I was saddened today when a friend told me that Aaron Swartz had died. A committee of programmers had selected Aaron from among several hundred applicants and nominees for the ArsDigita Prize in the summer of 2000. Starting at age 12, Aaron had built an information system using the Oracle RDBMS and our open-source toolkit and the intent of the prize was to encourage and enable them to do more. Aaron was just 13 years old at the time and seemingly less than 5′ tall. Whenever anyone complained that our software and/or Oracle was too hard to install I would say “Well, a 12-year-old in Chicago managed to do it. With your bachelor’s in computer science and team of assistants I hope that you’ll also be able to get everything working.”
As a 14-year-old, Swartz worked with Dave Winer and other Weblog technology pioneers to co-author the RSS 1.0 specification. The experience so scarred Winer that he wrote a blog posting (I can’t find it now) saying that he was not going to talk to Aaron anymore. This led me to remark to a friend “Don’t let me complain about anyone in my blog unless he or she is at least 18 years old.” (for fear that I would be judged by the size/age of my enemies!)
My next interaction with Aaron was in the winter of 2005-2006 at Y Combinator where Aaron was part of the team building Reddit (Andrew Grumet and I were invited over there to offer advice to the 21-year-olds but everyone ignored us). Swartz wrote his own web.py framework for Python and explains his philosophy here.
In January 2007 I got an email from Rebecca, one of my MIT friends:
I haven’t seen Swartz since those early Reddit days but he would occasionally email me to correct mistakes in my Weblog. Sometimes the mistakes were typos. At other times the mistakes, in Swartz’s view, were mental. In response to my “Economy Recovery Plan” of November 2008, Swartz wrote “Wow, this article is so ignorant of basic economics it deserves another email.” (America’s politicians apparently agreed with Swartz because in the 4+ years since I wrote that article they have done the exact opposite of what I suggested!) Swartz was a passionate Keynesian:
Let’s start at the beginning. Depressions are caused by a slight increase in people’s preference to hold onto cash, which causes a downward spiral where the economy slows and then people want to hold onto cash more.
The first thing you try to do in this instance is increase the money supply, but we’ve gone as far as we can go on that — the Fed has sent the interest rate to zero and it can’t go any lower.
So, as Keynes said, the second thing you try to do in that scenario is let government spending pick up the slack and take advantage of the productive capacity that isn’t being used on anything to get the economy moving again.
You claim this won’t work because “a lot more globalized today and there is much more competition among countries.” First, we’ve only recently caught up to the levels of international integration we had during the first wave of globalization, starting in 1870. Second, countries don’t compete with each other. The fundamental well-being of a country is determined by simply its domestic productivity. What would we be competing for?
You seem to suggest that we’re competing for international investment dollars. But then why do you think government investment won’t work? Why is international investment this magical thing we must attract to start businesses?
Swartz did not like my reviews/summaries of The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression (see “U.S. economy may not be tough enough to survive incompetent government” from July 2008; also “Parallels between our current economic times and the Great Depression” from July 2008 and “Black Unemployment”): “Really? You’re going to take advice form a hack and a liar like Amity Shlaes? No wonder your advice is off the rails.”
More than a trillion dollars in deficit spending year after year did not shake Swartz’s faith in Keynes. Early in 2010 he responded to my “Looking back at 2009″ posting with “[you are] missing Keynesianism, which seems like the obviously correct answer”.
Email records suggest that I have not corresponded with Aaron since then. My next interaction was with his criminal defense lawyers. Aaron was charged with parking a server on the MIT campus and accumulating a database of journal articles that were accessible to computers with MIT IP addresses. The lawyers asked me “Why would someone download a huge body of academic journal articles?” (my response was “I would be guessing but my best guess would be that they wanted to experiment with some kind of text processing algorithm. Machine understanding of text is part of the current research frontier. Consider that what you want when you type a question into Google is not a link to an article that you can read and maybe find the answer but an actual answer to the question.” (and in fact Swartz had a history of doing analysis on large bodies of text, e.g., Wikipedia back in 2006)
I asked the lawyers “Suppose that the government’s case is completely frivolous and Swartz is guaranteed to be acquitted. What would he expect to spend in legal fees to defend the case?” They didn’t want to reveal anything particular to Aaron’s case but said “Generally the minimum cost to defend a federal criminal lawsuit is $1.5 million.”
A daunting prospect for anyone. Apparently too daunting for a 26-year-old.
Aaron leaves us his weblog.