Aaron Swartz's legacy

Aaron Swartz committed suicide last night.

It's really only in the past year or so that I had grown aware of him at all; one hears a lot of names over the course of following the industry and the Internet scene, and I'd naturally heard of him. But it was only recently that I had come to realize that I kept hearing about him in matters that were of particular interest to me, the most significant being, of course, the JSTOR story (Harvard Law has a great write-up of that whole thing at their blog.)

Today, though, his untimely death at only 26 having brought forth a flurry of writing about him, I've read quite a lot about him, and some of his own writing. Cory Doctorow writes, "I think he could have revolutionized American (and worldwide) politics. His legacy may still yet do so." That whole article is well worth a read, by the way.

Cory quotes some of Aaron's off-the-cuff thoughts about an electioneering system that makes sense, one that is inherently data-driven and democratic because it actively attempts to find out the people want, and do that. Honestly, it scares me a little because it could be an utter big-data juggernaut and I frankly wonder what that might bring, but ... damn. Moth, meet flame.

I kept reading. Swartz was exactly 20 years younger than I - we shared a birthday. We're both from the middle of the country (he from Chicago, I from rural Indiana), and he grew up with an Internet and I didn't. I look at his accomplishments and I am in awe - and yet I get an idea of what killed him. It's tempting to say it was the prospect of prison for a "crime" that hurt no-one and whose supposed victims didn't even want to press charges, and I suspect that's not too far wrong.

But his politics were awfully damn close to mine, and I think he felt the same sense of a world gone hell-in-a-handbasket wrong, and the same vision of how things could be if all the corruption and special interests were swept away. The fact that the government actively works to hinder that vision is distressing. (Lawrence Lessig has some good thoughts on this aspect.) Swartz spent a significant part of his short life trying to steer that train, and I think it was just too much.

I didn't know him. But I sure wish I had. This is a guy who talked his way onto a W3C standards committee at the age of 14, who helped build Reddit through the Y Combinator phase, helped convert it to Python and had cogent thoughts about that process. He was instrumental in defeating SOPA/PIPA last year, founding DemandProgress to do that. He went on to found the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, again an initiative I'd heard about without correlating it with him. He worked at Avaaz, a non-profit working to provide tools to support democracy around the world, and he just kept writing more tools to help people organize his entire life. He even spent a lot of his Reddit money buying case law records (data that is supposed to be in the public domain, but is not provided free of charge by the government) and putting them online. And yes, he downloaded a significant amount of the world's research history from a laptop in a closet at MIT - data that never saw the light of day due to legal threats.

His basic starting point seems to have been that he was nothing special, that anybody could do what he did using a simple five-step process he outlines in his article How to Get a Job Like Mine: 1. Learn, 2. Try, 3. Gab, 4. Build, 5. Freedom. And you know what? He's right. He's so right. There's so much work to be done.

That's a powerful legacy. I'm damn well going to try to live up to it.

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