I met Aaron Swartz in Cambridge shortly after he’d been indicted for downloading lots of JSTOR articles on MIT’s network in 2011. My Wired colleague Ryan Singel had been writing about his story, and I’d talked a lot with my friends in academia and publishing about the problems of putting scholarship behind a paywall, but that was really the level at which I was approaching it. I was there to have brunch with friends I’d known a long time only through the internet, and I hadn’t known Aaron that way. I certainly didn’t want to use the brunch to put on my journalist hat and pepper him with questions. He was there primarily to see his partner Quinn Norton’s daughter Ada, with whom he had a special bond. The two of them spent most of their time playing in the bedroom, behind where the rest of us sat, ate, and talked; sometimes you could hear them laughing together from the living room. And that’s mostly how I think of him still: a too-young father figure who occupied an immense role in the lives of people close to me.
"I thought he looked happy. I was wrong."
I was supposed to see Aaron the day before he hanged himself. Andy Baio had invited both of us to a small meetup at a bar on New York’s Lower East Side, and I was excited to catch up with Andy and other friends and to meet some new people. As it turned out, Aaron made it to the party and I didn’t; a late-breaking story kept me in for the night. Nobody thought that we wouldn’t have another chance to meet. Andy wrote that Aaron "was deep in conversation, smiling and chatting. I thought he looked happy. I was wrong."
After major depressive disorder threatened my life in my twenties, I knew how easy it can be to cover your exhaustion and anger to those around you. All you need is to keep people at arm’s length, keep them from wanting to look too closely, and hide in plain sight, like filling a hole in a cracked plaster wall with toothpaste. I knew how depression, at a chemical level, robs you of the rewards of being happy; how it turns the people around you into two-dimensional cutouts exactly when you need them most; how the disease makes you believe your good days don’t really matter and your bad days are the way the world really is.
I disclose all this as prologue because it affects how I write about Aaron, the path I try to chart between proximity and distance. It’s in the hesitation at the keyboard before I type "Swartz" to refer to someone I always knew as "Aaron." It was there when I furiously scribbled notes during applause lines at his memorial while a voice in the back of my head intoned, journalists don’t clap.
"If you believe that technology is making the world a better place, why do you believe that?"
I was deeply uncomfortable in the moments the memorial service turned into a political rally, especially when Aaron’s partner Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman demanded the audience ask hard questions of themselves, including "if you’re in the tech sector, why are you there? What do you really believe in? If you believe that technology is making the world a better place, why do you believe that? Do you really understand what makes the world a bad place to begin with?" When I think of Aaron, living out of a backpack even after he’d become wealthy, challenging other activists and philanthropists as irrational and unproductive, and unable to eat much more than white rice or water crackers without pain, I think that discomfort is entirely appropriate. We should be uncomfortable. We should be asking better questions. We should see nothing as inevitable.
"Politics is in user space."
Aaron, I’ve learned, had a way of implicating you, as a person, as an ethical being, as a social agent embedded in a wider world, through issues that could be seen as "just" about technology, law, or policy. At Aaron's memorial, Quinn said "he lived a life of thought and action, and that is the rarest thing in this world, in this moment in history, to marry thoughts with actions." You can parse that in multiple ways: a boy who had a brain and a heart, who had strongly-reasoned beliefs about what technology was for and the computing skills to put his ideals into practice.
We should be uncomfortable. We should be asking better questions. We should see nothing as inevitable.
At his memorial, Swartz's friend and Cluetrain Manifesto co-author Doc Searls described Aaron’s duality with a computing metaphor:
Geeks tend to avoid the legal stuff. They tend to not want to screw with it. They tend to not want to deal with the politics. Linus Torvalds would say, "I only do kernel space. I don’t do user space." Politics is in user space. Justice is in user space. Aaron was in both. And there are so few geeks that stand out and go that extra step, to defend the rest of us, to look out into the future and see what needs to be, and work on that, on making that happen... We need to do the work that he started.
Just what was Aaron’s work? Most stories since his death have called him an activist or a hacker, sometimes both. This job description is invariably paired with an implausibly long and broad list of career accomplishments. These are usually rattled off in a way that’s either misleading or leaves the reader little clue as to what Swartz actually did. "Inventor," "founder," "leader," "co-founder": intone these magical words enough times, and you move from memory into myth.
Aaron was already the subject of mythmaking enough times during his life. Some of those myths he wove himself, some he fought, some he joked about, and some he allowed others to believe. He was not a myth, but a young man of unusual gifts and sensitivity, one who came of age at a particular moment in the history of computing and the history of global politics. That moment was and still is characterized by a potent mix of possibility, urgency, and dread. Through that experience, he developed a powerful set of interrelated values that connect his achievements. I want to put Aaron’s life and accomplishments into that context, because I think it’s the only way we can understand him, ourselves, and the work still to be done.
RSS and the Semantic Web
Searls met Aaron when he was 14, and describes him as "already a figure in the industry, in spite of his youth and diminutive stature at the time." Everyone seemed to have already heard of Aaron. In a 2002 blog post, he writes that
when people recognized me and introduced themselves, each time their comments got exaggerated. "Ah, I heard you’re working for the Creative Commons." "Oh, I heard you help develop the Creative Commons website." "You’re the guy that runs the super-coder Creative Commons website!" "Hey, it’s the kid that runs the Creative Commons."
By this time, he had already dropped out of high school to work full-time on software and standards, learning Python and evangelizing about inside-industry topics like good metadata and general-purpose computing, things it was thought no teenager was interested in. He carried a backpack and worked on a beat-up PowerBook with a burned-out monitor. Searls says that no one could read its screen but Aaron; if you pressed him about it, he would say it was "just an extra security feature."
Aaron had grown up outside of Chicago, in Highland Park, Illinois. His father, Robert Swartz, had started a small software company, "Mark Williams" (after Aaron’s grandfather), that made a Unix clone and C compilers and debuggers for IBM PCs. Bob Swartz would later become an intellectual property consultant for MIT’s famous Media Lab. Aaron had been on Usenet since he was 8; his first post, on the Beakman’s World newsgroup, shows that he already had his "aaronsw" handle at both aol.com and his father’s company’s server, mwc.com. "Notice how even then I had two email addresses," Swartz wrote in 2002.
After reading Tim Berners-Lee’s 1999 book Weaving the Web, Aaron began building "The Info Network," an open-standards precursor to Wikipedia. He also began experimenting with a news syndication site called my.info, which led him to early versions of RSS. In 2000, his work on The Info Network made him a finalist in the 2nd ArsDigita prize. Winning the contest outed him as a thirteen-year-old to unsuspecting internet friends. As a finalist, Aaron won $1000, free access to a web server for life, and a two-day trip to MIT, where he met with Berners-Lee and Hal Abelson. (In 2013, Abelson would be named to head an inquiry into MIT’s actions during the JSTOR case, and Berners-Lee would write, "Aaron dead. World wanderers, we have lost a wise elder. Hackers for right, we are one down. Parents all, we have lost a child. Let us weep.")
While barely a teenager, aaron was already working with leading technologists to craft open standards
After visiting Cambridge, Aaron joined the twelve-member RSS-DEV working group developing the specification for RSS 1.0. This group, led by Rael Dornfest, built on work by Dave Winer and others but was also essentially starting fresh. Aaron had developed his own syndication code and used pre-1.0 versions of RSS at The Info Network. With the RSS-DEV group, he helped incorporate semantic web elements into the new specification. Eventually, this spec would be superseded by Winer’s RSS 2.0, which largely drew on work on the pre-1.0 specifications and not RSS 1.0. The numbering and name changes are frankly confusing. In my opinion, it makes more sense to think of the RSS-DEV team’s RSS 1.0, Winer’s RSS 2.0, and the IETF’s Atom as part of an often-contentious family of XML syndication tools that helped transform the internet in the early ‘00s.
Now, it’s as easy to exaggerate as it is to unfairly downplay Swartz’s contribution by framing it as a question of whether Aaron "invented" RSS. (He didn’t.) The key point of the story is that while barely a teenager, Aaron was already working with leading technologists to craft open standards for sharing information on the web. He was already devoted less to specific projects than the architectures that make future projects possible by anyone. For my money, that’s more impressive and remarkable than the image of a kid banging out slickly-executed code alone in his basement and somehow inventing these things from scratch.
After his work on RSS, Aaron dropped out of high school and became a frequent speaker at tech conferences. He met Lawrence Lessig and worked with him, Abelson, and Eric Eldred on the newly-formed Creative Commons. Lessig and the other founders of Creative Commons had articulated the need for a less-restrictive form of copyright that could still speak the language of existing copyright law. They didn’t know how to translate the legal architecture of copyright licenses into software. A text article could include a footnote identifying it as protected under Creative Commons. But once an MP3 file went onto a website or a file-sharing network and got separated from its README document, it didn’t matter what copyright option its creator chose. A typical user looking to share or modify the file had no way to tell what was permitted and what wasn’t. And since Creative Commons at the time sought to be a searchable archive for donated works, the nonprofit needed an easy, standard way to gather and sort files according to the type of license associated with it. Creative Commons copyright needed to be machine-readable.
Luckily, Aaron Swartz was both an expert on metadata and a true believer in the project of sharing knowledge and creative work as widely as possible. He had a mind that appreciated the finer parts of law and the finer arts of deftly-deployed code. He joined Creative Commons as an RDF Advisor, and helped develop embed codes that could be incorporated manually or automatically to mark files’ copyright protection. Lessig may be why the legal protections and possibilities of Creative Commons exist, but Aaron’s work (and that of those who succeeded him) is why you can mark a photo’s copyright protection when you upload it to Flickr, or perform a search restricted to CC material to find pictures you can legally share on your website.
Aaron’s early writings have this same characteristic blend of erudition, insight, and play
He co-wrote a technical paper with University of Maryland professor and Berners-Lee collaborator James Hendler. "The Semantic Web: A Network of Content for the Digital City," which Swartz and Hendler presented in Kyoto in 2001, alternates between defining key semantic web terms like "Resource Definition Framework" and using those definitions to tell sly jokes:
Each RDF statement has three parts: a subject, a predicate and an object. Let's look at a simple RDF statement:
As you might have guessed, that says that I really like Weaving the Web.
Many of Aaron’s early writings have this same characteristic blend of erudition, insight, and play. At the memorial, David Segal pointed to a 2002 blog post where Aaron argues that complex, unread open-source licenses ought to be put into haiku:
PD [Public Domain]: do what you feel like / since the work is abandoned / the law doesn’t care
MIT: take my code with you / and do whatever you want / but please don’t blame me
LGPL: you can copy this / but make modified versions / free in source code form
MPL: like LGPL / except netscape is allowed / to change the license
GPL: if you use this code / you and your children’s children / must make your source free
RIAA: if you touch this file / my lawyers will come kill you / so kindly refrain
In October 2002, Aaron accompanied Lessig to the US Supreme Court to watch him argue the landmark copyright case Eldred v. Ashcroft. Eldred was a failed constitutional challenge to the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act, passed largely at the behest of the movie industry. On his blog, Aaron wrote that he’d imagined bumping into the MPAA’s Jack Valenti on the flight from Chicago to Washington:
"Jack!" I’d exclaim, as if we were old pals. "Going to the Eldred case?" Of course he was. "Going to be a good one." "Hey, remember when you had that debate with Lessig?" I’d ask. "You said you were starting a new task force to make movies legitimately available on the Internet. What ever happened to that?" I imagine him mumbling and looking down at his watch. His plane is going to leave soon; he has to run.
But Aaron was fascinated by the Supreme Court itself:
I was impressed by how smart the Justices were. These were people who very thoroughly understood the issues and thought quickly on their feet. They were interested in long-lasting effects and classics, I doubted many cared much for Mickey or Steamboat Willie. It’s sad we don’t have this level of intellectualism and intelligence in the rest of our government today.
However, it was extremely funny that in such a formal setting, with imposing red drapes surrounding the room and the Justices sitting high above the supplicants in big chairs that the Justices were so informal. They interrupted each other, spun around and tipped back and forth in their chairs, and some even pretended to go to sleep with their head on their desks. The whole thing looked like a bunch of kids and school, all of which would almost certainly be diagnosed with ADD for their curiosity and inability to resist asking questions. Macki mentioned that Justice Clarence Thomas looked like he was chewing gum, trying hard to hide it from the teacher.
Aaron knew that the internet had transformed how knowledge could be shared, and had seen first-hand that different approaches to intellectual property were possible. He’d helped to create them. The technical limitations, once identified, could be isolated and solved. The structures could be worked out within the boundaries of the law. What remained were the moneyed interests who stood to lose from the emerging transformation of intellectual property. The copyright fights of the early ‘00s showed that these organizations were willing to use the law and bully ordinary people to enforce those interests. It also showed that, where the law failed, they would use their wealth and visibility to try to change the law.
Copyright and the RIAA
The Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act (CBDTPA) doesn’t roll off the tongue now, but in 2002, it was every bit as frightening in its potential to transform digital technology as SOPA and PIPA were. The CBDTPA would have prohibited any kind of technology that could be used to read digital content without DRM. (I’ll repeat that, because it seems important and kind of amazing.) Nothing — no computer, no e-reader, no iPod, no TV or DVD player — could exist without DRM. Every machine would have a piracy detection system built-in.
This wouldn’t have just prohibited file-sharing and burning mix CDs. The only makers of culture, software, or scholarship who could afford a system of total DRM would be giant companies. It was using the specter of lawless pirates and starving artists to make a naked power grab in the sphere of intellectual property.
"There are a lot of people, a lot of powerful people, who want to clamp down on the internet."
Aaron called the RIAA’s strategy of lawsuits and legislation "copyright terrorism," a pretty loaded term less than a year after Al-Qaeda’s September 11 attacks. The world was increasingly politically paranoid, with mandatory DRM of a piece with airport security theater and combatants detained without trial. When you read his blog posts from this time, it seems obvious that this experience fundamentally changed how he thought about these problems and his own role in helping to solve them. It wasn’t downloading MP3s on Napster or hanging out with Cory Doctorow and Larry Lessig that made Aaron a critic of the copyright industry and a political activist; it was the conjunction of the CBDTPA and the War on Terror.
In 2003, when the CBDTPA was withdrawn after a "truce" between the music and computer industries, Aaron was only further jaded. What had been a fierce fight by him and his colleagues at Creative Commons, the EFF, the FSF, and elsewhere had turned into a piece of kabuki theater for Washington lobbyists, where one industry pretended to ignore DRM and the other industry pretended to ignore fair use. In an argument between two giants, neither could be trusted to be an honest broker. What’s more, both would claim the mantle of the people, and credit for any compromise.
Years later, when the precursors to what became SOPA started to circulate in Washington, and the content and computing industries began to throw glancing jabs at each other, Aaron had seen this script before. Sure enough, he would say, technology lobbyists were primarily interested in making the bill "better," less damaging to their companies’ bottom lines, rather than defending the web and its users. As he said in 2012 in his "How We Stopped SOPA" speech:
It will happen again. Sure, it will have yet another name, and maybe another excuse, and it will do its damage in a different way. But make no mistake: the enemies of the freedom to connect have not disappeared. The fire in those politicians’ eyes hasn’t been put out. There are a lot of people, a lot of powerful people, who want to clamp down on the internet. And to be honest, there aren’t a lot who have a vested interest in protecting it from all of that...
We won this fight because everyone made themselves the hero of their own story. Everyone took it as their job to save this crucial freedom... If we forget that, if we let Hollywood rewrite the story so that it was just big company Google who stopped the bill, if we let them persuade us that we didn’t actually make a difference, and we start seeing it as someone else’s responsibility to do this work, and it’s our job to just go home and pop some popcorn and curl up on the couch to watch Transformers — well then, next time, they might just win. Let’s not let that happen.
Aaron had already been a political activist before SOPA. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, he joined the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, He was part of the PCCC’s original team in January 2009 and stayed until August 2010, helping develop its technology and working for Wall Street reform. That experience and the urgency of the SOPA fight helped him form his own political organization, Demand Progress. But in many ways, this was a continuation of those copyright fights from the early 2000s. Spinning the story of the SOPA fight after the fact, he would say that by 2010, he "didn’t care about copyright," that the issue had grown "too small" for him compared to health care or financial reform. But that’s a downright fib. Aaron was deeply interested and engaged in those larger issues, but never stopped caring about copyright. SOPA simply raised his visibility along with the stakes.
After CBDTPA and Creative Commons, but long before SOPA, Aaron saw the movie Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media and read Noam Chomsky’s book Understanding Power. He had what he called an epiphany:
For weeks afterwards, everything I saw was in a different light. Every time I saw a newspaper or magazine or person on TV, I questioned what I thought knew about them, wondered how they fit into this new picture. Questions that had puzzled me for years suddenly began making sense in this new world. I reconsidered everyone I knew, everything I thought I’d learned. And I found I didn’t have much company.
It’s taken me two years to write about this experience, not without reason. One terrifying side effect of learning the world isn’t the way you think is that it leaves you all alone. And when you try to describe your new worldview to people, it either comes out sounding unsurprising ("yeah, sure, everyone knows the media’s got problems") or like pure lunacy and people slowly back away.
Aaron went to Stanford University for a year. He described Stanford as "an idyllic little school in California where the sun is always shining and the grass is always green and the kids are always out getting a tan." He was 17, and expected every encounter to be as vivid and engaging as the one he had reading Chomsky’s book. Bored, he took an invitation from Paul Graham to join the inaugural class of the startup incubator Y Combinator to create a new kind of media company. As a bonus, he could move to Cambridge, home to the W3C, the Media Lab, and Noam Chomsky. The company and product Aaron created was called Infogami. Two members of his YC cohort included Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman, who founded Reddit.
Insisting that Aaron wasn’t a co-founder of Reddit is a bit like arguing that Ringo wasn’t really a Beatle because he only joined the rest of the band before their first records came out. Technically, there’s a point to be made here, but it isn’t ultimately that significant. Very early on, the two companies merged and Aaron became a full co-owner of the combined company. Reddit soon switched its programming backend from Lisp to Python, using a web development library Swartz built called web.py. The site stabilized, and quickly took off. The buzz from its Y Combinator connection eventually snowballed into millions of users each month, with a remarkable percentage of that traffic rebounding back to news sites. After long negotiations and intense fighting between the founders, Condé Nast bought the community, its technology, and the team behind it, for millions of dollars. The Reddit team moved into Wired’s offices in San Francisco. Aaron was rich. And he was miserable.
Aaron tells the story of how he left Reddit in different ways at different times and contexts, but it seems clear he was disillusioned, burned-out, and depressed:
I couldn't stand San Francisco. I couldn't stand office life. I couldn't stand Wired. I took a long Christmas vacation. I got sick. I thought of suicide. I ran from the police. And when I got back on Monday morning, I was asked to resign.
He’d written a short story on his blog called "Dying" that was interpreted as a suicide note. It’s about a character named Alex who gives up and resumes eating, suffers acute stomach pain, and kills himself. Alexis Ohanian had the police break into Aaron’s apartment to make sure he hadn’t killed himself. The stomach pains that plagued Aaron intermittently through his twenties were real. So was the depression. (Aaron would later say "I wasn’t in my right mind when I wrote it."). After this episode, Aaron resigned from Reddit.
Aaron was rich, and he was miserable
It may be telling that the two known times Swartz was crippled by depression were facing prosecution and facing an office job; after he gained a large amount of money from his work and when he seemed that he would lose all of it because of his activism. The two moments are color negatives of each other. The only common thread, apart from Aaron’s personality and neurochemistry, seems to be a premonition that none of the work he had done mattered, and that there was nothing left to do. He couldn’t change anything real.
PACER and Open Library
In 2007, now nearly 21, Aaron joined Brewster Kahle at the Internet Archive, launching Open Library. Open Library is a classic Swartz project:
- Pull down huge amounts of metadata from libraries and other databases;
- Generate a web page for every book in those databases;
- Allow anyone to edit those web pages;
- Make the entire site free to the entire world;
- Encourage the entire world to continue to add to it.
It also planted the germ of an idea. If he could use these networked records, hidden behind the virtual walls of government and university, and create a public, open alternative, what else could he do? Where else were the pressure points where knowledge was kept from public view, but could be opened up in almost infinite quantities to someone with the right key? In retrospect, it’s natural that Aaron turned to PACER, and then was led to JSTOR, with one case serving as a preview of the other.
PACER is the Public Access to Court Electronic Records system. It’s a government-run database of court filings — public, uncopyrightable documents — that charges 10 cents per page to access. (Before 2011, it was 8 cents per page.) The money pays for the cost of the database, with fees capped at $3 per document and waived if they’re less than $15 for a single user in a quarter. It’s bulk downloaders like law firms and news organizations who largely wind up supporting the service. If you, as an individual, are looking for a single record, it would likely be free.
But what this really means is that you can’t do anything at scale with court records. You can’t build a better search engine for them, or do large-scale research, not without accruing enormous costs. (LexisNexis, for example, builds a better search engine on top of PACER and other records — but charges huge sums for access.) There’s also something offensive about the idea that no ordinary citizen could possibly be interested in more than five legal documents every three months. All this is troubling for documents in the public domain. And Aaron happened to work for the Internet Archive, a company devoted to providing free, searchable access to any and all documents in the public domain.
PACER was an embarrassment
Aaron connected with Carl Malamud, a longtime public domain advocate and founder of public.resource.org, who’d been pressuring state and federal governments to stop charging for public documents. Many of these campaigns were successful: in 2007, after Malamud digitized and posted government videos in a project called "FedFlix", CSPAN opened up access to its video archive, with the network’s congressional hearings appearing for the first time at the Internet Archive. A letter campaign and a full crawl of the Government Printing Office’s five million web pages led to the price of government journals being dropped from $17,000 per year per product to $0, with the GPO agreeing to work with public.resource.org on building better metadata. So there was good reason to think that a similar type of public-minded guerrilla activism could lead to a similar response and reform of PACER.
The problem was Aaron. In September 2008, the federal district courts and the GPO had opened a free trial of PACER limited to 17 libraries around the country. Malamud urged open-access activists to download as many documents as they could and donate them to be archived in a free database. Since the documents weren’t under copyright, they couldn’t be taken down under the DMCA or any other law. And access through the libraries was free, right?
Aaron wrote a script to continuously and automatically download PACER documents. By September 29, he had downloaded 19,856,160 pages of text — around 3 million documents, or somewhere between 1 and 20 percent of the entire database. And then all the servers shut down. According to public statements from its officials, PACER was bewildered by the spike in downloads and believed its security had been compromised. They cancelled the free access trial.
The FBI opened an investigation. The downloaded pages had been sent to an Amazon server, registered under Aaron’s name, using his parents’ home address in Highland Park. Aaron later was able to get his FBI file under an FOIA request, and called the bureau’s notes on him "truly delightful." Meanwhile, he posted the PACER documents he’d downloaded on the Internet Archive, making them freely searchable. At eight cents per page, they were "worth" as much as $1,588,492.80. Ultimately, the FBI investigation went nowhere and was wrapped up. No laws were broken, no charges were filed. But PACER was revealed to have huge problems with redacting private details recorded in legal filings. The press was talking about how outdated its technology was, and asking hard questions about its costs and fee structure. It was an embarrassment. And the argument about public access to public documents was far from over.
Aaron had become a target for investigation by the federal government. He was on file as a "hacker" who was willing to exploit gaps in the law and in networks in order to make his point. A year later, he wrote a similar script to download journal articles from JSTOR, which also had huge repositories of public domain texts. This time, the Secret Service and US Attorney’s office, led by Assistant US Attorney Stephen Heymann and his boss Carmen Ortiz, had both the discretion and the institutional incentives to run wild on him. And that, with many, many ellipses, is how we got here.
Why was Aaron prosecuted?
I don’t believe the conspiracy theories about Aaron Swartz’s prosecution and death, and neither do the people who were close to him. I heard speculation that he’d been rung up for multiple multi-year charges to pressure him to inform on contacts in the hacker community, Anonymous, or Wikileaks — anyone who could be a clearer criminal or political target. And maybe the US Attorney’s office was deluded enough to think Aaron ran deeper with those groups than he did, that everyone who writes code and is interested in anonymization software is identical and knows what anyone in the collective is up to. But ultimately, the simplest explanation here is the best. The government didn’t need to prosecute a big fish if it could make Aaron look like one. The police don’t need to stop drug kingpins if they can make anyone in a car with drugs look like one. Turning disobedience into felonies becomes the easiest thing in the world.
The prosecutors wanted headlines, conviction statistics, promotions, and to make the public feel that computer crime was important and dangerous but something was being done about it. Aaron Swartz, because of his prominence in the tech community and history with PACER and SOPA, was just notorious enough to get the job done. Aaron Swartz was linkbait.
Aaron Swartz was just notorious enough to get the job done; Aaron Swartz was linkbait
Fighting the bigger fight
At Aaron’s NYC memorial service, Freedom to Connect’s David Isenberg said something that won’t get out of my mind:
I'm afraid that Aaron's legacy is going to be dumbed down to 'hacker,' 'copyfighter,' the way the media dumbed down the SOPA fight to Google versus the telephone companies.
So let's not forget that Aaron fought the bigger fights: the fight for access, the fight for justice, the fight for democracy, the fight for us, for this community, and for the greater community that is all humankind.
I also keep thinking about a point Aaron’s father made during his eulogy for his son in Chicago, and that Thoughtworks’ Roy Singham reprised in New York. Over and over again, we’ve seen technology companies, whether startups or giants, push the boundaries of the law for their own gain. We celebrate it. We call it "disruption." The existing commercial powers largely understand its motivations and can deal with it using tools commercial powers understand: civil lawsuits, ad campaigns, market pressure, private agreements, buyouts, and payoffs.
"Aaron's legacy is going to be dumbed down."
Aaron didn’t play that game. After he sold Reddit, he couldn’t be bought. In fact, he was spending his own money, and his valuable time, on campaigns for the public good, and helping others to do the same. He was a realist about the government, media companies, and Silicon Valley. His experience with all of them made him grow up too soon. But he also never stopped being that not-even-teenager who believed in the utopian possibilities latent in the World Wide Web. He never stopped believing in the power of small groups of people who were willing to devote their attention to small problems and nagging details in order to create the greatest good for the greatest number. Aaron played in that space without resolving its tensions.
It’s that collapsing telescope between the many and the few, the rational and the altruistic, the minute and the world-historical, the irreducibility of life as it is lived and the universality of the ideals that life should serve.
"What do you believe in?"
I’m also still grappling with the discomfort of Taren’s question. "If you’re in the tech sector, why are you there? What do you believe in? If you believe that technology is making the world a better place why do you believe that? Do you really understand what makes the world a bad place to begin with?"
Unexpectedly, it resonates with something Google’s Larry Page said recently:
If you read the media coverage of our company, or of the technology industry in general, it’s always about the competition. The stories are written as if they are covering a sporting event. But it’s hard to find actual examples of really amazing things that happened solely due to competition. How exciting is it to come to work if the best you can do is trounce some other company that does roughly the same thing? That’s why most companies decay slowly over time. They tend to do approximately what they did before, with a few minor changes. It’s natural for people to want to work on things that they know aren’t going to fail. But incremental improvement is guaranteed to be obsolete over time. Especially in technology, where you know there’s going to be non-incremental change. So a big part of my job is to get people focused on things that are not just incremental.
Our interest in technology is in the business of technology, and the competition between technology companies and their products. But our belief in technology is the belief in non-incremental change. Not in emergent form factors or paradigm shifts in venture funding, but change in our culture, our politics, our laws, our experiences, and ourselves.
Believe in non-incremental change
It is easy to lose sight of that promise without a mind like Aaron’s, that could juggle a dozen things at once, just as it’s easy to take for granted someone you love. Sometimes, to recognize it in the noise, you need a hard reboot, a shock to the system. Aaron Swartz’s death was a shock to the system. It’s uncomfortable and uncertain, but it creates an opening going forth. It pierces us like an arrow into the future.
"This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism," as Martin Luther King Jr. would say, in a speech still covered by copyright. My freedom is inextricably bound up with your freedom. "We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back," as Barack Obama would say, quoting King at the 2008 Democratic Convention, a moment of uncertain hope amidst disaster, seemingly free from the heartbreaking compromises to come, infinitely open to opportunity.
Don’t turn back. We can’t let that happen.
Lead photo credit: Sage Ross