The Trouble with Genius

I’ve been watching the Fox program “House, M.D.” and pondering the nature of genius. House is a medical genius and during Season 6, the team looks at a once brilliant physicist, the youngest person to ever graduate MIT, who would rather be happy.

The episode, “Ignorance Is Bliss,” find a man, James Sidas (Esteban Powell) who drugs himself in order to dull his brain and suppress his intellectual constructions and imaginings. He’d rather work as a courier and be married to a wife with a low IQ than be cured.

Just how does one fit into a world when you are no longer a precocious kid and must attempt to go through everyday life dealing with normal people? How do geniuses find happiness and how does one guide gifted children toward a stable life?

Brian Knappenberger’s documentary “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz” wil surely raise such questions although I don’t totally agree with the thesis that the U.S. government murdered this beautiful and brilliant young man. Aaron Swartz, after two years of legal pressure by the government over his guerrilla computerized liberating of information, committed suicide by hanging himself at age 26 in January 2013.

So widespread was his support online that Wikipedia went dark for a day.

Aaron Swartz was born into the Internet age in 1986. He was the oldest of three boys born to Robert Swartz, a founder of a software company. He taught himself to read. He constructed an ATM as an elementary school science project.

Aaron at 14 served on the Resource Description Framework (RDF) Score working group at the World Wide Web Consortium and helped develop the RSS Standard. RDF is a standard model for data interchange on the web.  RSS or Rich Site Summary is the web format that publishes frequently updated info such as blog entires, news headlines, etc.

Two years later, he contacted Lawrence Lessig and became involved in Creative Commons. He was 18 when he joined Stanford in 2004, mostly to be near Lessig, but dropped out. The atmosphere wasn’t intellectual enough. He had already been allowed to skip high school. His father Robert rationalized that he too had found high school too boring and he didn’t want to deaden his son’s soul.

That along with his insistence on eating only white and yellow food, are the red flags. He did have ulcerative colitis, diagnosed when he was young. The inflammatory bowel disease can lead to life-threatening complications according to the Mayo Clinic.  The recommended diet includes restricting dairy products, eat small meals, drink plenty of liquids and avoiding foots like beats, cabbage, broccoli, raw fruit juices, caffeine and carbonated drinks.

More troubling is his inability to deal with the boring parts of life, the bureaucracy of educational requirements and teachers you disagree with. My last year of high school was boring, but not everything can be exciting.

Boredom can be the enemy of anyone, but for gifted children there are so many ways of dealing with boredom and not all good.

Yet skipping high school and college looked like good decisions initially. Aaron went on to develop Reddit and when it was sold to Condé Naste, Aaron was a young millionaire. Although part of the agreement was working a regular 9-to-5 job, Aaron felt the graying dullness of the regular walls and routine. You might feel a pinched by his arrogance when you hear his blog entry describing office life as “You wake up in the morning, take some crushing public transit system or dodge oncoming traffic to get to work, grab some food, then sit down at your desk” and  the “grey office monotony sneaks through.”

That blog entry might have resonated with high school and college students and trust fund babies wanting to stick it to the man, but that feels like a slap on the face to people who completed their four years of college and went on to a white collar job, including those office jobs in computer companies.

Aaron’s actions resulted in a “messy divorce” from the Condé Naste owned “Wired” magazine. And from there, he went on to his next adventure, being a crusader for public domain works and free information. He became a fellow at Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, founded an aggregator of data on pliticians called and co-authored a paper about law professor who received money by industry patrons to write papers. He was the architects for which is a free public catalog of books.

In 2008 when the federal court system allowed free access to court records online for free instead of the normal 8 cents per page, Aaron downloaded 20 million pages and made them available for free line.  His next target was JSTOR. JSTOR is a not-for-profit organization that helps academic libraries and publishers  by freeing up space and saving cost through a shared digital library of more than 2,000 academic journals.

The service provides free or low cost access to more than 1,300 institutions in 69 countries. Many of these free articles are in the public domain. What Aaron did in from September 2010 to January 2011, was make a program that downloaded “an extraordinary volume of articles” by using a laptop that he ultimately left hidden in a janitor’s closet at MIT. By late January 2011, Aaron’s apartment and office are raided.

JSTOR and MIT eventually declined to press charges, however, Aaron was indicted by the federal government for wire fraud, computer fraud, theft of information from a computer and recklessly damaging a computer. The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act was a 29-year-old law, one older than the 26-year-old Aaron Swartz was when he committed suicide in January 11, 2013 about a month before the trial was scheduled to begin. A boy genius died a handsome young man. He was a genius, he was an Internet millionaire, but he died bankrupt. He died for stealing information that was likely free or in the public domain. How can you steal something that is free?

By the time Aaron killed himself, he had the support of Wikipedia, gamers had started a protest and the founders of Google were supportive enough to censor their logo. By the time Aaron died, the Internet had things like crowdsourcing and surely a series of YouTube videos might have gained support. The future seemed to have no limits, except for this slight glitch. Aaron could have crusaded for changes within the legal system directly. If only Aaron could have struggled or knew how to struggle instead of just crusade.

Director Knappenberger points out that having information open to the public on the Internet is in the public interest, citing the case of another genius: Jack Andraka.  The 15-year-old Jack Andraka used such info and invented an early test for the usually fatal pancreatic cancer.

All our actions have consequences and Aaron must has suspected something might happen, but he seemed ill prepared for two years of legal maneuvering. “The Internet’s Own Boy” should just raise questions about Net Neutrality and legal issues surrounding online activities but it should also raise questions about how the superstars of the Internet age are raised and how best to educate them.

“The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz” is a pro-free information, pro-net neutral film and blames a technophobe merciless government for the death of Aaron Swartz.  Yet the documentary raises questions that the parents of gifted children and the gifted children grown up should consider. The documentary opened on June 27, 2014 at the Pasadena Laemmle Playhouse 7 and simultaneously will be available video on demand on a variety of platforms including iTunes, Vimeo, Vudu, Amazon, Xbox, Google play and Sony Entertainment Network.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.