The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Monday, February 25, 2013

Aaron Swartz and the failure to value genius.

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.

By Valentine Cawley

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 Humanity. ( 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 write.

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 crimes.

The principle of least harm to society:

“No 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 genius.

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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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 4:18 PM 


Blogger Adelaide Dupont said...

Dear Valentine:

As well as the principle of least harm (a good conservative/negative principle - the sort that constitutionalists like), what about the principle of greatest value?

We could probably minimally reward the genius who does good work for society - whether it's the one they live in or in their regional/global sphere.

The "reward" would go to the people or the demographic they were helping.

In Swartz's case: students and researchers. They serve and consume genius and develop their own talents.

But, yes, the primary "power" of genius. The creation side.

Consequences at all stages - yes, Valentine.

(I think The Independent would probably take an article like this, in print or online).

And the sensitivity and the tolerance of genius. I would look for ways to enhance it and nudge it in the directions.

We want and need these people to stay alive and do work.

7:51 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I would support any initiative or principle whose intent is to support the work of geniuses, in society. There is too little backing for them, in all parts of the world with which I am familiar.

Thank you for the suggestion regarding The Independent...I shall try them with it and see how they respond.

A brief summarizing thought to end: without tolerance, there shall be no genius. Tolerance is in short supply for many kinds of "aberrants" but in dire need for genius. Let it be more abundant.

8:52 AM  
Blogger Adelaide Dupont said...

When you said:

"without tolerance, there shall be no genius. Tolerance is in short supply for many kinds of "aberrants" but in dire need for genius. Let it be more abundant."

Now this is a jumping-off point!

It is getting harder and harder to think in terms of abundance.

Our bodies were sort of made for scarcity, and I fear it is the same for minds and for brains, sometimes.

Another suggestion for media coverage would probably be The Global Mail, which is a 21st-century newspaper.

I am thinking also of some newsmagazines, for example Prospect and Standpoint.

Here are thirteen countries which might value genius:

South Korea

9:29 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you, Adelaide, for your further suggestions of potentially agreeable media outlets. I have already mailed The Independent. If they reject the article, I will try The Global Mail, then the news magazines you suggest. Hopefully, someone will pick it up, since I think my thoughts on the matter deserve consideration, more widely.

You have offered an interesting list of countries. For some, like Russia, I know enough to believe that they may welcome, or at least not entirely sideline, genius. However, I do not know enough of the culture of some others, to make an assessment - for instance Nigeria. Perhaps, if you have time, you could outline your thoughts on these countries as to what about them is welcoming for genius. I think it very interesting indeed that you have chosen some of the BRICS...indicating the likelihood of greater future for these places, than might even be supposed thereby.

Any country which chooses to nurture and welcome genius, is a country which is choosing to nurture and welcome a better future for itself.

Best wishes to you.

12:50 PM  
Blogger devang singh said...

hi i think i am a gifted child in science i had a early interest in space . My interest had really kicked off when i was in grade 5 it lasted for about 2 years until i killed my interest due to a depression caused by a failure .I have a question is there a way to revive a interest

6:47 PM  

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