Aaron Swartz

“I do not know you in person. I am just a year older than you. We have something common which unities—THE INTENET. We belong here. This is our world where boundaries are torn apart. I cried. Literally cried reading about you.” Shri Vignesh

I had never heard of Aaron Swartz until the day after he committed suicide. And yet like so many others, close friends to distant unknowns, I was deeply affected by his death early last year. Ever since, I’ve been trying to understand why.

I know the sudden death of any young person saddens me, particularly a person as talented and articulate as Aaron. Swartz was 26 years old and well-known among computer programmers as a software genius. At the age of 14, he participated in the development of RSS software. The following year he wrote the code for Lawrence Lessig’s Creative Commons, a Web site advocating alternatives to current copyright laws. At nineteen he started Reddit, a user generated news Web site.

Aaron cared deeply about the injustice of current copyright laws and in 2008 he and a few others wrote the “Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto.”

Two years ago he downloaded over a million articles from the JSTOR, the academic database of professional journals. A single copy of a JSTOR article usually costs around $30-$35. Not long after, he was indicted on several felony counts; if convicted he stood to spend a fair number of years in prison.

Most of what I learned about Aaron stems from Larissa MacFarquhar’s New Yorker profile (3/11/13), Requiem for a Dream. She describes him reverently, says he was sometimes depressed, suffered from ulcerated colitis, dropped out of Stanford and later MIT and, in general, couldn’t finish projects. She wrote:

“He didn’t like people who did things that were just silly, that seem to have no purpose….he never internalized any notions about what he was supposed to be doing or not doing as a young person.”

Swartz became a political activist of several causes, but abandoned each one each one out of frustration with their limited, effectiveness. He tried living in San Francisco to work at Wired’s office, hated it because it was too loud, and the people were “shallow.”

Everyone was shocked when they learned of his death. The eulogies poured in all over the Web. His friend put up a Web site, Remember Aaron Swartz that included a video stream of his memorial service. Aaron represented many things to many people. I am among them and feel quite personally the loss of someone exceedingly important.

Here is how his friend, distinguished attorney and colleague Lawrence Lessig felt:

“I don’t want to be here. It’s like he jumps off a bridge and he pulls me over with him. I can’t go back. I don’t know what I can do. Nothing ever has come close to this, in its effect. I am never lost. I’ve never been so lost. I don’t know what to do.”


Sheila Brifman said...

This post was exceptionally touching. One must ask oneself why such a promising young man takes his own life... what pain did he experience? What loss did he go through? I had a classmate who was also such a brilliant young man who one day decided to step in front of an oncoming train... No explanation.
My heart goes out to these sad people and to their families. I am also saddened and angered at the recent kidnapping of 3 sweet young men, for no good reason.

Richard Katzev said...

I share your views, Sheila. It is said that Aaron knew what was in store for him, namely, that he faced a long prison sentence. That was an experience that he simply couldn't bear. Of course, that is speculation. The loss of such a talented young person is always shattering.