I first became aware of him in 2002 when I attended O’Reilly’s Emerging Technology conference in San Jose. At the time, he was a 14-year-old in an oversized t-shirt, milling about behind Larry Lessig, Molly Van Houweling and Lisa Rein in a conference room at the launch of Creative Commons. At first I was confused by his presence; I had thought that he was somebody’s kid who was just hanging around and tagging along. But then sometime during the presentation, he got up and took the mike, and started talking authoritatively about some aspect of Creative Commons. I was astounded – he spoke with the authority and confidence of an experienced adult.
It was undoubtedly his advanced intellect that set him apart from most of his peers. Aaron expressed the sense that he didn’t fit into the world around him early on. From the earliest days when I became aware of him, I remember him writing about not fitting in at school through his blog called Schoolyard Subversion.
Most of that blog doesn’t seem to be available on the Web now, but one archived page is.
“My name is Aaron Swartz,” he wrote. “I’m a 9th grader at the North Shore Country Day School. In the summer of 2000, I finally realized that school wasn’t working. I decided to do something about it.”
“It’s time for a change. The rebellion is coming. I’ve decided to join the war and fight to change my school. I’m tired of outdated teaching practices where the students don’t learn anything. I’m tired of constantly being prepared for more preparation. I want something new, something worthwhile, something better.”
I don’t know what happened at the school, ultimately, but I do know that Aaron ended up being homeschooled, and that he spent his time at home on his computer learning about the technologies of the Internet and the Web. He told me that he loved the Web because it was a portal to knowledge and connected him to anyone he wanted to connect with.
He argued on his Web page that educators should encourage children to pursue subjects that interested them, rather than being forced to learn random facts.
At the time that I interviewed him, Aaron was 15 years-old and working to create Web standards as part of a working group as part of the W3C. He told me that he first started programming at the age of 8 or 9, and that he became interested in XML and RDF because he was interested in news syndication.
How did he learn XML? I asked him.
“A lot of it has been looking at tutorials on the Net and just talking to other people and looking at examples and things, and some books, and a lot from friends and things, and from the library. When I was first getting into XML, there weren’t any books, so I had to use the Web.”
I loosely kept in touch with Aaron over the years and congratulated him when I read about Conde Nast acquiring reddit. I would sometimes e-mail him after reading something on his blog that I thought was particularly brilliantly written, and he would respond back with a few lines.
The idea of changing the world is obviously something that animated the narrative arc of Aaron’s life. As my former Wired.com editor Kevin Poulsen put it so aptly today, “Worthy important causes will surface without a champion equal to their measure. Technological problems will go unsolved, or be solved a little less brilliantly than they might have been. And that’s just what we know. The world is robbed of a half-century of all the things we can’t even imagine Aaron would have accomplished with the remainder of his life.”