet
activist brings into focus issues surrounding the attitude of society, to
genius. As many of you will know, he committed suicide on January 11th,
2013, seemingly in order to escape from a draconian prosecution by the US
government, for a rather odd “crime”: downloading over 4 million articles,
which were accessible free, to him, from the JSTOR database, from an unlocked
closet at MIT. He had done this because he objected to JSTOR charging
significant fees for the articles, since he believed this restricted access to
them. He had a point, for I argued similarly, in a journal article I published
entitled: “An analysis of the ethics of peer review and other traditional academic
publishing practices”, in the International Journal of Social Science and
I found that it was unethical to charge for academic articles, since this acted
so as to limit the distribution of knowledge, for the purpose of profiteering.
Thus academic publishers, are making money at the expense of human progress.
For Swartz’s action in bringing attention
to this issue, he had faced up to 35 years in prison and a 1 million US dollar
fine. For a 26 year old, potentially looking forward to a life in prison, until
his sixties, this must have seemed an overwhelming prospect to Aaron Swartz.
Rather than face such an awful prospect, he appears to have chosen to end his
life, by hanging.
Every death is a loss to the world. Yet,
Aaron’s life was not a typical one. At just 14, he contributed to the creation
of RSS, used to feed updates of blogs to the world. His code is now ubiquitous.
He founded Infogami which was merged with Reddit. He participated in the
creation of the Creative Commons license and he organized the Internet, to
oppose and defeat SOPA (STOP ONLINE PIRACY ACT). Along the way, he also
highlighted and spoke out against President Obama’s “kill list” – which perhaps
did not make him popular in certain quarters in his own nation.
To many, Aaron Swartz was a genius – and he
was certainly prodigious as a programmer. By his death, the world has lost all
he would ever have done – and there is no guessing what that might have been.
Thus, the future is undoubtedly impoverished by his passing. Had he lived, the
world yet to be, would have been fashioned and shaped, to some degree by this
young man’s thought. Now, none of that will ever be. We have all lost, by his
death – not just his immediate family.
Was it sensible of the American government
to pursue Aaron Swartz so harshly? Was a potential 35 years in prison a
reasonable response to downloading some academic journal articles, which JSTOR
has now made free to view, in any case?
It is clear that this sledgehammer approach
of the US government to the case of Aaron Swartz, has cost America and the
world far more than it stood to gain by punishing him, so aggressively. The
treatment of Aaron Swartz calls to mind the treatment of other geniuses,
throughout history. Alan Turing, for instance, was prosecuted by the British
state, for being a homosexual. His penalty was chemical castration. Two years
after his sentence, he apparently committed suicide by cyanide poisoning. Alan
Turing was a computing genius, who was one of the founders of the modern era of
computing. His life work changed the world. Also, by cracking the German Enigma
code, he may very well have changed history too, ensuring the triumph of the
Allies, and the defeat of the Nazis. The British thanked him by persecuting him
and prompting him to end his own life. The cost to humanity of his loss is
truly incalculable, since there is no telling what contributions he would have
made had he lived out the remainder of his natural life, instead of dying at
41, by suicide.
Then, in the field of literature, there was
Oscar Wilde, a writer of genius, who was also prosecuted for his sexual
orientation. The two years he spent in prison utterly broke his health, and led
to his death three years later. The world had lost another genius at the age of
just 46. Again, we are left with the certainty of the world’s loss, but not
knowing how great that loss was, for we shall never see what he never lived to
These three examples make clear that
societies, in general, do not value genius enough, nor consider the
consequences of persecuting them. The rather pedestrian individuals who take it
upon themselves to prosecute them do not take into consideration the
consequences for society, of those prosecutions.
This leads me to propose a principle by
which society should moderate the punishments it metes out to individuals, for
The principle of least harm to society:
person should be given a punishment for a crime, that would cause more harm or
loss to society, in consequence, than the crime itself caused.”
In a more extreme form, this could arguably
be refined to: “No person should be
punished for a crime in such a way as to cause harm to society, thereby.”
Thus, it can be seen, in the cases of
geniuses, it does not make sense for a society to jail a genius for long
periods, thereby losing the fruits of all their potential work in that period,
if the creative work lost, would have been of greater value than the harm their
crime caused society. What this means, in practice, is that it is foolish for
society to punish geniuses illiberally, for most crimes, because, in effect,
society is thereby punishing itself, by depriving itself of works of genius. To
punish the genius, through extended jail sentences, is to inflict loss and harm
on society itself. That is simply not a rational response to the crimes of
As for my more extreme version of the
principle of least harm to society, this may be wiser, since even short
sentences can destroy a genius.
The examples of Alan Turing and Oscar Wilde
illustrate how even short sentences can break the health of geniuses, provoking
an early death, by natural means or even by suicide. Humanity lost greatly by
the deaths of Turing, Wilde and Swartz. Reflecting on their wasted potential,
we should be moved to reconsider the ways in which people of special talent to
society are punished, should they commit what is considered a crime, in their
day. It is senseless to deprive the world, of the fruits of their genius,
simply because society wishes to make an example of them – as was clearly the
case with Aaron Swartz and, arguably, Wilde and Turing.
Should a person of genius commit a crime, a
way should be found to punish them, if punishment is thought necessary, that
still allows them to do their creative work and does not limit, in any way,
their creative potential. Society needs geniuses far too much, to act so as to
snuff out either their lives or potential.
It should also be remembered that geniuses
are often at odds with society and non-conformist, even rebellious in their
actions. This attitude can lead them into trouble. Society should be understanding
of their nature when they do court trouble, in this way. It should not punish
them. The US military, for instance, was very understanding with Richard
Feynman, the physicist of genius, when he was working on the Manhattan project
to build the first atom bomb. He had the hobby of breaking into military safes
containing top secret documents. He did it for sport. The military, however,
did not punish him, but tolerated this behaviour, understanding that he was
just playing. It is a pity for Aaron Swartz and us all, that MIT was not so
understanding, when Swartz downloaded those documents. That lack of tolerance
has cost the world a young genius. Never more should a genius be lost in
similar circumstances. Let there be tolerance for the differences that make
geniuses what they are – and perhaps, make them occasionally cross the line of
what society would normally accept. The cost to society is too great, if this
accommodation can’t be made. Let us be wise enough to do so.
Posted by Valentine Cawley
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Labels: Aaron Swartz, Alan Turing, failure to nurture its own, genius and creative contribution, Oscar Wilde, Richard Feynman, society and genius, suicides of geniuses, the failure to value genius