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The Life and Afterlife of Aaron Swartz

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Legal theorist Lawrence Lessig with Aaron Swartz at the launch party for Creative Commons in 2001, when Swartz was 14.   

The sanctification of Aaron Swartz began immediately—first online, then off. He had become a millionaire from the sale of Reddit to Condé Nast, but then turned his back on Silicon Valley for good to become an intellectual adventurer, teaching himself economics, sociology, history, and psychology by dropping into the lives of experts, as he well understood that any minimally informed admirer can do. He still worked on projects to organize and make available information online, but was increasingly intent on finding the secret to mobilizing masses to political action. Swartz was one of the early catalysts for the campaign that stopped the Internet regulation known as the Stop Online Piracy Act (and its corollary, the Protect Intellectual Property Act), which its opponents believe would have effectively allowed private companies to censor the Internet. During this campaign, which was waged while Swartz was still facing indictment, he emerged as a leader who occupied a position of unusual credibility and authority. And it was this transition, from a builder of platforms for machines that do precisely what you tell them to do to freelance scholar-activist poised to intervene in the messier realm of democratic politics on behalf of Internet culture, that made so many think of him, even at 26, as the kind of person who, as the writer and activist Cory Doctorow wrote when he died, “could have revolutionized American (and worldwide) politics.”

At his funeral in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, where he was born and raised, the hundreds of mourners were a mix of members of family and Aaron’s far-flung networks, including some towering figures who had known Aaron since he was a chubby kid. There was Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web, and the Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig, eminence among Internet legal theorists, each channeling the cosmic sorrow and worldly rage already circulating online before a packed crowd of mourners clad in black, the men wearing kippahs.

First, there was remembrance of the person Swartz had been, full of adoration and tenderness and a kind of exasperated love for how preternaturally wise he could be and how mundanely stupid. Then there was remembrance of the circumstances under which he died—as an accused felon prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney of Massachusetts for the crime of downloading too many (4.8 million) academic articles from an online archive hosted by MIT, an extravagant gesture motivated by the cause of using technology to liberate culture from corporate ownership. After two years of exhausting negotiations, which had taken him no closer to an acceptable plea bargain, Swartz was three months from the start of his trial when he preempted it, and his legal plight loomed large in the way all of those around him understood his death. “Aaron did not commit suicide,” said Robert Swartz, Aaron’s father, “but was killed by the government.”

In rhetorical salvos like these, at the funeral in Highland Park and at the vigils held in Cambridge and New York and San Francisco and Washington, D.C., Swartz emerged as a human repository of the Internet’s virtues and its unrealized fantasy of social transformation. Again and again, his friends made the point that Swartz’s open-access activism was merely the prologue to his truly immodest ambition to “hack the whole world,” and to realize his dream of “a world without any injustice or suffering of any kind.” His closest friends and family were keen to reject any effort to “pathologize” Swartz’s condition, though he had himself described it as sickness. “Aaron was depressed because God is depressed,” said Lessig at his funeral. “Look at this world and what we have done—who wouldn’t be depressed?”

“I’ve heard a lot of people talk about Aaron’s impossibly high standards and youthful enthusiasm and naïve brilliance,” said his friend and executor, Alec Resnick. “I can’t help but think that the whole point of people like Aaron is to show us how low and base and hidebound our expectations are.”

Those expectations were largely formed by his early life as a young prodigy raised among idealists. One day, when he was 3 years old, as Robert Swartz recounted to the funeral audience, Aaron asked his mother: “What was this ‘Free Family Entertainment in Downtown Highland Park’?” “She asked him, What was he talking about?” A volley of laughter issued from the audience. “He said, ‘Mom, it says here on the refrigerator.’ He had taught himself to read.”

He built a working ATM in the third grade—it distributed coupons and tracked student accounts. He created a Wikipedia-like site at 13, leading to introductions to Berners-Lee and others who shared the view on Internet advertising he shared then with the Chicago Tribune: “That’s not what the Internet was made for,” he said. “It was based on open standards and freedom, not ads.” He dropped out of high school after the ninth grade, and spent his days in conversation with grown-up technologists, missing out on the numbing busywork and status anxiety that fills the days of American high-school students—depicted so memorably in the Highland Park films of John Hughes. “High school had been the most unpleasant experience of my life,” said his father, who was supportive of Aaron’s decision. “If things come easily to you, and you understand things quickly, you spend a lot of time in school bored out of your mind.”


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