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Life, only moderately messed up: understanding (my own) high-functioning depression

My wife is one of the bravest people I know.

Almost six years ago, Rachel got pregnant. When we found out, she was in Colorado and I was home in western Massachusetts, and in phone calls and emails we giddily planned for the future. Five days after discovering she was pregnant, she miscarried.

Rachel mourned the end of her pregnancy by writing, processing a set of crushing emotions into a slim volume of poetry, Through. It’s not one she often turns to when she reads in public, but women who need the book seem to find the book, and she hears often from readers for whom the book was a lifeline in a very difficult time.

Not long after, Rachel got pregnant again and gave birth to Drew. In those first weeks of the sleepless, fumbling process of learning how to parent an infant, it was hard to notice Rachel falling into postpartum depression. It was months in, when Rachel was finding it hard to do anything more that nurse and sleep, that friends and family urged her to get help. She did and she got better, producing another book of poetry in the process, Waiting to Unfold.

(When Rachel reads poems from that book, some of the darkest lines get loud laughs from the audience. The level of despair associated with acute depression is hard to understand when you’re not personally plumbing those depths – it’s easier to understand those images as jokes about the dark night of the soul rather than actual dispatches from its depths. I suspect those that really need the poems read them as written.)

In a funny way, Rachel’s bouts with depression and her profound honesty in writing about her experiences have made it harder, not easier, to write and talk about my own depression. Having someone you love go through acute depression can make it easier to see the symptoms of depression in others, but may make it harder to see moderate, high-functioning depression, which is what I appear to be prone towards.

I was depressed for most of 2013, from roughly March through December. (I’m doing much better now – thanks for asking. One way you can tell is that I’m writing about the experience, something I could not have done last year.) Much of the depression coincided with the release of my book, Rewire, which was unfortunate for two reasons. One, I did a lousy job of promoting the book, and two, smart friends counseled me that publishing a book often leads to feelings of loss and mourning, which may well be true, but isn’t the best explanation for what happened to me during those nine months.

I didn’t understand that I had been depressed last year until a natural experiment came along. Every six months, MIT’s Media Lab holds “members week”, where principal investigators open our labs to the corporate, foundation and government sponsors who fund our work. Members week in the spring and fall of 2013 was an utterly miserable experience for me. It took physical effort to haul myself out of my office and talk to the folks who’d come to discuss our work, and I was exhausted for days after from the effort. I’d decided that this was normal – MIT is a high-stress place and members week is one of the higher stress experiences at the Media Lab.

But then I went through members week this spring, which was… fun. A really great time, actually. I’m proud of the work I and my students were showing, excited to see what my colleagues were working on and excited to see friends I have at the companies and organizations that sponsor the Media Lab’s work. I got a second chance at a natural experiment with Center for Civic Media’s annual conference, which we run each June with the Knight Foundation. I remember virtually nothing of 2013′s conference, and I spent a week in bed afterwards. 2014′s conference was a good time intellectually and emotionally, and not only did I manage to feel better after the conference was over than I did on the first day, I also managed to get in a four-mile walk each day before sessions started.

Objectively, there’s a lot that’s harder in my life this spring and summer than there was in 2013 – illness in my extended family, uncertainty about financial support for my research. If mental state were purely a reflection of life circumstances, these meetings should have been harder in 2014 than in 2013. But that’s not how depression works. While depressed, everyday tasks are hard, and social tasks that challenge my introverted nature are extremely hard. They’re not impossible, just highly draining, which is why high-functioning depression is hard to see in others.

These natural experiments have forced me to think about my depression and why it’s been hard for me to see. In retrospect, I now think I’ve had several periods of significant depression since college, and twice have sought professional help. (That I’ve never been put on medication for depression is more a function of my obstinacy and ability to talk my way out of treatment than an objective evaluation of my psychological state.) As I’ve been “coming out” to myself about depression, my closest friends have offered sympathetic versions of “well, duh!”, noting that it’s been clear to them when I’m having a hard time and am not my normal self.

My guess is that my depression is significantly less visible to people who know me only professionally. I’ve never missed work or another professional obligation. I teach classes, give talks, advise students, attend meetings. The difference is almost entirely internal. When I’m my normal self, those activities are routine, easy, and leave a good bit of physical and emotional energy for creativity and expression. When I’m depressed, the everyday is a heavy lift, and there’s little space for anything else. The basic work of answering email and managing my calendar expands to fill any available time in the day. I’m far less productive, which triggers a voice that reminds me that I’m an unqualified impostor whose successes are mere happy accidents and that my inability to write a simple blog post is proof positive that I’m in the wrong place, doing the wrong thing, in need of walking away from my life as currently configured and starting over. It’s an exhausting dialog, one that crops up for moments at a time when I’m well, but can fill weeks and months when I am not.

I think what’s made it hard for me to identify my own depression is having close family and friends who’ve dealt with severe depression. What I’ve experienced isn’t anywhere as serious as what friends have gone through, including bouts of near-catatonia. The problem with having experience with the harrowing and dangerous extremes of mental illness is that the experience of being moderately messed up may not even register on the spectrum. (I’m going to use the term “moderately messed up” to describe only my own experiences, so please don’t give me any crap about the political incorrectness of the term – moderately messed up is how I best understand my experiences.)

There are cases where it’s harder to find help as someone who’s moderately messed up than someone dealing with a more acute illness. About three months into this bout with depression, I decided to give up drinking. I theorized that I might have an easier time navigating this tough patch if I wasn’t rewarding myself for getting through a hard day with a few drinks every night. Thankfully, alcoholism isn’t a forbidden topic anymore, and twelve step approaches like Alcoholics Anonymous have been tremendously effective for many people, including friends and family. (My friend Wiktor Osiatynski’s remarkable account, “Rehab”, helped me understand why many people describe AA as having saved their lives.)

But powerlessness in the face of addiction doesn’t accurately represent my situation. I came up as a “sensible drinker” on the AUDIT questionnaire and other screening tests for alcoholism. While the Denis Johnson fan in me is vaguely disappointed in my largely undebauched lifestyle, the main consequence of my drinking history is an ample beer belly.

I ended up taking a year off from drinking, with very little difficulty, and have gone back to moderate drinking and haven’t found it particularly hard to stop drinking after reaching the limit I’ve set for myself. I recognize that I am deeply fortunate, and I gratefully acknowledge that many people who have trouble with alcohol do have a disease for which abstinence and support is one appropriate response. (New research suggests that cognitive behavior therapy and harm reduction may have at least as positive results.) But it’s harder to find advice and support for the moderately messed up; detox and recovery wasn’t what I needed – I needed help changing my habits and drinking less. (Talking about this question with friends, one pointed me to Moderation Management, which might well have helped. My friend Ed Platt notes, in a thoughtful blog post, that this probably isn’t an appropriate option for people with serious alcohol problems.)

As with my drinking, I am deeply fortunate that my depression is something that’s not life threatening. But that’s allowed me to gloss over long stretches of my life when I’ve not been my best, where daily life is a heavy lift. Identifying the past year as a period of high-functioning depression hasn’t led to the miracle cure or support group, but it’s allowed me to have incredibly helpful conversations with friends who are taking proactive steps to cope with their own depressive tendencies. A dear friend, a brilliant and productive programmer, uses meditation to help him manage depressive spells. I’m finding that walking is critical to my psychological health, as is finding a way to put firmer walls around my work life. (Turns out that the upside of drinking is that makes it very hard to do academic work, forcing an end to your work day. A year without drinking helped me see how flimsy my work/life barriers are.)

So why write about depression? One set of reasons is practical, and selfish. I process by writing, and much of my processing right now centers on these issues. I write better in public than in private, and so this is likely a helpful step for me, independent of whether reading this is helpful for you in any way. And writing about depression here, on the record, makes it harder for me to delude myself the next time I find myself writing off a bout of depression as just “a rough patch.”

It’s possible that writing about depression is also the responsible and helpful thing to do. Rachel talks about her decision to open much of her spiritual and emotional life to her congregation and to her readers, acknowledging that it would be a sin of omission if her congregants didn’t know that her experience of offering prayers of healing was deeply informed by having loved ones in the hospital who she was praying for. There’s a balance, she notes, between sharing emotions and making herself a three-dimensional human for her congregants and leaning on them to shoulder her troubles. My hope is that there’s a way to write about these issues that’s less a call for support (not what I need right now) and more an invitation to talk.

So far, talking about my experiences this past year has led three friends to talk about their own struggles with depression and others to talk about anxiety, mania or other issues they are coping with. The only way these conversations have altered my friendships is to deepen them: I am more likely to turn to these friends the next time I am struggling and hope they will turn to me as well. It turns out that depression is remarkably common in the US, affecting as many as one in ten people in any given year. As Ian Gent observed, nearly everyone in academia is high-functioning. As a result, there is necessarily a large contingent of high-functioning depressives at MIT, likely including some of my students and colleagues. If I can be open and approachable on the topic, perhaps it makes it easier for people to seek me out for help at a university where stress is epidemic and sometimes celebrated. (In the first semester I taught at MIT, two colleagues told me stories of professors who ended up hospitalized for overwork. These stories weren’t offered as warnings – they were celebrations of an admired work ethic. That’s an environment that makes it hard to talk about depression or other mental health issues.)

I’m writing about depression because I can. As John Scalzi has memorably noted, “straight white male” is the lowest difficulty setting in the game of life. Add to that the fact that I’ve got a good job at an institution that is trying to do the right things on work/life balance, with a boss who’s written openly about his relationships with alcohol and other health issues, and it’s simply easier for me to write about these issues without fearing professional consequences than it is for many others. I believe that speech begets speech, and if more people are talking about working through depression, it becomes easier for the next person wrestling with these issues.


Lessons learned from walking at work

MIT’s commencement was Friday, and (despite the fact that most of my Masters students are continuing to work on their theses over the summer) my official summer began yesterday. Yes, I’m looking forward to catching up on reading, not driving into Boston and the general wonder of the Berkshires in the sunshine… but I’m most looking forward to working from my walking desk.

I have been restructuring my life around walking over the past couple of years. I’ve found that it’s the only exercise I can consistently get myself to do when I’m at home, in Cambridge or on the road. In Cambridge, I now stay in a bed and breakfast three miles away from my office, in part so I can get almost half of my daily walking goal during a 50 minute walk to work. When I travel, I try to wake up early and take hour-long walks around the city I’m staying in, which is good for combatting jetlag and for getting the lay of the land.

At home, though, I have become a reluctant treadmill user. It’s shockingly lovely where we live, and hiking is one of the very best ways to encounter the Berkshires. But home time is wife and kid time, and so I try to be efficient enough in my workdays at home that I have time to throw a ball with Drew or watch bad TV with Rachel. For the past two years, I’ve tried to schedule 1-2 hours a day of conference calls in the afternoon so I can drive to a nearby rail trail to walk and talk. (And yes, I certainly do see the irony of driving to walk. We live on a twisty mountain road where it’s just not especially safe to walk, and where it’s damned hard to carry on a conversation while trudging uphill.) When it’s too cold or rainy to walk outside, I’d tried a new trick – walking on the treadmill after Rachel went to bed, watching old episodes of LOST.

Rachel started using that treadmill – a noisy hand-me-down from friends – to walk while “syncing” in the morning (checking email, social media, etc.) and found that taking half an hour in the morning to do so made her happier for the rest of the day. I tried it and decided that, while I could sync and walk, I needed a desk for real work and a treadmill that was dramatically quieter if I was going to use it to walk and talk.

Last month, we took the plunge, and bought Lifespan’s TR-1200, which seems to be the entry-level walking desk treadmill of choice. (Lifespan makes cheaper treadmills, but this one is rated for several hours of use per day, and with the two of us sharing, it seemed a better option than the cheapest model.) Because Rachel and I are close in height, I was able to build in a desk that’s comfortable for both of us. I bought a new 27″ LCD monitor and a swing arm, repurposed an old desktop speaker set, and bought a remote control fan to mount on a ceiling beam behind the treadmill.

walkingdesk

For the past month, we’ve each been using the desk about an hour a day when we’re in town. This week, working from home, I’m putting in closer to 3 hours each day and starting to get a sense for how the new setup does and doesn’t work for me. Some lessons learned:

- The right treadmill matters. I love the guys at Instructables, and I think their advice to “just do it” and build a walking desk around an existing treadmill is conceptually sound, but not practically possible for me. If you can comfortably hold a conference call on your existing treadmill, perhaps then this is a good idea. My hand-me-down treadmill squealed like a stuck pig, and the first step in moving to a standing desk was taking the plunge and making the purchase of the Lifespan treadmill.

- You don’t have to go all in. I’m not an absolutist. Some of the folks who write about switching to treadmill desks encourage you to go all in, moving your full office setup to the treadmill desk. As a road warrior, I don’t have a particularly robust desktop set up at home – I work outside under an umbrella if it’s nice, in front of the fire if it’s cold. The treadmill desk has become another locus for work, but I doubt it will ever become my only workplace.

- Match the task to the workplace. The desk is magical when I’m on conference calls. I can walk at 2.5 – 3mph and no one seems to notice. I get the occasional comment when on Skype or Google Hangout, as my head does bounce up and down, but no one has groused yet. (One Kenyan caller was surprised that he was reaching me at the gym, but that may have had as much to do with how I was dressed as my walking motion.) And, like Rachel, I find that checking email and social media is perfectly reasonable at 2 mph, though I sometimes slow to 1.5 mph to reply. Thus far, I wouldn’t move major writing, programming or reading onto the treadmill… and, for better or worse, I usually have enough conference calls and email to give me 2-3 hours on the treadmill, which is enough to get my 15,000 steps a day.

- Walking is great for combatting distraction. The tasks that work best on the treadmill for me are ones where I don’t need my full focus. When I sit at my desk during conference calls, I don’t pay close enough attention because I end up reading news in another tab. Walking seems to lessen the need to multitask. It may be that I know I’m doing something good for myself physically, or it might be that the little bit of effort it takes to keep the legs moving forward and keep the hands on the keyboard means I have less cognitive surplus to deal with. Amy Harmon, writing in the New York Times, speculates about this as well, pointing to a study by the Max Planck institute in which children and young adults performed better cognitively when walking at their preferred pace.

The moments where I notice this the most are when I’m answering email I don’t want to answer. At a desk, I flit from tab to tab, reading this, tweeting that. At the walking desk, I seem to be able to focus better, perhaps because I know I’m going to use the walking time as email time, then sit down to concentrate on something more engaging.

- Don’t be an idiot. There have been several posts questioning whether it’s possible to work efficiently while walking. This one, by Alyson Shontell, titled “The Truth About ‘Working’ On A Treadmill Desk, makes the experience sound like training for a marathon. At the end, she reveals that she wasn’t so much testing the walking desk as a work choice, but competing with a fellow Business Insider reporter who’d walked 17 miles the day before. I’m finishing this post on the treadmill, having walked 6 miles over 3 hours today, and that’s more than enough for me. Getting in an hour’s walk a day would be a good change for most people, while spending 8 hours walking probably isn’t good for anyone’s productivity.

I realize that hearing other people talk about their work and exercise regimes is roughly as interesting as hearing them talk about their dreams, but the walking desk really is one of the more exciting things in my life right now, and I’m not able to resist evangelizing.


Rest in peace, Teresa Peters

I got an email from an old friend today, the sort of mass email we send our friends and colleagues to update each other on our lives and goings on. I didn’t make it past the first line, because he opened his missive by mourning the death of Teresa Peters.

Teresa was a friend of mine, though we’d lost touch the past couple of years. I knew she had been battling breast cancer, but I didn’t know how gravely ill she was, nor did I know that she passed away on December 16 of last year.

I got to know Teresa a little more than a decade ago through the globally far-flung, but personally close network of people working on technology for international development in sub-Saharan Africa. I was running Geekcorps, an NGO I’d founded to provide technology training to small businesses in the developing world. Teresa was running Bridges.org, an NGO she’d founded to ensure that ICT (information and communication technology) had real and positive impacts in the lives of people in the developing world. We founded our organizations in the same year, 2000, she in South Africa and me in Ghana, and moved in many of the same circles. We were both named “Global Leaders for Tomorrow” and later “Young Global Leaders” by the World Economic Forum, and worked together to try to navigate the surreal experience that is the WEF’s annual meeting in Davos, trying to explain why the work each of us was doing to the rich and powerful people who populate that event. One year, we shared a flight from Accra to Geneva and roomed on the same floor of a respiratory hospital in Davos, the only accommodations either of us could afford given the fragile budgets of our organizations.

While most of us working in technology for development were passionate (and often pathological) optimists, Teresa was an optimistic critic. She asked some of the hardest questions the field needed to address and was relentless in demanding answers. Is information technology a shortcut to improved economic and human development? Who was making choices about technology for developing countries? How could developing nations build the talent they would need to make decisions on their own and stop relying on people like Teresa and me? Bridges.org became the world’s leading think tank for skeptical, thoughtful questions about the field, and I approached her with trepidation for help in evaluating the work we were doing with Geekcorps, knowing full well that if she thought our work was ineffective, she’d pull no punches in assessing our work.

Teresa Peters

I admired Teresa for her relentless questioning, for her demands that we challenge our assumptions about technology and about development. I was most challenged by her insistence that we move beyond a world where expertise about the developing world comes from experts outside of the developing world. Teresa worked in Cape Town to build a team of African policy analysts who could ask these same sharp questions about technology and development she asked, informed by local understanding. It was a difficult task, and one the international development community continues to wrestle with. I left Geekcorps in 2004 and the organization folded shortly after; Teresa left Bridges for the Gates Foundation in 2006, leaving Bridges locally led, a testament to her commitment to building a strong, skilled team in South Africa.

She and I were in touch sporadically during her time at Gates and reconnected in 2010. Teresa had been diagnosed with breast cancer and had returned to Licking County, Ohio to be closer to family and friends, and to fight her disease on her own terms, in her hometown. Only now am I learning that Teresa chose not to fight her cancer with chemotherapy or radiation, but focused on nutrition, exercise and connection to her community. She survived far longer than doctors had predicted and, from what I can tell, had an awesome, loving and full life in the community she loved.

In 2010, Teresa was starting a new project, a book on evaluating impact, the question she was always most passionate about. I connected her with friends at the Center for Global Development in Washington DC, and we talked about the blessings and challenges of splitting your life between a small, rural community and issues that are global in scale, a challenge I navigate as well from Berkshire County, MA. And then, after a flurry of email, we fell out of touch.

There’s a tendency to assume that, in this digital age, we won’t lose touch with our friends, at least our digitally-enabled ones. (And Teresa was that – this FAQ from 1995 reminds us that she was working on issues of the internet and accessibility years before most people realized the internet was an interesting place to be.) But Teresa focused her attention and her limited time on her community in her last years. She worked on local environmental issues, opening the Going Green Store in Granville, OH with her partner Michael, and on documenting her approach to cancer through a book titled “A New Kind Of Patient”, which urged people battling chronic conditions to be active and activist patients. I am sorry I didn’t get to experience more of this period of Teresa’s life, but I also sense that this part of Teresa’s life was consciously lived with her remarkable friends and family in Ohio, not with the extended tribe of friends she found all over the world in her globally-focused work.

I am of an age when I’m starting to lose peers, friends who’ve left us too soon. For those of us who’ve lived our lives, at least in part, online, it’s a particular form of melancholy to ask Google how we’ve touched and changed the world, because the answers are always unsatisfactory. Some of Teresa’s papers remain online (like this examination of “e-Readiness”, one of the core ideas about ICT4D put forth by the World Bank and others in the last decade), but it’s clear that her importance and legacy to those of us who care about technology and development isn’t well reflected by her digital traces. What is clear is that Teresa was embraced, loved and deeply mourned by those she grew up with and chose to close her life with, that for all her connections around the world, she valued the connections to her family, her friends and her community most of all. I think there’s a lesson in Teresa’s life and her choices for those of us who work to change the world locally and globally, in ways big or small.

I miss you, Teresa, and I am grateful for your example, for your questions, your challenges and your remarkable life. Rest in peace.


Edmond Gaible’s memories of Teresa
Teresa’s obituary in the Newark (OH) Advocate
Teresa’s web site


An anniversary, a reflection

My wife, the remarkable Velveteen Rabbi, just announced her 10 year blogiversary, a decade since her first post about her journeys in spirituality, from a layperson who thought, read and spoke about liberal judaism and social change, to rabbinic student, to ordained congregational rabbi. Along the way she’s shared reflections, poetry, liturgy, scriptural interpretation, and a great deal of personal information about what she’s experiencing and wrestling with, including a miscarriage, a birth, parenthood, and her engagement with issues personal and political. It’s a remarkable document, one I congratulate her for building and maintaining, and urge others to read.

When Rachel tweeted that this was her 10th anniversary, I realized that it meant that I’d missed my anniversary, as I began blogging before she did. My blog started slowly. In late 2002, I met Dave Winer, who was setting up a blogging server at the Berkman Center. I started a blog and put up a test post, then forgot about it. I returned some months later when the blog post was one of the leading Google results for me, and realized that I needed to put some content on the damned thing. My blog initially whined that I had been “guilted by Google” into blogging, but I quickly got the hang of things and started blogging about African politics and what I was learning about media attention and agenda setting.

In November 2003, I moved off of Berkman’s blogging platform and onto WordPress. My first few posts are lost to history, destroyed with a Berkman server move, but I’ve got everything I published on my own site starting on November 9, 2003. Two posts from that first month are particularly interesting. On November 10th 2003, I wrote about the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda and a refugee situation described by a UN official as “worse than Iraq”. Ironically, the most visited blogpost I’ve ever written also addresses Joseph Kony and his army, when I argued that a focus on fighting the LRA in 2012 was misplaced and that Invisible Children’s KONY 2012 campaign demanded scrutiny and reflection.

If that post shows that some issues stick around for years, another post just demonstrates how slow I am. On November 26, 2003, I wrote about a lecture I gave at Harvard Law School about Sean McBride and the UNESCO movement for a New World Information and Communication Order, an idea that is pretty central to Rewire, and a helpful reminder that I was working on that damned book a full decade ago.

I knew I’ve been blogging less in recent years, but realizing I’d missed my blogiversary sent me to the database to see just how sharp the dropoff had been. Here’s what I found:

bloggraph
Blogposts per month, November 2003 – November 2013

The data is messy because my blogging has always been inconsistent. I enjoy blogging conferences and speeches, and the peaks on this graph represent conference blogging, usually the TED or Pop!Tech conference where I blog dozens of talks in the course of three or four days. But ignoring the peaks, I hit my blogging stride somewhere in 2005 and between then and 2008, averaged about a post a day. I began having serious eye problems in 2008 and had multiple surgeries, two of which show up as low points in terms of blog postings.

I assumed that I’d started blogging less when I became a Twitter user, but the data doesn’t bear that out. I joined Twitter in March 2007, when my blogging was at its peak. More likely is that my blogging fell off when I stopped posting bookmarks from Delicious as blogposts, which I did in September 2011. I thought my lessened blogging might correlate to becoming a father, but while there’s a dip when Drew was born, I rebounded quickly. Writing a book is more clearly correlated – I signed the contract for Rewire in January 2011, but I’d worked on a proposal for at least a year before that, and my blogging took a dive in 2010 and has never really recovered.

For me, the most striking correlation in this graph is the sharp fall in blogging that takes place in June 2011. Before then, I wrote at least ten mosts a month unless I was in the hospital or tending a newborn. Since June 2011, when I began working at MIT, I’ve never written more than ten posts a month.

This is not to say that MIT is responsible for making me a bad blogger. Working is responsible for making me a bad blogger. Prior to my time at MIT, I worked part-time at Berkman as a researcher, and spent the rest of my time as a board member, social entrepreneur, blogger and public speaker. Since the summer of 2011, I’ve had wonderful new uses of my time – advising students, new lines of research – and less wonderful uses of my time – performance appraisals, grant reporting.

I don’t regret the move. Running a research center has been an amazing opportunity and has taught me tons. But this graph helps me understand why I’ve felt something missing from my life. This blog has always been a place to toy with ideas, to work things out, to figure out what I’m interested in. I hope I can change my life and make more time for it in the coming year.


On MIT’s report on Aaron Swartz’s prosecution

Hal Abelson’s report on MIT’s actions around Aaron Swartz’s prosecution was released last week. I was on vacation and offline – I returned home Sunday and read the report and some of the responses to it.

I certainly see why Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman called it a whitewash. For those hoping that Abelson and his colleagues would identify faults in MIT’s behavior and take responsibility for inaction, the report is deeply disappointing. One of the strongest statements in the report makes in conclusion is, ultimately, quite weak:

“…let us all recognize that, by responding as we did, MIT missed an opportunity to demonstrate the leadership we pride ourselves on.”

That’s a bit of an understatement. The report includes an entire section (Part IV) on opportunities MIT missed, places where MIT could have intervened and might have helped prevent a tragedy. While the report correctly notes that we can’t know how things would have turned out had MIT responded to Robert Swartz’s repeated requests for the Institute to make a statement similar to the one JSTOR made, it’s clear that MIT didn’t just miss an opportunity – it consciously and repeatedly decided not to take any actions that would have helped Aaron Swartz make a successful defense while cooperating fully with requests from prosecutors.

As such, I don’t think the report is a “whitewash”. I don’t think Abelson is trying to conceal details that cast MIT in a bad light – it’s hard to read the report without being deeply disappointed with how MIT makes decisions. By my reading, the report documents a troubling culture of leadership at the university, one where adherence to the (ultimately flawed) idea of “neutrality” overrides making a nuanced decision about how to respond to aggressive prosecution under a poorly written law.

There’s lots I’m angry about with the report. It ends with questions for the MIT community to consider, rather than recommendations. This isn’t the fault of Abelson and colleagues, but the ambit given Abelson by MIT’s President, Rafael Reif. While the report makes clear that MIT cooperated more thoroughly with prosecutors than with Aaron’s defense (and carefully explains why MIT’s “neutral” stance ends up favoring the side that had more power in the equation), it doesn’t lay blame on MIT’s general counsel or any other individuals for MIT’s failure of leadership.

For me, the biggest disappointment is a refrain throughout the report that blames the MIT community for failing to draw more attention to Swartz’s prosecution. In Part V, the authors note, “Before Aaron Swartz’s suicide, the community paid scant attention to the matter, other than during the period immediately following his arrest. Few students, faculty, or alumni expressed concerns to the administration.”

It’s certainly true that there was more anger and attention in the wake of Aaron’s suicide than there was during the indictment and period leading towards trial. But it’s not true that the community was unaware of Aaron’s plight. As the report documents, Joi Ito, director of MIT’s Media Lab, asked MIT’s leadership to see if Aaron’s case could be settled as a “family matter” within the MIT community. Two other faculty members spoke to the administration and Robert Swartz, who works for the Media Lab, approached MIT multiple times, seeking a statement that MIT did not believe Swartz should be prosecuted for his actions.

There are reasons why those of us who were aware of Aaron’s case didn’t lobby MIT more loudly. As the report notes, just following the statement about “scant attention”: “Those most familiar with Aaron Swartz and the issues that greatly concerned him were divided in their views of the propriety of his action downloading JSTOR files, and fearful of harming his situation by taking public or private stands.” This fear was compounded by the fact that it was very difficult for Aaron and those closest to him to talk about the case without creating communications that could be subpoenaed by the prosecutor, which led him to discuss the case with very few people. Also, as the report reveals, an early attempt to draw action to the case online led to an angry reaction from prosecutor Steve Heymann. Given that Aaron and his team were seeking a plea deal with a prosecutor who already escalating charges against Aaron, it’s understandable that people were worried about harming Aaron’s situation by making noise.

Blaming the MIT community’s lack for response for MIT’s studied inaction is, for me, is an embarrassing evasion of responsibility, an admission that MIT was less interested in doing the right thing than in avoiding the sort of negative publicity it faced when it failed to support Star Simpson when she faced prosecution for wearing an LED-enhanced hoodie to Logan Airport.

It’s helpful to understand why MIT’s leadership did what it did. It’s understandable that, before they knew who was accessing JSTOR that they sought help from the Cambridge PD, which ended up bringing the Secret Service into the case. But for well over a year, MIT knew that its network had been accessed by a committed activist who was most likely making a political statement, not attempting to sell JSTOR to the highest bidder. They were extensively lobbied by a long-time employee who made a simple request for MIT to make a statement similar to the statement JSTOR made. They heard from MIT professors and from scholars outside the community, yet they clung to a stance of neutrality that, as Abelson’s report notes, systematically favored the prosecution over the defense.

The New York Times reports that MIT was “cleared” of wrongdoing in Aaron Swartz’s prosecution and death. I think the report presents MIT with two equally serious charges: a failure to act ethically, and a failure to show compassion. According to Abelson’s report, MIT’s president, chancellor and Office of the General Counsel did the minimum – and sometimes less than the minimum, when they failed to respond to defense subpoenas – in allowing Aaron Swartz and his team to mount a defense. In the process, they ignored the pleas of a long-time colleague who was desperately working to defend his son.

MIT has a different president than it did for most of the Swartz case, and the ball is now in President Reif’s court to change a culture that was unwilling to take moral leadership in the case of Aaron’s prosecution. For those of us who are outraged by the inaction of MIT’s leadership in this case, we face Albert Hirschman’s famous choice: exit or voice. My friend Quinn Norton, Aaron’s partner when he was arrested, recently tweeted: “I will never work with MIT, I will never attend events at MIT, I will never support MIT’s work, and I hope dearly that my MIT friends leave.”

I would hope that there’s another option: making clear that members of MIT’s community believe that MIT has responsibilities beyond “neutral” compliance, and working to change the culture that so badly failed Aaron. Evidently, it’s up to the MIT community – and the broader internet community – to make sure this report isn’t the final word on MIT’s role in Aaron’s prosecution and to ensure that Abelson’s questions in the report do not remain unanswered. I hope that President Reif’s promise to engage with Abelson’s questions leads to real change in an institution that has much to answer for, and I plan to push as hard as I can from the inside to ensure that MIT’s response to Aaron’s death does not end with this report.


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