Aaron Swartz, Was 26

Aaron Swartz, hacker wunderkind and digital activist, killed himself yesterday. He was 26. Aaron was a friend, and more than that, he was one of my heroes. No one I have known better embodied the bumper-sticker motto to “be the change you wish to see in the world.” It is hard to believe he is gone.

I use his work every day—twice over. Aaron helped write the RSS specification used to syndicate blog posts. He was 14. If you use a feed reader, Aaron’s work makes it work. He was also the chief—the only—beta tester on John Gruber’s Markdown tool for writing webpages using a simple plain-text syntax. He was 18. I write all of my blog posts, including this one, using Markdown, which remains a masterpiece of clean and minimalist design. I’m sorry that Jottit—a super-basic wiki using Markdown—never went anywhere, because it’s also a remarkably fun and easy-to-use tool.

Aaron didn’t play well with large institutions. He attended Stanford for a year and dropped out because he felt his classmates weren’t intellectual enough. He went through Y Combinator’s startup bootcamp and wound up on the Reddit team early enough that he was a founder in all but name. But when Reddit was bought by Conde Nast, Aaron didn’t last long. He was 20.

Instead, he directed his energy into finding things wrong with the world and fixing them. He helped found Creative Commons, making it technically and legally easy for people who want to share their work to do so. He was 16. He founded Demand Progress, a firebrand netroots lobbying group that fought for online civil liberties. He was 24. And he helped Larry Lessig launch Change Congress (now Rootstrikers), Lessig’s networked campaign to reduce the influence of money in politics. He was 22.

And, most famously, Aaron took direct, individual action to liberate America’s court documents. The federal courts use electronic filing system, called PACER. Everything is accessible to the public, but at a fee of ten cents a page. The money far exceeds the costs of running the electronic filing system; the courts are actually violating federal law by diverting the fees to cover their other expenses. Aaron believed that these public-domain documents should be genuinely public.

So when a team at Princeton developed RECAP, a browser tool for PACER users to contribute to a public archive of these documents, Aaron personally downloaded millions of filings for the archive. He did it by going to a library that had been approved for fee-free use of PACER. The officers who approved this public trial of PACER had presumably not expected that the public would actually access the documents it was entitled to access, and the trial was quickly terminated. They sicced the FBI on Aaron, too, who was more amused by the attention than anything else. He was 23.

But this informal resume badly misrepresents who Aaron was, because Aaron was also a funny, passionate, playful, thoughtful, true American original. His blog shows his agile, slightly perverse mind at work: deconstructing the underlying political vision of the Batman trilogy, offering advice on “getting better at life.” (I like to think of Aaron’s essays as what Paul Graham should have written.) His Twitter was more of the same, just pithier.

It was always a joy when Aaron dropped by my office or we met up for dinner. He was interested in everything, from puzzles to programming to history, and willing to explore the implications of anything. He had the same curiosity, wit, and commitment to rigor on display in XKCD’s What If?. He wasn’t going to follow anyone else’s path; he was going to drift and wander and live the modern bohemian 20-something life. But wherever he crossed through, people would be just a little bit happier, a little bit better at working together, a little bit more optimistic about the future.

Aaron was driven by a passionate vision that the world could and should be a better place, that computers and collaboration and sharing could and should help, that he could and should do something about it. But he was hard-eyed about the world, too, he had little patience for idealism without concrete action, or for action without a meaningful theory of change.

But if Aaron dedicated his life to the cause of information freedom, it may in the end have taken his life. At the time of his suicide, Aaron was facing federal felony computer intrusion charges. He carried a laptop into an MIT wiring closet and used it to download millions of academic articles from the scholarly archive JSTOR. It was a terribly stupid thing to do. His PACER stunt was legal through-and-through; Aaron even gleefully obtained his own FBI file from the pointless investigation. But the JSTOR downloads were trouble, and he was caught red-handed going to the closet, using his “bicycle helmet like a mask to shield his face.”

MIT and JSTOR backed away from the case; they had no further beef with Aaron once he stopped. But the United States attorney’s office, perhaps still smarting from the PACER affair, or harboring a grudge over his digital activism, decided to make an example out of him. Aaron was depressed about his pending trial; the charges carried theoretical maximums of decades in prison. If that was the chief cause of his suicide, then the U.S. government has caused a great evil in the course of trying to punish a much lesser one. He was almost certainly guilty of some computer-misuse misdemeanors at least, but to press such heavy felony charges against him was a serious misuse of prosecutorial discretion.

The last time I saw Aaron in person was over dinner in Cambridge. He was late, of course. We didn’t talk about his trial, or about any of his other data liberation exploits. Instead, we talked about puzzles, and teamwork, and coding, and politics. I was up for tenure that spring, and facing the prospect that for the first time in years I would be simply free to choose my projects, without any deadlines or institutions telling me what I ought to be doing. So I asked him, in essence, what I should do with my life, because Aaron seemed to have answered that same question for himself, with greater courage, in the face of greater uncertainty, and with greater success than anyone else I knew. He was 25.

I am so, so sorry that Aaron himself didn’t see it that way. I will miss him bitterly.

Correction: Aaron downloaded millions of PACER documents before the Princeton team started work on the RECAP archive.

What a tragedy. I am so, so sorry. We’ve all lost someone very important, even if we didn’t know him personally.

[I have deleted this comment and another in the same vein. This is not the time or the place.-JG]

That is a very ungenerous and cruel comment. Jeez.

This is a very sad thing. I’m sorry for your loss, and ours.

Thanks for writing this James.

“MIT and JSTOR backed away from the case; they had no further beef with Aaron once he stopped.”

Is this accurate? I’ve read conflicting reports about how long MIT stayed involved, and his family blames them in their statement.

Chris, you may be right. JSTOR was willing to forgive and forget, but I may have misremembered MIT’s role.

I’m so saddened to read this. That kind of passion and commitment to making the world a better place are rare and precious.

Very sad. Mr. Swartz seemed to have the intellect that in another era produced someone like Sir Isaac Newton. It is oft said that suicide is a ‘final cry for help’. I am sorry that for whatever reasons such help did not materialize.