The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
The Death of Aaron Swartz

Yesterday’s suicide of Aaron Swartz, 26, one of the founders of Reddit and a passionate activist for Internet causes, has shaken the tech world. By all accounts a brilliant and fiercely idealistic (if somewhat troubled) young man, Swartz had his fingerprints on many of the things we take for granted online today, from the RSS standard (which he helped author at the age of 14), to the Creative Commons, to the first Internet public library, archive.org. In recent times he’d turned his sights on bigger issues, most consequentially spearheading the ultimately successful efforts against the SOPA/PIPA bills in Congress.

He also had a Robin Hood-like passion for ‘liberating’ data that he deemed was being unfairly locked down, which had won him passionate allies and determined opponents. In 2008, he participated in an effort to download a large portion of the PACER database (a federal registry of electronic court documents) through ultimately legal means. In 2010, he went further, breaking onto MIT premises to download almost the entire JSTOR academic journal database. But though he’d amicably settled with JSTOR by 2011 and had returned the documents in question, the federal prosecutors decided to press on with the charges. He was facing decades in prison and up to a $1 million fine for his caper.

VM won’t directly speculate on the merits of the case as it’s beyond our core competency to judge. The indictment is here, and here is the shape of the argument that the defense was preparing to use. Friends of Aaron like Lawrence Lessig (pictured above speaking to a 15 or 16 year old Swartz) and Cory Doctorow have penned some emotional essays that will help you appreciate his legacy.

But we did spend some time yesterday reading his blog and other writings around the web, and we were struck by the young man’s probing, hungry intellect. One passage in a talk he gave, titled “How To Get a Job Like Mine“, particularly stands out:

What’s the secret? How can I boil down things I do into pithy sentences that make myself sound as good as possible? Here goes:

  1. Be curious. Read widely. Try new things. I think a lot of what people call intelligence just boils down to curiosity.
  2. Say yes to everything. I have a lot of trouble saying no, to a pathological degree — whether to projects or to interviews or to friends. As a result, I attempt a lot and even if most of it fails, I’ve still done something.
  3. Assume nobody else has any idea what they’re doing either. A lot of people refuse to try something because they feel they don’t know enough about it or they assume other people must have already tried everything they could have thought of. Well, few people really have any idea how to do things right and even fewer are to try new things, so usually if you give your best shot at something you’ll do pretty well.

Good advice for young people everywhere. Be sure to read the whole thing.

Like many of the incredibly talented, larger-than-life people who have emerged from the tech sector in the past two or three decades, Aaron Swartz was the product of an America that encourages wild free-thinking and risk-taking. And while we certainly wouldn’t go so far as to say that his suicide signals the end of that particularly American ethos (as the Washington Post‘s Wonk Blog does), it’s terribly sad that he met his end like this. We are the poorer for his passing, but we believe that the passions that shaped him live on.

[Photo: Rich Gibson | CC BY]

Published on January 13, 2013 3:00 pm