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The Life and Afterlife of Aaron Swartz

Swartz speaks against the Stop Online Piracy Act during a New York rally in January 2012.  

Robert Swartz is a compact, robust man with a ruddy face; he was a longtime owner of a small tech company and is now an intellectual-property consultant to, among other ­places, the MIT Media Lab. The company—which produced a Unix-like operating system—was named after his father, an entrepreneur and a nuclear-disarmament and peace activist who founded the Albert Einstein Peace Prize Foundation.

In interviews, Aaron Swartz described his childhood as lonely and his suburb as a place without a center. In one of his early blog posts, Swartz had described Highland Park, not uncharitably, as one of the places where the parents were educated and well-meaning, and had looked upon the struggles for justice of the sixties with sympathy, though they did not themselves participate. It was a perfect place from which to escape into cyberspace; at a vigil at Cooper Union, Norton recounted a memory of Swartz singing Pete Seeger’s “Little Boxes” to her daughter.

After e-mailing Lawrence Lessig a suggestion on how to design certain Creative Commons licenses in 2002, Swartz went to work with him on it, beginning one of the many long and complicated mentor relationships that seemed to fill Aaron’s life. He enrolled briefly at Stanford University, incubator of tech entrepreneurs, despite never having finished high school (he was rejected from Berkeley), but left after a year for Paul Graham’s unstructured tech think tank Y Combinator, having found Stanford intellectually unchallenging. By day four, Swartz had already concluded that Stanford was a kind of “libertarian nightmare world.”

In the winter of 2007, after spending time with Norton in Berlin, Swartz’s colitis flared up. He holed up in Boston for a week, awol from Reddit, which he had already stopped treating like a serious commitment—he was fired when he eventually did show up at the offices in San Francisco. That week in Boston, he posted a fictional account of a suicide, which described among other things his hatred for his chubby boy’s body.

In 2009, Swartz took a monthlong vacation from the Internet—one of the first he had ever experienced. He wrote about it on his blog, which, when it wasn’t summarizing a social-scientific controversy, or criticizing the work or motivations of previous collaborators, was exploring the conflicted inner life he was so good at keeping from others.

“I am not happy,” he wrote. “I used to think of myself as just an unhappy person: a misanthrope, prone to mood swings and eating binges, who spends his days moping around the house in his pajamas, too shy and sad to step outside. But that’s not how I was offline. I loved people—everyone from the counter clerk to the old friends I bumped into on the street.”

Toward the end of the post, Swartz reflected on the extraordinary life he has lived, one made possible by the Internet, and his willingness to seize its possibilities.

“I realize it must seem like the greatest arrogance to think one could escape life’s mundane concerns, like asking to live on a cloud, floating above the mere mortals,” he wrote. “But it was that arrogance that made me think I could contribute to adult mailing lists when I was still in elementary school, that arrogance that made me think someone might want to read my website when I was still just a teen, that arrogance that had me start a company as a college freshman. That sort of arrogance—not bragging, but simply inwardly thinking I could do more than was expected of me—is the only thing that’s gotten me anywhere in life. ”

“One of the things that makes him the Internet’s boy is he was already living in the future that I hope we get to,” said Norton. “Where everybody has the permission to act and be important and where hierarchies don’t prevent people from doing things or believing in themselves and just having a fucking life. We get a huge number of messages that we are not allowed in the world. We occupy social laws of living, and we are not allowed to leave them. And all we ever have to do is walk out. And I think one of the most extraordinary, moving parts of Aaron’s life, his story, is that he just didn’t accept the limits that we put on ourselves.”

In a blog post a few months later, Swartz engages in a brief philosophical inquiry into how a person can live a moral life. “The conclusion is inescapable: we must live our lives to promote the most overall good. And that would seem to mean helping those most in want—the world’s poorest people.” He would go on to specify which moral actors he found the most admirable. “Our rule demands one do everything they can to help the poorest—not just spending one’s wealth and selling one’s possessions, but breaking the law if that will help,” he wrote. “It seems like these criminals, not the average workaday law-abiding citizen, should be our moral exemplars.”