Losing Aaron Swartz

Aaron Swartz died yesterday, a suicide at 26. I always felt a kinship with Aaron, in part because we were living demographic bookends. At many of the events we both attended, at least early on, he was the youngest person there, and I was the oldest. When I first met him, he was fourteen years old, and already a figure in the industry, in spite of his youth and diminutive stature at the time. Here he is with Dave Winer, I believe at an O’Reilly conference in San Jose:

It’s dated May 2002, when Aaron was fifteen. That was the same year I booked him for a panel at Comdex in Las Vegas. His mom dropped him off, and his computer was an old Mac laptop with a broken screen that was so dim that I couldn’t read it, but he could. He rationalized it as a security precaution. Here’s a photo, courtesy of Mary Wehmeier. Here’s another I love, from the same Berkman Center set that also contains the one above:

All those are permissively licensed for re-use via Creative Commons, which Aaron helped create before he could shave.

Aaron’s many other passions and accomplishments are well-described elsewhere, but the role he chose to play might be best described by Cory Doctorow in BoingBoing: “a full-time, uncompromising, reckless and delightful shit-disturber.” Cory also writes, “Aaron had an unbeatable combination of political insight, technical skill, and intelligence about people and issues. I think he could have revolutionized American (and worldwide) politics. His legacy may still yet do so.”

I hope that’s true. But it would have had a much better chance if he were still here doing what he did best. We haven’t just lost a good man, but the better world he was helping to make.

[Later...] Larry Lessig makes the case that Aaron was driven to end his life by the prospect of an expensive trial, due to start soon, and the prospect of prison and worse if he lost the case and its appeals. Writes Larry ,

[Aaron] is gone today, driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying. I get wrong. But I also get proportionality. And if you don’t get both, you don’t deserve to have the power of the United States government behind you.

For remember, we live in a world where the architects of the financial crisis regularly dine at the White House — and where even those brought to “justice” never even have to admit any wrongdoing, let alone be labeled “felons.”

In that world, the question this government needs to answer is why it was so necessary that Aaron Swartz be labeled a “felon.” For in the 18 months of negotiations, that was what he was not willing to accept, and so that was the reason he was facing a million dollar trial in April — his wealth bled dry, yet unable to appeal openly to us for the financial help he needed to fund his defense, at least without risking the ire of a district court judge.  And so as wrong and misguided and fucking sad as this is, I get how the prospect of this fight, defenseless, made it make sense to this brilliant but troubled boy to end it.

Fifty years in jail, charges our government. Somehow, we need to get beyond the “I’m right so I’m right to nuke you” ethics that dominates our time. That begins with one word: Shame.

One word, and endless tears.

[Later again, 13 January, Sunday morning...] Official Statement from the family and partner of Aaron Swartz is up at http://RememberAaronSw.tumblr.com. Here it is, entire:

Our beloved brother, son, friend, and partner Aaron Swartz hanged himself on Friday in his Brooklyn apartment. We are in shock, and have not yet come to terms with his passing.

Aaron’s insatiable curiosity, creativity, and brilliance; his reflexive empathy and capacity for selfless, boundless love; his refusal to accept injustice as inevitable—these gifts made the world, and our lives, far brighter. We’re grateful for our time with him, to those who loved him and stood with him, and to all of those who continue his work for a better world.

Aaron’s commitment to social justice was profound, and defined his life. He was instrumental to the defeat of an Internet censorship bill; he fought for a more democratic, open, and accountable political system; and he helped to create, build, and preserve a dizzying range of scholarly projects that extended the scope and accessibility of human knowledge. He used his prodigious skills as a programmer and technologist not to enrich himself but to make the Internet and the world a fairer, better place. His deeply humane writing touched minds and hearts across generations and continents. He earned the friendship of thousands and the respect and support of millions more.

Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.

Today, we grieve for the extraordinary and irreplaceable man that we have lost.

Funeral and other details follow at the bottom of that post, which concludes, Remembrances of Aaron, as well as donations in his memory, can be submitted at http://rememberaaronsw.com.

Also, via @JPBarlow: “Academics, please put your PDFs online in tribute to @aaronsw. Use #pdftribute.” Here’s the backstory.

A memorial tweet from Tim Berners Lee (@TimBerners_Lee): 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.

Some links, which I’ll keep adding as I can:

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25 comments

  1. Mike Warot’s avatar

    I’m angry almost beyond measure about the abuse that lead to this.

    I’ve signed the petitions to have Aaron pardoned, and to have Carmen Ortiz removed, and I ask you to consider doing the same.

    A nicer parallel universe with Aaron still alive and well has been split from this one.

  2. Charles Edward Frith (@charlesfrith)’s avatar

    The rot extends further than the digital sphere. Guantanamo, the war on Whistleblowers, the drone executions, the extended wars in Yemen, Pakistan, Sudan, Somalia et al. The endless business of killing.

  3. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks for all the help in filling out this post, to everybody who has written or tweeted me, privately or publicly. This is such a heavy thing, but it’s important for all of us to remember Aaron, and to carry forward his good work.

  4. Charles Roth’s avatar

    I have previously written the White House, my Senators, and my Rep about the absurdity and evil of the level of prosecution intended by the U.S. “Dept of Justice”. I will do so again. And again. For that is what justice requires.

    But I also confess to some anger with Aaron. He was brilliant, and always in a hurry. Too much of a hurry, in life, and in death.

    I actually worked at JSTOR when he “liberated” academic documents. I saw the server logs of the events. He essentially, presumably accidentally, did a DDoS on a bunch of their servers. And cost JSTOR a couple of man-days of effort tracking this down. The sad thing is, he could have liberated those same documents by ASKING FOR THEM. JSTOR doesn’t own them, they simply provide a service to search and retrieve them. Academics can always ask for large quantities of docs, and JSTOR usually finds a way to work with them.

    (I no longer work for JSTOR, I most certainly do not speak for them. And JSTOR specifically did not wish to prosecute, and IMHO, overall behaved admirably.)

  5. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Hi, Charles. Good to see you here.

    Far as I know, nobody who knew Aaron (like most who didn’t) thought what he did with JSTOR was a good or right thing. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’m sure he felt the same way, after the fact.

    His act reminded me of the opening passages of Scott Spencer’s book Endless Love, which begins,

    When I was seventeen and in full obedience to my heart’s most urgent commands, I stepped far from the pathway of normal life and in a moment’s time ruined everything I loved — I loved so deeply, and when the love was interrupted, when the incorporeal body of love shrank back in terror and my own body was locked away, it was hard for others to believe that a life so new could suffer so irrevocably. But now, years have passed and the night of August 12, 1967, still divides my life.

    What the protagonist of that book did was burn his girlfriend’s family’s house down. He meant to do something less than that, but he knew he was doing something wrong and risky and illegal. And he did it for love. Aaron was ten years older than this guy, but he was still given to obey the impulses of a young man in full obedience to his heart’s commands. Now the divide in Aaron’s life is between death and promise. A terrible waste of a wonderful life.

    Many others who knew Aaron speak of their frustration and anger, as well as their love for him. I feel some of that anger too. Suicides are acts of desperation and far less rational than rationalized, especially when committed by healthy people with abundant promise. What I wish Aaron could have seen is the near-infinite pain his suicide would cause to those who loved him most, and the permanent scars it would leave over the wounds to their hearts. If he could have seen that, I doubt he would have gone through with it. He was a good and loving guy. But now there is nothing anybody can do, but slowly heal, and try to carry forward the best of what Aaron worked for.

  6. Charles Roth’s avatar

    I agree completely, Doc. I just wanted to speak to “the other side”. Meaning, that we often feel anger at those that we’ve lost, even as we grieve for them. Your acknowledgement says it better than I could.

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