Other hackers have killed themselves, too. Before there was Aaron Swartz, there was Ilya Zhitomirskiy, a 22-year-old founder of the social-network site Diaspora*, frequently described as the “anti-Facebook” because it gives users control over their personal data rather than packaging it for advertisers. Before Ilya, there was Len Sassaman, a brilliant cryptographer who helped make Internet communications anonymous, especially when governments or powerful corporations might want to nose in on them. Before Sassaman, there was Christopher Lightfoot, who was revered for his daring, Swartz-style bulk downloads of British government data. And before Lightfoot, there was Gene Kan, who made a name for himself in the peer-to-peer movement—the technology used to swap music and video files outside the reach of their copyright holders.
The particulars of each case were different, of course. Like Swartz, Sassaman had the occasional run-in with the government over his online exploits. Kan seemed to briefly make his peace with the powers-that-be by going to work for Sun Microsystems, the Silicon Valley giant. And, in any case, who can really say why anyone might take that tragic, irreversible step? But all in their own way came across as highly concentrated distillations of computer hacker culture: precocious, technically brilliant, bracingly idealistic. All were prone to disillusionment when reality fell short of their vision for it.