Remember Aaron Swartz


Burning bright

I knew Aaron during the time he had taken a shine to Wikipedia. We met in Boston at Hacking Days prior to the 2006 Wikimania conference in Cambridge. There, at MIT, we spent a few days running through the strengths and weaknesses of MediaWiki. Here he was, vacuuming up the technical aspects of what ran Wikipedia, and trying to keep up in his own mind with the millions of ways this flavor of “open” could be improved, strengthened, and deepened. Some of us went out for drinks, and he tagged along, quietly following the conversational points, but he was clearly not in his element, and underaged.

Later at an infamous party, he was part of a game of pitchmanship, in which Samuel “SJ” Klein, me, Benjamin “Mako” Hill, and Aaron tried to sell our idea to Mitch Kapor, Brewster Khale, and Ross Mayfield. We didn’t win, but Aaron delivered our bit in spectacular fashion, and to uproarious laughter.

What I will remember most clearly about Aaron is the multiplicity of his mind. I don’t think he ever had one thought about anything. He had a half dozen. And another half dozen he didn’t mention. What evolved in his thinking beyond the brief time I knew him was that he began to recognize in more detail the root of corporate, political and social structures which were relevant to his chosen areas of activism. He wrote his famous statements about the Wikimedia Foundation and learned a lot in the process of running for the Board. He tackled politics head on. He began constructing an ethos that he would push forward the rest of his life. Would that we could have had the benefit of decades more of his thinking.

As a lawyer, I am disgusted by the overreaching and utter lack of prosecutorial discretion addressed fully by Lessig. At the time the charges were announced, I read them in detail, and had handicapped the outcome as being predictable: a slap on the wrist, some contrition, some minor plea to satisfy a batting average, and we would all move on. It hadn’t occurred to me that he would become ensnared in a tar pit, and that it would drag him under. Cooler heads will prevail, I thought. Eventually the prosecutors will relax, I thought.

Now he is gone. Much too soon. His star will always be burning brightly in my mind.