Tumblehome Talks

Science Enrichment at Home and After School

Mixed Messages on Cheating: Aaron Swartz and Lance Armstrong

Much of America has been riveted this past week to two stories: the tragic suicide of computer genius Aaron Swartz who was accused of hacking into MIT’s computer database of academic papers and the public confession, as it were, of Lance Armstrong that he engaged in doping – he took performance enhancing drugs – to win seven Tour De France cycling titles.

Both men behaved dishonestly but the rationales and the punishments differed wildly. Swartz hacked a computer system to make a point – that taxpayer-funded research should be available to taxpayers for free; Armstrong doped his own metabolism to make a fortune. Swartz faced jail time; Armstrong faced Oprah. Swartz was  vulnerable enough to be driven to suicide; Armstrong has the swagger to admit his chief regret is that he got caught. Our kids are watching all of this play out in the media, and it might be a good idea to talk about it.

MIT's Stata Center

MIT’s Stata Center

Hacking and doping are two of many ways people can break the rules in our society. Both are risky and exciting and the payoffs can be big. Really big.

Hacking isn’t always cheating; often all it amounts to is a nerdy practical joke (we’ll discuss hacking in greater detail in a future post) and is often designed to be noticed. Doping is always cheating and is designed to be undetected so that athletes can gain an unfair advantage over their competitors. Hacking is meant to prove cleverness and intelligence; doping is meant to prove strength and dominance.

It’s not a case of all bad or all good, of course. Both Armstrong and Swartz used their considerable skills for good – Reddit is a major force on the Internet and Livestrong has raised millions to help people with cancer.

It’s not over, either. Swartz’s day in court was imminent; Armstrong is not immune from prosecution yet by any stretch.

But at this moment in time, our kids are seeing that while the computer genius was vilified and prosecuted (and driven to suicide, according to his family), the athlete was getting prime time therapy from Oprah Winfrey.

When Swartz accessed restricted files to underscore his view that they belonged in the public domain, he hoped that the world would understand his message and perhaps that any punishment for his crime would take that into account. Everyone agrees that what he did was illegal, but there is strong disagreement about whom – if anyone – was actually hurt by his crime. And for the most part, the world only knew what he had done when, despondent over the prospect of going to jail, he took his own life.

800px-Livestrong_wristbandWhen Armstrong doped – and intimidated others into doping with him – his only reason for doing so was to win.  Winning, with its fame, money, and glory, was worth whatever he had to do to get there, even worth destroying the careers and reputations of those who told the truth about him.

We’ve laid this out in pretty stark terms, but while we adults are doing our own soul-searching about why sometimes our culture rewards and punishes the wrong things we can ask our kids some key questions:

  • What does it mean to win? In the classroom? On the ball field? How are they different? If they are, how are the rewards different?
  • Are the rewards for being smart different from the rewards for being a winning athlete?
  • Are there times when breaking rules is a good thing?
  • When you break rules, do you think about what will happen if you get caught?
  • Is breaking rules easier than trying to change them? Can you think of a time when this might be true?
  • Some people would rather be famous for doing something bad (or stupid) than be mostly anonymous for doing something good (or clever). Do you agree? Can you think of some examples?

It’s more important to have the conversation than to agree on what the consequences should have been for these two men.  Reddit_logo.svgDuring the middle school years, children start to be acutely aware that the rules don’t apply the same way to everyone, and their outraged sense of justice can help them think about who they are and who they want to become.


One comment on “Mixed Messages on Cheating: Aaron Swartz and Lance Armstrong

  1. Pingback: Mixed Messages on Cheating: Aaron Swartz and Lance Armstrong | LettersHead

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