Remember Aaron Swartz


How I Knew Aaron

I met Aaron at the U.S. Supreme Court in October 2002 when we both went to hear the oral argument in Eldred v. Ashcroft. Most of us non-lawyers had to spend the night sleeping in the street in front of the Court in order to get a ticket — since the line to get into an oral argument generally starts forming the night before — but Aaron (though a teenager) was Larry Lessig’s personal guest, so, having a ticket, he got the luxury of spending the night in a hotel (which his parents apparently appreciated). Still, Aaron decided to spend most of the evening and morning before the argument hanging out with the encampment in front of the Court: partly to show solidarity with those who hadn’t received a ticket and partly for the thrill of meeting actual grown-up copyright activists. He was deeply star-struck to meet some people he considered legendary copyright reform activists, though within a decade he would be among the most effective grassroots copyright activists in the world.

At that moment, though, he was the little kid markup-and-metadata-expert Larry Lessig admired enough to share a front-row Supreme Court seat with. And he spent the evening with us as we ordered pizza for delivery to “the sidewalk outside the U.S. Supreme Court” (not such an unusual request for D.C. pizzerias, evidently), and we all gossiped about copyright law for a few hours.

In December, I saw Lessig again in San Francisco as he unveiled his Creative Commons project, described as a kind of third way between the unreflective absolutism of industry and the somewhat alarming radicalism of … well, actually people like Aaron and me. After a videotaped presentation from Jack Valenti (also, in his prime, a terrifically talented copyright activist), Lessig invited Aaron, clad in a t-shirt and possibly the youngest person in the hall, up on stage to talk about metadata. It was awkward. Aaron was trying to describe why it was useful to be able to describe bibliographic information in a format that computers could read. (Aaron was always trying to describe why it was useful to be able to describe bibliographic information this way.) The audience, having had a few drinks, was not as focused as it might have been and didn’t care to envision the beautiful future in which search engines would make it trivial for anyone to instantly find works they could legally reuse and build upon. Lessig was very gracious. He basically told the crowd: You see, our project is going to succeed, and it’s because we have this genius creating our infrastructure.

Aaron reminded me how frustrating it is to be curious about things that other people don’t understand or regard as trivial or bizarre. He wrote a blog post about a theory he had encountered that one’s degree of nearsightedness is affected by blood oxygen levels and that it might be possible to use eye exercises to systematically reduce nearsightedness. He was, he wrote, already experimenting on himself to see if it would work, and he said he wished he could meet a girl who wouldn’t laugh at this project. (Much later, Aaron became friends with Seth Roberts, a researcher who advocates self-experimentation as a way of generating potentially useful wild ideas about health. Roberts and Aaron got on extremely well; I think Roberts, like many others, felt that Aaron naturally generated potentially useful wild ideas about absolutely everything.)

I visited Aaron in his dorm at Stanford a few years later. I was thrilled that he was studying at such a great university, but Aaron was already deeply alienated from Stanford. He said that he had few friends and that the students around him weren’t curious about the things he was curious about. That wasn’t the way his Stanford adventure was supposed to pan out. I helped him pack for his flight to Boston for his interview with Paul Graham, who had announced he was starting a fund to invest in young computer scientists like Aaron. He and Graham evidently understood each other, because Aaron dropped out of Stanford and moved to Boston.

In 2006, just after Condé Nast had acquired Reddit and just before they fired Aaron, Aaron and I were at a hacker conference together in Berlin. To Larry Lessig’s chagrin, after a stretch in which Aaron was sort of seen as Lessig’s hacker protégé, Aaron and Lessig had largely fallen out of touch. (Maybe this was because neither was any longer very deeply involved in the day-to-day work of Creative Commons, the project that had originally brought them together. Lessig was then beginning his transition away from copyright activism toward other interests, and Aaron had gone off to work in the startup world, while simultaneously deepening his study of left-wing politics, macroeconomics, and sociology. Lessig and Aaron were both planning to tell America, as a matter of urgency, what had gone wrong with the American project, but they had slightly different diagnoses.)

Another friend and I took Aaron out to Wannsee, where Lessig was spending a year at the American Academy in Berlin. Lessig looked enormously proud to see Aaron; their meeting had the sense of an extraordinarily poignant reunion, as if they hadn’t seen each other in twenty years. My friend and I left the two of them alone for an hour or so while we went off to see the Holocaust museum. I remember, as we walked away, seeing Lessig and Aaron leaning against a wall at the Wannsee Station, talking animatedly. It reminded me of the climactic scene in the German film Good Bye Lenin in which we see (but can’t hear) the actors speaking about urgent matters and have to imagine for ourselves what they must be saying. I thought: Lessig is so proud, his protégé is all grown up, and he’s come back to show his respect to his teacher.

Aaron was a free speech absolutist’s free speech absolutist, an idealist’s idealist, an activist’s activist (and, I must say, a libertarian socialist’s libertarian socialist). His credo was that Bits Are Not A Bug: that, come hell or high water, we should celebrate and not fear people’s ability to communicate whatever they might choose to communicate, and celebrate and not fear the infrastructure that supported that ability. Aaron came of age well after the end of the cypherpunk movement, but he always surprised me with his cypherpunk sensibility — including living up to the notion that “cypherpunks write code”. He surprised everyone by channeling various idealisms of supposedly bygone eras (that one would have thought he was too young to be aware of) in a way that mixed intelligence, creativity, and humor. He felt that in the long run he was going to fix the world mainly by carefully explaining it to people.

Aaron grew up to be exactly the person that he would have been most astonished and excited to meet in the line in front of the Supreme Court. I have never known anyone else like him.