Aaron Swartz


I didn't know Aaron Swartz, the Highland Park native, Reddit co-founder, and Renaissance man—a young man, just barely, at 26, who killed himself in his Brooklyn apartment on Friday. In that I feel a bit unusual; Swartz's intellectual reach extended far beyond computers, programming, and the Internet, and he made friends easily in the political sphere. So many people considered him a friend: Chris Hayes, Lawrence Lessig, Daniel X. O'NeilRick Perlstein, Cory Doctorow, Henry Farrell, Matt Stoller, Mike Elk. Swartz is best known for Reddit, his work (when he was 14) developing the RSS standard, working on the architecture of Creative Commons, rallying against SOPA. These things I was familiar with.

But I had no idea about all the little things he did—as much or more of a mark of his decency and moral code, his belief in free information:

When Crooked Timber had big server problems a few years ago, he immediately jumped in to offer to host us (we ended up finding hosting elsewhere). He saw that Rick Perlstein didn’t have a website, back before Rick Perlstein was Rick Perlstein, and he built one for him. He gathered together everything he could of the old Lingua Franca, preserving it and making it available. A skilled techie, he helped put together the revived Baffler, a journal noted for its discontent with things technological.

Swartz was a star, but after his stardom became considerable wealth through the sale of Reddit, he continued to act as a good samaritan of the Web. He thought and acted on a national and global scale, but also was willing to help individuals with their sites, chipping in to rescue the writing he loved. A year before Reddit's sale, he offered to build Perlstein, a stranger, a website for Perlstein's writing—and later befriended Perlstein, who calls Swartz "a public intellectual without portfolio":

It would have been around then that I started sending him every chapter of Nixonland as soon as it was finished for his editorial input. He was the first besides me to read it. Many gifted computer geniuses out there. How many had such a powerful commitment to learn and understand history? (Check out the range of his reading.) Writing history was his real dream, I remember him telling me. I wish I remembered the book ideas he sketched out for me. Maybe I will soon.

He was staggeringly young when he began programming, as a 2000 profile in the Tribune described:

The eighth-grader at North Shore Country Day School in Winnetka said he was introduced to the world of computers when his Dad, a computer consultant, bought him the first generation Apple Macintosh. That was eons ago. Today, Swartz is the proud owner of an Apple iBook. "In blueberry," he said.


Swartz has already planned his next venture in cyberspace — a news site called "MyInfo" that has the capability to go out and gather the most pertinent news articles from various sites on the Internet, combining the information according to the user's desire.

"I also want to build a software company that would publish the underlying source code for every program it produces, even letting non-customers download the source code and use it free of charge," Swartz said.

And while he departed Chicago early on, he left a mark on our open-data community, like he left in so many others:

Dan X. O’Neil, co-founder of EveryBlock as well as Executive Director of the Smart Chicago Collaborative, a civic organization devoted to improving lives in Chicago through technology, said he met Swartz in 2007 when he worked on the 8 Principles of Open Government Data along with O’Neil and Adrian Holovaty, founder of EveryBlock and another influential programmer from Chicago.

“Those principles have been enormously influential in shaping policy in the last five years," O'Neil told WBEZ on Saturday.

Swartz, despite his youth, inherited an ethic of free information that's as old as the Internet itself, one that was more an element of my childhood, which began six long years before Swartz's, before the first Web bubble, and one very different from the walled gardens being designed by his peers. And it got him into trouble when he pushed that ethic to its limits—Swartz was the target of a federal investigation for downloading much of JSTOR's vast repository of academic journals, for which he faced 30 years in prison (the case was just dismissed in the wake of his suicide). Swartz lived between the tensions of the Internet as public infrastructure and the Internet as commerce, and it's a tragedy that he didn't receive the same deliberate, thoughtful consideration in return ("we can rightly judge a society by how it treats its eccentrics and deviant geniuses—and by that measure, we have utterly failed"). Perlstein:

I remember him working so mightily, so heroically, to try to bend the world into a place more hospitable to people like him, which also means hospitable to people like us. I like what the blogger Lambert Strether wrote on my Facebook page (in Aaron’s memory, friend me!): “Our society should be selecting for the Aaron Swartz’s of this world. Instead, generous and ethical behavior, especially when combined with technical brilliance, turns out to be maladaptive, indeed lethal. If Swartz had been Wall Street’s youngest investment banker, he would be alive today.” 

Aaron Swartz, in his short life, reached an extraordinary number of people, as evidenced by how many will be attending his funeral tomorrow. But more importantly, he used that reach to expand the reach of others, in the spirit of the technology he loved and made his life.

Related: Swartz on leaning into the pain and learning.


Photograph: Wikimedia Commons