RIP, Aaron Swartz

Cory Doctorow’s moving tribute to Swartz, 26, who was recently found to have committed suicide. I never knew Aaron, but I’d occasionally see him around Harvard. I recognized him because I followed his blog, digital activism, and standards-making work since I was in high school. He was a brilliant and driven thinker and doer in the digital law and public policy space. He also helped create (or at least rewrite) the early Reddit, crafted the Creative Commons license framework, and helped build the RSS specification. That’s a lot to accomplish in a lifetime, and he did it all in his teenage years and early 20s. He is a few years younger than me, and at times I found him inspiring, at other times inscrutable, but always I kept an eye out for his latest work. Sometimes I wondered — if I had done things differently, been more passionate, just a bit smarter — if I could have been like Aaron. Now, learning about his demons, I’m just sad for him, and for us, who no longer have him around.

Aaron Swartz has decided to turn off another emotion: “Turning off an emotion is always a tough decision. I remember how a couple years ago I decided to say goodbye to anger. Sure, anger has its bright moments — you haven’t really lived until you’ve known that special joy of hurling a chair across the room — but it’s also quite time-consuming. Every time someone comes up and hits you, you have to run around chasing after them.” He is well on his way to becoming a highly efficient human being. Now if we could just get rid of self-doubt.

Aaron Swartz has stopped blogging – Now he is publishing an “online magazine” and attempting to uphold the high standards of real journalism. No more will I defend saying something simply because it is “the truth”. No, from now on, I am adopting the rigorous standards of professional journalists. I’ve been convinced that telling people the truth will just hurt them and, frankly, I’m a little tired of being mocked and shunned for my honesty, which goes completely unappreciated by you people.

Aaron Likes It

Aaron Swartz on his trip to the sunny coast:

Despite getting lost several times on the way to Bab5, not getting anything to eat or drink, being too tired and hungry to keep up conversation, being shyly afraid of all these people I didn’t know, wearing new shoes that don’t really fit quite right, and staying in a dumpy hotel, I’m having the time of my life. I think the lesson here is that pain doesn’t keep action from being uplifting and comfort does little to keep blandness from being depressing.

Or maybe it’s just California.


The Internet’s Own Boy

Aaron Swartz

I’ve written before (and on several more occasions) about Aaron Swartz, a complicated and amazing person and digital activist who I followed and loosely orbited for many years.  Aaron did incredible work for and on behalf of the Internet as a democratizing medium, and he caused me to frequently question my own life and career choices.  He was targeted by an overreaching federal prosecution due to some of his activism work on the edges of the law, and after two years of pressure and abuse at the hands of the federal government, he tragically took his life in January 2013.

The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz is a documentary film by Brian Knappenberger that traces Aaron’s life, his successes and failures, his political action and digital activism, his run-ins with the law, and his too-soon death.  Along the way several internet luminaries, journalists, activists, congresspeople, and other smart individuals weigh in and provide context.  I knew much of what the film presented but I still found it compelling.  While clearly opinionated, this film does a good job of portraying who Aaron was, what he believed in, and where things went so very wrong.

Many people feel that technology and politics together are too complicated, too confusing, and too inscrutable.  Many in government dismiss technology experts and inventors of things that have fundamentally changed our lives as mere “nerds”.  Aaron lived his whole life thoughtfully and fully, and his story is one that is approachable to anyone, technological or not.  The things he fought for are important, and they are comprehensible, and they should not be dismissed.  He showed how we can use technology and the internet to make this world a better one, and what we should do to stop others from using it to make the world worse.

The movie is imperfect, as was Aaron.  And it does a few funny things with time and ordering that slightly distort some of the major events in Aaron’s saga.  But on the whole it is thoughtful, and it is powerful, and it is worth watching.

You can view The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz in its entirety for free on the Internet Archive.

Bubble 2.0 insider perspective

Aaron Swartz, whom I’ve talked about before, is one of the people involved with Reddit, which just got bought by Conde Nast. He reflects on the strangeness of it all, especially when viewed from outside the tech bubble:

At non-tech parties, I’d have trouble explaining what it was I did. (“So you, uh, have a web site?”) Once I went far outside the city to have lunch with an author I respected. He asked about what I did, wanted me to explain it in great detail. He asked how many visitors we had. I told him and he sputtered. “I’ve spent fifteen years building an audience, and you’re telling me in a year you have a million visitors?” I assented.

Puzzled, he insisted I show him the site on his own computer, but he found it was just a simple as I described. (Simpler, even.) “So it’s just a list of links?” he said. “And you don’t even write them yourselves?” I nodded. “But there’s nothing to it!” he insisted. “Why is it so popular?”

Inside the bubble, nobody asks this inconvenient question. We just mumble things like “democratic news” or “social bookmarking” and everybody just assumes it all makes sense. But looking at this guy, I realized I had no actual justification. It was just a list of links. And we didn’t even write them ourselves.

Where I work, I’m surrounded by people who believe deeply in a lot of this stuff, this — how do you describe it — democratization, socialization, personalization, whatever, that the web is doing to our society. I’m generally more wary, slower to accept, less willing to get behind the “new” than the people around me. It’s not that I don’t see the promise and the potential, its just that I’m a bit more the wry observer.

If my American Studies education taught me anything, it is that one can strive for great ideals and fail spectacularily in the implementation. You see something like Reddit and you think, huh, that’s interesting, its an interesting concept, its a clear framework, it seems like a good idea. But where is it leading us, how does it think to shape us, and how well will it succeed?

Blogging about blogging

My homepage has been pretty empty recently because I just haven’t thought of anything to write about. It’s also a problem when I call home, or home calls…not much to say.

One thing I have been doing lately is catching up on other people’s blogs. My friends with blogs don’t update very frequently, so I had to branch out, and one of the people who I haven’t read about for a while is Aaron Swartz. You may remember Aaron as the home-schooled tech genius who is now a freshman at Stanford. Or maybe you don’t.

I stopped reading Aaron because, while I find him highly enlightening in some areas, much of what he writes is not informed by…I dunno…wisdom. Meaning, he is intelligent, well read, and thinks a lot, he is inquisitive and highly interested in the world, all of which I like, but he kinda lacks the ability to think about things from multiple angles and see them in a social context. He also sometimes lacts tact.

So while I’m here (tactfully ;)) analyzing someone who I don’t know except through some blog postings, I might as well also note that he is dumb.

Not in general, just in this specific instance. If I met someone who wrote things like this and wanted to be my friend, I would put down my damn book and talk to her. I think that most of Aaron’s commenters agree, and I hope he will heed their wisdom. I’ve learned that college is not so much about the book learning as about the personal development. Take advantage of the freshman year window to make some good friends, because after that it gets harder.

Aaron is young and smart and perceptive, and I have no doubt that he is going to figure out all of these social things pretty quickly now that he is in an environment full of people. Good luck, Aaron!

One thing Aaron is taking advantage of is the wonderful opportunities of Stanford, many of the reasons why I wanted to go there. There are constant talks and lectures and meetings about really fascinating stuff with really fascinating people, something we don’t get enough of here at Brandeis. I’m sure not many of the Stanford undergrads understand the opportunities available to them, and I’m glad Aaron does. I feel like when I’m older if I’m not working at a university (I probably won’t be) it would be nice to live near one, and I’ll have to do more to keep track of what is going on at them. For instance, I’ve gone to one speech at Harvard Law School (Larry Lessig, of Stanford), and there have probably been a lot more I would have liked to go to, had I been paying attention and had the time to drive over there, find a place to park, figure out where things are on campus, etc.

I should do that.

On a completely seperate note, this $3.50, 350 calorie Healthy Choice turkey meal is not bad at all.