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The Life and Afterlife of Aaron Swartz

The precocious coder, hacker visionary, and “pirate” was already a tech legend by the time he’d turned 17. But in the weeks since his suicide last month, at 26, his friends and comrades have tried to turn him into something else—a martyr.

Years before he hanged himself in his Crown Heights apartment, the hacker, writer, and activist Aaron Swartz used to debate with his then-girlfriend Quinn Norton whether the Internet would mourn him if he died. It was Swartz’s stubborn belief that no one would notice or care if he died young, as he often thought he was fated to do. Like many young men of great promise and fluctuating moods, Swartz was an unstable compound of self-effacement and self-regard—among the most empowered, well-connected young people in America, yet convinced that his very existence was a burden to others, even those who loved him. Back when Aaron was 20 and the journalist Norton was 33, before they had crossed over into a complicated romantic affair, Norton brought Swartz with her to a tech event in Berlin, where he and her ex-­husband, the tech writer Danny O’Brien, played a game in which they tried to “kill” themselves on Wikipedia, seeing how long they could remain dead before some volunteer editor restored them to life. Neither could remain dead for more than ten minutes.

There is a category of young person able to do things like contribute to the building of the Internet in their teens, or sell their tech start-ups for millions of dollars when they are 19, or rally a million opponents to a major piece of legislation when they are in their twenties. Usually such people are not the same young people who write on their blogs that they are too frightened to ask for a glass of water on a plane, or that “even among my closest friends, I still feel like something of an imposition, and the slightest shock, the slightest hint that I’m correct, sends me scurrying back into my hole.” Swartz was preternaturally adult when he was still a child and still a precocious child after he had grown to adulthood—“so vulnerable and fragile,” his friend Ben Wikler said. “He put up shields in all the wrong places.” He had done more in 26 years than most of us will do in a lifetime, but often avowed to others, and most of all himself, that he had done nothing of any worth at all.

By the time he was 17, Swartz had already secured a permanent legacy written in code. When he was 13, he was co-authoring a version of RSS, a system that allows streaming of news from across the Internet onto a single reader; in his later teens he helped to build and sell Reddit, a news message board that has grown into one of the world’s most heavily trafficked sites, and created the coding backbone of the Creative Commons licenses that allow artists and writers to claim or waive certain rights to control their works or share them online—the coin of the realm for a growing community of progressive activists known as the copyleft movement, devoted to building an economy of culture based on sharing.

But he was also an ailing person in great physical and emotional pain—a sufferer from ulcerative colitis and suicidal depression, which he described so vividly on his blog (once with enough specificity that a Reddit colleague had the police break down Swartz’s door). Norton spent much of 2010 keeping Swartz away from suicide, telling him, she told me, “This, the way this feels, this is gonna calm down. Like when you get a little bit older, this is gonna be okay. It’s not ever gonna go away completely, but it’s gonna be something you can manage.” As he confessed on his blog in late 2007, he was not merely ailing, he was also ashamed to bear the stigma of his illnesses, and the shame made it difficult to treat both of his conditions. “To some degree I was kind of like, ‘Stop making me deal with this,’ ” Norton told me. “ ‘Stop making me the only one who knows.’ ”

The progressive activist Taren ­Stinebrickner-Kauffman, who began dating Swartz in the summer of 2011, after he and Norton had broken up and just before the federal indictment for hacking MIT’s JSTOR academic-article database that would define the last year of his life, knew a more securely grounded boyfriend than Norton had—one who was beginning to learn that “direct confrontation was often not the best way,” that participating in electoral politics might be more effective than in-the-shadows hacktivism, and who was doing the dishes for the first time in his life. He had assured her that the depressive episodes described in his blog were a thing of the past, and she says that nothing in his conduct gave her cause to doubt it. The first time she ever worried about his depression, she told me, was on the morning of January 11—the day she would discover him hanging from his belt in the apartment they shared.