Aaron Swartz

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Aaron SwarzI 399px-Malik_Bendjelloul_Deauville_2012was digging around for links toward a post on Brian Knappenberger‘s crowdsourced Aaron Swartz documentary, The Internet’s Own Boy, when I learned that Malik Bendjelloul, the documentary filmmaker who won an Oscar last year for Searching for Sugar Man, was also dead — like Aaron, a suicide.

I would guess that readers of this blog are more familiar with Aaron than with Malik, though the ratio is probably reversed for the rest of the world, or at least for the part of it that cares about movies.

Hardly a week goes by that I don’t urge, in the strongest way I can, that people see Searching for Sugar Man. I also urge people not to read up on it first. Better to just go see it. The story works best if you start knowing little or nothing about it.

Sugar Man is one of those rare things: a deep-hearted feel-good documentary. There is no tragedy to it, but rather an almost holy sense of transcendence. And just a great, great story. Please watch it. Note the artistry behind the titles, the transitions, the editing. And think on how Malik did most of those in his apartment.

I was interviewed by Brian for The Internet’s Own Boy, but I don’t know if what I said ended up in the movie or on the cutting room floor. I suspect the latter, because most of what I said pertained to Aaron’s genius rather than the narrative vector of the film. (A correct one, about Aaron being hounded to death by prosecutorial overreach.) And I don’t care either way. I trusted Brian to make a great movie, and it looks like he succeeded. It got a standing ovation at Sundance, and other reviews I’ve seen were all positive.

It is gratifying to see a number of my still photos of Aaron in the trailer, thanks to having been published under a Creative Commons license (attribution only) that encourages use. Creative Commons was co-created by Aaron when he was still a teenager.

What we lost with both men was their promise. When Aaron died, I wrote, “We haven’t just lost a good man, but the better world he was helping to make.” The same goes for Malik. Like Aaron, he was a sweet, brilliant and talented young man. The world is lessened by his absence, in ways we will never know.

Bonus linkage:

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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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