Sometimes I Don’t Write About Things

I’ve gotten enough emails and Twitter queries asking me if I’m going to write about the suicide of Internet notable Aaron Swartz (and at least one sort of angry email wondering way I haven’t written about it) that I feel it’s worth saying why I haven’t: Because until Friday, when the first reports of the suicide began to surface online, I had no idea who Mr. Swartz was, nor (as a consequence) any knowledge of the controversies with him and the US government over JSTOR.  I am basically ignorant of the entire situation and the major players.

So: I don’t have anything really useful or relevant to say here. In a general sense, if I don’t feel like I have anything useful or relevant to say on a subject, I try not to say anything. In this particular case, there’s a suicide of a young man to consider, and a political aspect to it all that seems very complicated, and so I feel there’s a great opportunity to make an ass out of myself by saying something that does little more than reveal everything I don’t know. I would prefer not to do that. My participation in the story is confined to retweeting thoughts from friends who better knew Aaron Swartz and the situation, so those interested who follow me on that service can do as I was doing, and find out more.

The two things I can say here are thus: One, this reminds me to remind people who suffer from depression, as Aaron Swartz apparently did, to seek help for their condition. My friend Wil Wheaton talks about suicide and depression here and I recommend you see what he has to say about it. Two, I am heartily sorry for friends like Cory Doctorow and Quinn Norton that they and many others have lost someone they loved and cared about.

That’s what I have to say on Aaron Swartz at this point.

To the fellow who chastised me for not writing about this subject — and to the others who from time to time demand I write on some subject that’s important to them without regard to my own interest or knowledge — look, guys: I’m not your tool or bullhorn, and there’s a difference between asking me if I have thoughts on a subject and demanding I have thoughts on it (and incidentally,implicitly or explicitly, that those thoughts should mirror yours). There are some subjects I know next to nothing about, like this one. There are others where I know something but choose not to say anything publicly, for whatever personal reason I choose. Those things I don’t write about.

Either way, the choice to write about (or not write about) a subject is mine, not yours. If you get confused about this and bother me with your misapprehension, I may be rude to you about it if I feel you deserve rudeness. I believe this constitutes fair warning.

48 Comments on “Sometimes I Don’t Write About Things”

  1. This seems to lead back to the, “Pay me” thing… You don’t get to demand writing for free. (Not that you get to demand specific writing without a per-determined contract for money either, but at a certain price point, demands seem more reasonable.)

  2. I always thought authors would have a slot (like a DVD drive on a Mac) where you can enter a piece of paper with any topic and after some hustling, a novel concerning that subject appears. Seems i was not correct ;-).

  3. I was going to say “I wish more people wouldn’t write on a topic when they didn’t feel they had something to say”, but it occurs to me that the people who annoy me the most almost certainly feel they have something to say.

  4. I confess, i haven’t the faintest idea who Aaron Swartz was either, and while my curiosity drive is currently engaged, its kinda cruising down the driveway in idle.

  5. I’d be tempted to link to a page saying what my going rate was per word. (Perhaps with a multiplier based on how much I want to write on the subject.)

    In other words, you get what you pay for on a free blog: the blog author writes… well, whatever sie wants.

  6. Thank you for not adding to the sensationalism that seems to rise whenever someone who is well-known commits suicide, and for instead posting information someone with depression might find useful. You show respect for Aaron Swartz as a person.

  7. Since you correctly recommend people with depression to get treatment, I may add that, just as anyone should regularly get their health checked, one should also get their mental health checked, even if only by filling up one of the many online questionnaires. Because what’s bad about depression (and, I guess, any mental illness) is that it comes in many guises, so it’s hard to recognize, especially since the part of your body (i.e., your brain) which you use to assess whether you’re sick and need help is exactly the malfunctioning one.

    So please, whoever and wherever you are, read about depression, learn to recognize symptoms, and make sure you and/or the people you love get the treatment they need. A caring colleague recognized my symptoms and actually made an appointment for me to see a psychiatrist, but not everyone is so lucky. And even once you get diagnosed, finding treatment that works and has tolerable side effects is a nontrivial task.

  8. Too few people heed Wittgenstein’s Seventh Proposition: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

  9. I read a post like this and the one on people asking you to write for free and I become confused. This world of diologue between a writer/blogger is bizzare. I mean really bizzare. I imagine that in the course of a lifetime a person could only be familiar with a tiny fraction of what is floating around in the cultural atmosphere. To claim to know more would mean you are full of shit. And why on earth would a person even want to scatter and spread their focus so thin? It would be impossible to enjoy anything. To demand a written blurb on any subject by someone, anyone, is to me incomprehensible. Perhaps this is a way to demonstrate a superior knowledge base on a given subject? But then, who gives shit? I am new to the world of reading and commenting on blogs and I often find myself feeling as though I’m back in Lit. Theory (barf) where the goal is demonstrate how much smarter you are than the rest of the class. I admire that you give fair warning to these persons, you are much more tolerant than I.

  10. I, too, had never heard of Aaron Swartz until now. And continue to be amazed at the hubris of people who think they can order writers online around. Silly folk.

  11. I didn’t know who he was either till I read it in the G+ stream of a mutual friend he and I have. I certainly think it’s sad that such a bright young man felt the need to take his own life, but I’m not going to go off pontificating about what should have been or should now be done, or gnash my teeth at the unfairness of it all.

  12. Wil’s point is right on.

    This is no help at all, to anyone, but I like to imagine that among the infinite quantum branches, there are some versions of that brilliant young man who managed to find a way out of that room, away from the crushing cacophony, and into the singing clarity outside.

  13. It’s always a GOOD THING to not write about things you don’t know. It’s better to be ignorant and silent than to open one’s mouth and remove any doubt.

  14. This seems to lead back to the, “Pay me” thing… You don’t get to demand writing for free. (Not that you get to demand specific writing without a per-determined contract for money either, but at a certain price point, demands seem more reasonable.)

    Nah… for me it seems to relate more closely to the wise old saw that it’s better to keep quiet and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt. (Closely related: Opinions are like arseholes. Everybody’s got one, and most of the time the closer you examine them the more they stink.)

    Even if our host had a dump truck full of trillion dollar platinum coins pull up to his back door, I suspect he’d still keep his own counsel on subjects he has nothing worth saying about. Therefore nudging the internet’s signal-to-noise ratio a few microns in the right direction.

  15. I DEMAND THAT YOU DO- …whatever it is that you were going to do anyway.

    Dear the rest of the internet: …you’re welcome.

  16. “[T]he fact that your voice is amplified to the degree where it reaches from one end of the country to the other does not confer upon you greater wisdom or understanding than you possessed when your voice reached only from one end of the bar to the other.” — Edward R. Murrow, 1958.

  17. All I really knew about Swartz was that he wrote an influential analysis of who really writes Wikipedia.

    Several years ago Jimmy Wales claimed that, contrary to appearances, Wikipedia is really written not by the masses, but mostly by a core of just a few hundred people who know each other. Swartz figured out that Wales was getting a distorted picture because he was measuring contribution by number of edits, not by the sizes of those edits. Most of the content of Wikipedia actually came from anonymous drive-by contributors with subject domain knowledge, who didn’t even have accounts on Wikipedia; the core people mostly cleaned it up, added links and citations, etc.

    It was an interesting counterexample to the common belief that anonymity and low barriers to entry bring only chaos and garbage; there seem to be ways to manage it constructively.

    Swartz’s analysis was getting renewed attention recently because the rate of Wikipedia’s growth seems to be slowing down, in part because those anonymous contributors are scared off by an increasingly insular culture dominated by the core group, and the perception, true or not, that their edits will just get undone if they’re not up to the clique’s standards. I’d just been citing him on the subject days before he killed himself. I don’t think I ever connected his name to the JSTOR case.

  18. I honestly can’t get over the strange attitude some people have about things. We come here to read what you have to say about various topics that interest you (which very often interest the rest of us of course, but that’s just good fortune), and yet some people think you’re here just to entertain them? Odd.

  19. John, I totally hear you and you are totally correct. What I think happens is people feel they sort of own you and they overstep boundaries they should not. You are famous now, like it or not, and some people are starting to act like this. I follow your blog because of such clarity. You are so clear and direct and you make sense. Thanks.

  20. I heard the best way to judge whether to speak or not from late night show host Craig Ferguson.
    He said;
    1) Does this need to be said?
    2) Does this need to be said by Me?
    3) Does this need to be said by me Now?

    This was such a total shock, I have seen myself breaking all three of those at one time.
    Now I know better. And as they say, knowing is half the battle.

  21. How many things are there about which you ain’t writed about?
    And how many times should somebody else (certainly not me)
    have gone all control F for a few keywords before posting so as
    to not paraphrase about seventy-eleven earlier comments?

    Your post fills me with fond memories of election time when Babs
    Bush called me every twenty seconds.

  22. More than fair warning, and in fact I’d say you’re being surprisingly nice about it. Any idiot who thinks they have the right to demand anyone write/comment about anything, no matter the level of public exposure the person they wish to comment has, should feel free to plant a big wet one on an unpleasant looking and smelling derriere.

  23. Well said all around.

    As someone who has known all too well the specter of depression, I heartily agree with your recommendation to attend to one’s mental health with the same attentiveness as one attends to one’s physical health. There is no shame in taking care of both mind and body, and there are people who can help, however hopeless it may feel at the nadir.

    That said, there is more to Aaron Swartz’s last days and suicide. This young man, who dedicated himself and his talents to improving the world through good work, was bullied, harassed and prosecuted beyond all proportion, and contrary to the explicit wishes of MIT and JSTOR, both of which considered the matter settled, by overzealous federal attorneys Ortiz, Garland & Heymann, who apparently had nothing better to do with their tax-salaried time than to try and lock up a good man (in tax-funded federal prison) for 35 years for the horribly nefarious crime of downloading free academic articles. The sickening federal war on whistleblowers, activists and citizens exercising their Constitutional rights has expanded to encompass making “examples” out of people who download to many articles using their legitimately granted access, with reckless disregard for liberty or life. The Department of Justice has a measure of Mr. Swartz’s blood on their hands. If they have an iota of human decency, they will apologize to his friends and family to their miscarriage of justice, and to the American people for wasting our tax dollars harrying a non-felon on trumped-up charges.

  24. Well, Aaron was a friend and a colleague of mine, so if you want to read up on what I have to say about it, you can check out the last few days’ output on the topic scattered through here:

    I’m organizing the vigil for him across the street from the federal courthouse in Boston Tuesday 2pm. I’m trying to hook up the MIT internal investigator and EFF’s interested party. I’m trying to keep people from going off the rails, yet get organized in the real world to be mobilized in an effective way around RL political issues dealing with the pathologies that got us here, and that should not be allowed to continue.

    I’ve been visiting posts by folks like Jeff Jarvis to try to patiently explain the fine points of Aaron’s civil disobedience, ethics, and the law to people who ask questions and then don’t seem to actually want to listen to the answers, thereby making me want to reach through the internet and shake them and say, “You do realize that this boy’s father had to cut him down from a pipe two days ago, and you need to think of this as something just a little more immediate than an abstract forum discussion in the presence of his friends?”

    Things like that.

    So I am in the opposite position, perhaps, from Mr. Scalzi. I’m afraid I know too much, and I think I should split open with all of it, except I have to keep it together so I can get all of this done, plus all the routine stuff I would otherwise be doing.

    It makes it so much harder to get people interested in activism, you know, at times like this. People want to do good. They read heroic fantasy and science fiction. They admire the work of people who do good in the world, even people like me sometimes (with things like the Tor Project, although for some people it gives them hives).

    But something like this comes up and they fall into the corner and start squealing “Struck by lightning! Struck by lightning!” Or even more insidiously, they decide we are all paranoid gits and Aaron was *just* unstable, and there was no effort by the prosecutor’s office to bully him into despair (see Larry Lessig’s blog et al), or alterior motives (see any of my writeups on SOPA/PIPA vs JSTOR causation).

    And the aspiration to become engaged in the real world in any capacity goes out the window, the remote control goes in one hand, and the bag of chips in the other Bread and circuses.

    Going to be an interesting week of work, upcoming. Maybe I should get a bunch of SFWA authors to help me simulate the plot for me. I’ve always described my work as a human rights LARP. What do you say, John, do you have people who’d like to be inside a little piece of history in the making, a little cypherpunk political thriller?

  25. Shava Nerad says:
    January 13, 2013 at 11:49 pm

    Everything else aside.

    I think that I understand how cutting lets the pain out.
    And I do understand how some one may take the way out that lets them
    be gone.

    Not a thing to do.

  26. I guess an additional problem (apart from the “I own you” mindset) might be this slight perception error, where we all think of ourselves as “nerds” but don’t consider the fact that even though the sets “sf fandom” and “hackers” overlap, they are not the same. So it is entirely possible for someone to be an import figure in nerd-circles and yet not be aware of what makes hackers all angry at any given moment, inconceivable as it might seem to us.

    I do know that I spent the last day or two utterly convinced that it was impossible not to be aware of the case. I got better.

  27. Thank the stars for someone who 1) Knows when he doesn’t have anything of value to say on a topic, and 2) Proceeds to not say it. We need more of that in the online (and offline) world…

  28. I find myself appalled at the sense of entitlement some people seem to have. This reminds me of the young man who started a petition in which he threatened J. K. Rowling – he told her that if she did not change her whole story to make Harry and Hermione fall in love, he would make sure that no one read her last book! Is it the internet giving us such access to authors which causes some of us to confuse this easy access with influence? Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I’m quite happy to read what authors I like wish to write. If you don’t like what an author writes, you can always write your own story/article/blog post. Backseat writing works about as well as backseat driving.

  29. John,

    Good on you for not writing about something just because someone demands you write about it. That shows you’re a stand-up guy.

    Personally, if I were a writer, I wouldn’t know where to begin to write about such a horrible tragedy without feeling like I was just using the suicide to “sell myself”. In time like these a brief note to those grieving over him, or maybe not saying anything, is the best course.

  30. Yeah, I didn’t know who he was either. At least until his unfortunate and final act. Why you should know him is either due to ignorance on my part, or the simple fact that you didn’t know who he was either (and you’ve stated as much). I’ve never assumed that since you have a blog and you’re a writer, you therefore should know about many more things than if you were not a writer and maintaining a blog. Why anyone would come to that conclusion defies convention, if not straight up logic. Oh well, I have a sister that believes the world was created 6000 years ago, so we all have our cross to bear (pun intended).

  31. To be fair JS I think it might be helpful to remember this. Your success has made you a celeb in some fashion for a group of people. Within that group, like any other group that are fans of a celeb, there are those that idolize you. These people I believe lack the ability to critically think on their own and tend to have their opinions, beliefs and mood be determined by their idols. This same group also are the type that frequent celeb blogs and are fanatical defenders of said celeb. Now before someone throws a big baby fit let me point out that I am not saying that all fans or visitors/contributors to this site are like this.

  32. As for the suicide, shit happens like this all the time. I am sure big fines and a long prison time was a bummer to be facing. Those would be things to consider before committing a crime me thinks.

  33. @ Gulliver

    All the news I’ve heard/read state that JSTOR wanted the prosecution dropped, but MIT wanted the prosecution to go ahead.

  34. For better or worse, John, this was the first place I thought to look when I heard the news – only because I thought you might have heard of Mr. Swartz, and when you do know about something you tend to have thoughtful things to say. This posting at least opened up the comments for people to share some of what they do know. I’m sorry to say I had not heard of him before, either. I will say, however, that had you not posted anything about him I wouldn’t have bugged you about it; I would have looked elsewhere for information!

  35. I didn’t know him as well as Shava did, but Aaron was one of the long-term core Wikipedia contributors (not just the one paper / analysis everyone knows him for, but all sorts of stuff, both mundane and deeply engaged and insightful). He was one of the good guys there, in every sense of the word.

    That was the only venue I knew him in, and we never met in person, but I was very sad to hear about his suicide. He will be missed.

  36. bonelady – “Is it the internet giving us such access to authors which causes some of us to confuse this easy access with influence?”

    Don’t think so. More likely, it seems, it’s the unhealthy focus on promoting unwarranted self-esteem pursued by most of our education system, much of our media (social and otherwise) and supported by a good deal of what’s considered “conventional wisdom”. Psychologist Martin Seligman has written about this, as have others, and not favorably. I think that sense of entitlement you zeroed in on off the bat is exactly right; but it appears to be a product of whatever transformed “Thank You”, in our daily exchanges, to “No Problem”.

  37. Sorry, that should have read ‘whatever transformed “You’re Welcome”, in our daily exchanges, to “No Problem”. I suspect this was apparent. ;-)

  38. Necro-commenting because I thought a lot before posting.

    (1) People commit suicide because they are seriously ill. They have a genuine disease. Others may exacerbate the situation, but unless they’re a Shogun ordering a subordinate to commit seppuku, they do not directly cause it.

    (2) It’s not the fault of the person who committed suicide. They succumbed to a disease as deadly and insidious as cancer.

    Points (1) and (2) do not mean Aaron would have inevitably committed suicide. He might never have attempted or succeeded otherwise, but it’s not likely the prosecution intended to “make” him take his life. They increased his risk; they didn’t cause it.

    (3) The system suffers from an institutional disease: Bad laws are written and enforced. Fire the prosecutor, and she will be replaced by someone from the same system, who shares the same values: “Unauthorized data use is the same thing as stealing millions.” In the future, this DA’s office will probably be more sensitive to the mental health of the accused, but it will not stop them from bringing another person to court if the laws do not change.

    Don’t get caught up on one name or face, because the situation the victim was in was not unique. It has happened to, and will continue to happen to, less famous, less smart, less at-risk-for-suicide individuals.

    Don’t get caught up on the fact that Aaron committed suicide while in a horrible legal predicament. Other people will be at risk in situations that are not remotely similar.

    (4) Suicide is a memetic disease. Be careful about how you discuss it, because someone is listening.

  39. “Blessed is he who, having nothing to say, refrains from giving wordy evidence of the fact.”

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