Musings for a responsible society

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Edward Snowden, Aaron Swartz, and Julian Assange: Who made them what?

Digital age is not just about Steve JobsLarry Page or Mark Zuckerberg. It is also about three young personalities: Julian Assange, Aaron Swartz and Edward Snowden. Here is an attempt to have a quick look at the environment that shaped their personalities.

What are the commonalities between Edward Snowden, Aaron Swartz, and Julian Assange?

Following similarities are known: Whistle blowers, radical thinking from young age, anti-establishment, champions of individual freedom and privacy rights, advocates of open sourcing, extremely intelligent, cyber punks, led a small but committed team, and targeted by Law and Police for cyber crimes.

I am not here to judge or comment about their action or crime. That is the job of the  investigators and the judiciary. My attempt is to look at their family backgrounds, the ‘significant others’, their schooling and the immediate social environment and understand the influence of each of these factors on their attitudes, behavioural patterns and views of life.

Though many readers are aware of the actions of the above three persons that led to the criminal charges against them, let me recapitulate the key charges against them.

AARON SWARTZ                           picture:

Aaron Swartz was arrested by the Police in connection with the illegal downloading of academic papers from the online database JSTOR. This is an online database of research papers and articles written by the academic community. The website charges a fee for accessing to the full versions of the papers. Millions of students and researchers worldwide look at JSTOR in connection with their assignments, projects, theses etc. Many affluent universities and research institutes have registered at this site so that their students have access to the online database. But many institutions and individuals cannot afford to pay the charges to read the articles in the database. Even I have experienced disappointment many times when JSTOR asked me to pay up while trying to read the articles. Most of these studies reported in JSTOR  are in fact products of academicians who received  public funds or fellowships for their research projects or huge research grants from institutional donrs.  (Though this is not a  justification for the action of Aaron Swartz, one would rightly wish that these papers should have been ideally circulated freely among the academic community by the academic institutions through their websites). Aaron Swartz illegally downloaded large number of articles and given free access to people.

Earlier, Aaron who had created interactive educational websites at the age of 13, and who had done extensive research on political corruption, had downloaded and released millions of federal court documents that were not confidential for the benefit of the public.

Aaron Swartz chose to escape from this world forever on January 11, 2013 at the age of 27. (It is an 'irony' that just two days before his suicide JSTOR announced that it is releasing close to 4.5 million articles to the public domain)

                      EDWARD SNOWDEN                                                                        getty images/business insider

Edward Snowden: In the month of June 2013, thirty year old Snowden leaked details of highly confidential mass surveillance programs of Governments of UK and US. He worked as a security guard in the National Security Agency and later in the CIA in the area of Information Technology. He left CIA and was associated with a few private companies. US has filed espionage charges against Snowden. While this article is being written, it is reported that Snowden has taken asylum in Hong Kong and then traveled to Russia and also requested for asylum in Ecuador. 

JULIAN ASSANGE                                   photo:

Julian Assange:  (Extracted from my article on the subject) While Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were acclaimed for their creativity in Information Technology, Assange became popular (or infamous) for finding holes in the systems created by them. His team, comprised of either eccentric persons or persons with anxiety disorders and mostly from dysfunctional families, started their hacking adventures with the computer network through which most of the countries ran their classified computer sites. They wandered through the corridors of US Air Force in the Pentagon, tramped through Motorola, padded through Xerox, and swam down into the US Naval Undersea Warfare Engineering Station.
Wikileaks released over half million US National text pager intercepts relating to September 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington. It used anonymous sources of information and leaked details related to Guantanamo BayUS Military equipment in IraqConfidential Congressional Reports, Confidential Climate Change Agreements, Frauds within Multi-National Corporations, Internet Censorships in countries etc.  Wikileaks released a database of hundreds of documents from as many as 160 ‘intelligence contractors’ in the ‘mass surveillance industry’. On February 27, 2012 wikileaks published what they called ‘Global Intelligence Files’ which are about 500 million e-mails (of the period from 2004 to 2011). It was claimed that these e-mails revealed confidential communications of various companies, indicating the dubious role played by the Bhopal’s Dow Chemical Company
The charge levelled by Police and many public organizations centred on following questions. How can a person who claims to be the champion of freedom of information thwart the privacy of individuals and institutions? How can a person who claims to be engaged in ethical mission commit the crime of unauthorized snooping and stealing secret information? How can a person disseminate information that seriously damages the security, peace and reputation of states and global institutions?

A quick Sociological Analysis

A quick look at the background and upbringing of these three persons who shook the world points towards the need for a comprehensive sociological analysis of the factors that shaped their personalities. With a very limited analysis of piecemeal data found in the secondary sources and certain traces of primary sources that available in the public domain, I have focused on only two areas of their background: One, the family where they were brought up and two, their schooling.

Let me start with their perception of their schooling.

Victims of a repressive schooling

Education manifests itself as a draconian and inescapable prison for a large number of students who were forced to enroll in abusive schools all over the world. All three of them hated the school system. They found their schools uninteresting, torturing and preventing the learning process.

Snowden dropped out while he was in high school. He later joined a community college but he could not complete the course. Swartz dropped out of school in Grade IX. Assange had to stay in more than fifty towns in Australia and studied in more than thirty schools, mostly in the suburbs. So he was always labelled as a ‘new boy’ in every school. He found the school to be an agony of boredom and a place of slow learning.

All the three had to face bitter experiences while they were in school. For example, Assange was subjected to corporal punishment by one of the school principals based on a false accusation. That tormented him for many years.

Aaron Swartz wrote about his views on schooling:
‘Education becomes the stupid thing in classrooms that you have to do to get a decent job, an entirely mercenary perspective that’s helplessly encouraged by the mercenary pressures of student loans’ . …..‘School is a world where genuine education is absolutely the last thing on anyone’s mind’. ….In Schools, ‘kids cheat, not just by copying on tests, but by taking copious steroids’ ( You can have a look at his weblog )

Wounded by the loneliness and marital discord between parents

Two of them had tormented childhood due to the marital discord between their parents.
Snowden had to live for many years along with parents who were unhappy with each other. Ultimately, his parents divorced when he was about 18 years and his father who worked as an officer in the Coastguard married again.
Assange’s mother experienced repeated marital breakdown and that had affected him severely.
Though there is no information that points towards any disharmony between his parents, Swartz had described in his writings that he had a lonely childhood.

How much of their actions were triggered by their ‘personality’ that shaped in the childhood environment?

There is no doubt that all three of them perceived certain systemic maladies and wanted to act in response to that. But are there any other reasons for their so called ‘deviant’ responses?

Did Swartz commit suicide solely due to the police investigation and crime charges against him by the State?

Aaron Swartz, though a young and strong intellectual who was greatly influenced by the writings of Chomsky, was an occasionally depressed person.

Swartz who had suffered ulcerative colitis had written about his bouts of depression. He had suicidal tendencies. There are several references to this in his weblog written much earlier to these investigations:  ‘I got sick; I thought of suicide’, ‘Everything gets coloured by the sadness’, ‘Your face falls; perhaps you cry’

He wrote about himself in his weblog: ‘..a misanthrope, prone to mood swings, eating binges, who spends his days moping around the house in his pyjamas, too shy and sad to step outside’ 
See another interesting note:
‘What is frightening, it would seem, is that people aren’t the way we expected. They seemed to be brave and kind-hearted, but when the moment was right they were capable of being crafty and manipulative’ 

What about Snowden?

I could trace about him in the I found the following note written by him in his profile page of a company he associated as an ‘Editor/Coffee-boy’. (I am not sure whether the web page of the Ryuhana Press still exists as you read this now):
‘I really am a nice guy, though. You see, I act arrogant and cruel because I was not hugged enough as a child, and because the public education system turned its wretched, spiked back on me’

The above sentences clearly showed how disgusted he was with the upbringing and also about the schooling he underwent.

And what about Assange?

I have already written about him in another blog post. I am reproducing a relevant extract from my  article below:

Was he deviant in his teenage years? May be, if we compare his lifestyles with others', of the same age, of the same time. He started keeping his hair very long in spite of injunctions not to. He was often been ridiculed or judged on account of his hair. He defied the instructions of both teachers and his mother and the stepfather. He refused to tie his shoelaces in the normal way and devised an elaborate system of wrapping the laces round the ankle and tying a knot rather than a bow, and began to teach the method to other kids. Later he dispensed with shoes altogether. 

Young Assange keenly observed how his activist mother participated in the protests against war, uranium mining, harmful fishing practices, logging in rainforests. He thus gained firm education in the arts of political persuasion. But the life of the mother and son were like fugitives, as the mother experienced the trauma of repeated marital break down. All these childhood experiences have very deeply influenced the personality of Assange.

Influence of the invisible father

Many Sociologists (Nature-Nature debate)   are of the opinion that about 80% of one’s personality is influenced by the ‘environment’ and just 20% is attributed to Heredity. In the case of Assange, though the childhood experiences and the family background have greatly influenced his personality, there is a clear genetic influence. That is what Assange also believes. The book speaks about Assange’s discovery that he, in fact, was following his father’s footsteps as far his literary interests were concerned, without knowing him and his interests. He was amazed to find out on his father’s book shelves, the same set of books he had purchased and read. He says with pain: ‘I suddenly realised I had started from the bottom of myself, on the first rung, and built myself up via many trials and tribulations, when, all the time, if I had only known him, I might just have picked his books down from the shelf.’ He regretted that if he had known him, he would have built faster.
             (Extracted from my article Julian Assange: A Criminal or a Champion ofOpen Society?)

Concluding note

What I have attempted here is to provide a very brief and quick analysis of the social backgrounds of these three personalities. A very detailed and comprehensive research based on extensive data collection and analysis would definitely throw light on various sociological dimensions. Janet P Near and Marcia  P Miceli in their book 'Whistle-blowing: Myth and Reality' (1996) have written that the whistle-blowers    are not unusual people. They are 'more likely, people who find themselves in unusual circumstances' .Researchers Alan Sroufe and team, after a detailed study on children at Minnesota (The Development of the Person, The Guilford Press, 2005) wrote: ‘..the explanation for why individual children and adults are the way they are lies in the entire cumulative history and the current circumstances surrounding the persons’. Sullivan in his book ‘The interpersonal theory of psychiatry’ (1953) emphasized the crucial influence of nature of schooling on children. Though subsequent to this, there is a proliferation of studies on ‘personality determinants’, very few works do a post-mortem and interlinking based on facts and events readily visible and still less number scholars have the courage to do a critical analysis of a live case before them. It is time, sociologists and social psychologists draw line to the past focussing on the present at an appropriate angle and with a restricted focus. 

                                                                           © Sibichen K Mathew

(Views are personal. The focus is on the sociological determinants in the personality development and not intended to evaluate the personalities or actions. Author does not claim that facts on which certain assumptions are attempted are comprehensive or irrefutable)

Click COMMENTS below to give your views on the subject. or sibi5555 [ gmail ]

Readers may click below to read some of my  related articles 

Julian Assange: A Criminal or a Champion of Open Society?


  1. It may be interesting to study the lives of Steve Jobs, Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg as well and look for patterns. And it is possible there may be similarities between there three and the other three you have analyzed. After all people who are unhappy with current state of things will be the ones to try and change the system - changes which individuals and society my perceive as good or bad.

  2. Bradley Manning and Richard Stallman also can be taken for the analysis.
    I feel these greatmen get noticed because of their courage to stand agianst the "Empire"- ( to quote Arundhati roy ,
    Marital discord between parents, i dont think that brings up Snowdens . ( Pls see "Today, one-third of American children – a total of 15 million – are being raised without a father." quoted from

    1. Thanks Niyas. Marital discord in the family would not be an important factor in the case of Snowden. As I mentioned, he faced neglect in the childhood

  3. I feel these are by nature disruptive personalities. I am still on the fence on what to make of these men.

  4. Good analysis Sibi. What I have observed, negligence during childhood is the major factor.


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