Cogitation (Please Read Disclaimer)
A literary meditation on the life and works of Aaron Swartz.
Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.
Email This Story
Disclaimer: This article contains content that may be considered unsuitable for certain audiences. It discusses themes of suicide and depression. Read with discretion.
Aaron Swartz’s body was discovered in his Brooklyn apartment on the evening of January 11, 2013. Upon investigation New York’s medical examiner reported that Swartz had hanged himself although no suicide note was found. He was twenty-six. Four days later during a Tuesday service at Central Avenue Synagogue in Highland Park, Illinois, Aaron’s father Robert Swartz, proclaimed that Aaron was “killed by the government.” He said this in reference to the harsh federal prosecution that Aaron experienced after being arrested by MIT police on January 6, 2011. Robert continued, saying “Someone who made the world a better place was pushed to his death by the government.” Aaron had been detained on the state charges of breaking and entering with the intent to commit a felony after authorities discovered a laptop that had been illegally wired to the MIT network in an unmarked closet. The laptop had been programmed to systematically download academic journals from the digital repository, JSTOR, by Aaron. In the years preceding his crime, Aaron had become involved with information activist groups; the primary goals of which are to distribute information to the general public. His JSTOR operation was no different. With the acquired academic journals, Aaron would serve as a sort of didactic Robin Hood. In distributing the texts he would simultaneously be handing people the key to human knowledge. Acknowledging this, the tragedy of Aaron’s story is almost insurmountable and it serves as a strong commentary on the American judicial system. Four years have since passed and, excluding niche internet groups and intellectual circles, many people are unaware of the good that Aaron brought to the world and how it affects everyday existence. In cogitation on this matter, the goal of this article is to help comprehend Aaron’s legacy and his work through reflecting on his life.
* * *
Born on November 8, 1986, Aaron grew up the eldest of three siblings in Highland Park, Illinois. Early on he showed signs of his acumen, teaching himself how to read at the age of three. He was exposed to computers through his father, who founded the software firm Mark Williams Company, and quickly became involved in the internet and its culture. Using an iMac 2 Aaron would sit in the family’s basement programming for hours at end. At the age of 13 he was awarded the ArsDigita Prize for creating a Wikipedia-esque site where users could collaboratively edit and create their own encyclopedia entries (this was done two years before Wikipedia’s domain registration) and at the age of 14 he became a member of the working group that was developing RSS 1.0. An acronym for ‘Rich Site Summary,’ RSS was a web syndication tool that could summarize web feeds — blogs, news sources, etc. — and it would eventually become a primary component of the contemporary web (there’s an RSS option for this very paper).
Despite his success as a young programmer, Aaron grappled with the day-to-day struggles of adolescence. Not feeling educationally accommodated or socially accepted, he left high-school in the 10th grade and began enrolling for courses in Chicago-area universities. In 2004 he attended Stanford University and applied to Y-Combinator’s ‘Summer Founders Program,’ which allowed students to put forward and work on their own start-ups.
Aaron proposed a startup called Infogami, which was to be a dynamic content management system that allowed for interesting additions to be made to websites and for users to form wikis for structured data. Working on Infogami with his co-founder Simon Carstensen during the summer of 2005, Aaron decided not to attend Stanford the following year. While in the Y-Combinator he additionally developed the web application framework ‘web.py’ to supplement what he believed to be a faulty set of systems in the Python Programming Language. Little did he know that in taking this action he would have taken the necessary steps to launch him to the level of an internet icon.
In the fall of 2005, another startup in the program reached out to Aaron to rewrite their Lisp codebase using Python and his web.py. The startup’s goal was to create a modernist social news website that, while being an open space for discussion, could be the central hub for all of one’s interests. It now has 514 million monthly visitors and is rated as the US’s #7 most-visited site. You may have heard of it — it’s called Reddit.
Failing to gather funds for Infogami, Y-Combinator organizers suggested that Aaron merge his startup with Reddit. He did, and together they formed a new firm called “Not a Bug.” Their shared projects first struggled to reach the attention of the general masses, but by late 2005 and early 2006, Reddit had taken off. Consequently, the collaborative was purchased by Conde Nast, making Aaron and his compatriots in “Not a Bug” rather wealthy. By the age of twenty he was already a millionaire.
In October of 2006 Aaron, alongside his company, moved to the Conde Nast owned Wired studios in San Francisco, California. Similar to his experiences in high-school and college Aaron found office life to be unfulfilling and solitary. After a couple months of work, he began to not show up and eventually left the company. Young, determined, and now affluent, Aaron sought to use his newfound wealth to further his already substantial contributions to society. 2008 would mark the beginning of his activism and would serve as the prologue to his ultimate tragedy.
* * *
I’d like to take a momentary reprieve from this narrative to acknowledge that throughout the entirety of his life, Aaron held a blog called “Raw Thought” ( http://www.aaronsw.com/ ). It is an incredible compilation of descriptive and pensive observations about everyday life as well as studies on topics that Aaron found to be interesting. Having spent a great deal of time exploring the depths of the site’s hundreds of entries I must admit that it is some of the most considerate and thought-provoking writing that I’ve had the pleasure of reading in recent years. For someone that expressed consistent feelings of loneliness and isolation, Aaron is perhaps one of the most compassionate and human modern figures. If you’re at all interested in further examining his life or appreciating his work I highly suggest reading some of his entries. I would recommend starting with his “series of pieces on getting better at life” ( http://www.aaronsw.com/weblog/rawnerve) titled “Raw Nerve.” Now back to this account.
* * *
In 2008 Aaron founded “the good government site with teeth” Watchdog.net. The goal of the site was to police political leaders and officials by filing and visualizing data on them in a public forum. During the same year he would write the renowned “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto,” a text preaching the necessity of the world’s informational heritage to flow freely (I’ve linked the full PDF here — http://bit.ly/1z0wThz). He later created DeadDrop (later SecureDrop), one of his most well-known works. It was a program that allowed journalists and whistleblowers to communicate securely and it is still used today by many prominent news organizations like the Guardian and the Washington Post. 2008 also marked Aaron’s first involvement with PACER.
Standing for ‘Public Access to Court Electronic Records,’ PACER was one of Aaron’s main targets as an activist. He found the government-created system to be passe and unfair in its expensive eight-cents pp charging on court documents. Carl Malamud, a fellow activist who ran the nonprofit Public.Resource.Org, had encouraged those with the power to begin downloading documents from one of the seventeen libraries that was offering PACER trials. Once doing so, they could then send him the files to display for free on his site. Amongst Aaron’s contributions were some 2.7 million federal court documents. He would accordingly be investigated by the FBI and on September 29, 2008 the GPO would suspend the PACER trial; its excuse laughably being that the trial was “pending an evaluation.”
By 2009 Aaron was being recognized for his work as an activist. He had successfully bridged the gap between programmer and political zealot. Hoping to pave the way for new progressive policies, he formed the Progressive Change Campaig n Committee and a year later in 2010 he cofounded Demand Progress, a political advocacy group that urged the public to take action for civil liberties, reform, etc. In the same year he also began a study on political corruption as a Lab Fellow at Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Research Lab on Institutional Corruption. Hailed as a ‘political hacktivist,’ the prospects of Aaron’s career knew no bounds; and so occurred his JSTOR operation and his resulted arrest on January 6, 2011.
A year passed and in 2012 Aaron became involved in protests against the SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act). The act was denounced as a manipulative tactic that would allow the US government to shut down sites on the premises of supposed Copyright violation. It would limit the freedom that only cyberspace allows. With the help of Aaron, the bill was defeated. The allegations against him did nothing to slow him in his mission to make the world a better place. That is, until September 12, 2012.
On that day prosecutors filed nine additional felony counts making the punishment fifty years in prison and a one million dollar fine. Aaron’s attorneys managed to negotiate a plea settlement that would call for only six months jail time if he would plead guilty to the thirteen felonies he was accused of. The federal prosecution was heavily criticized as too harsh and unjustified in its amount of felony charges. The court wished to make an example of Aaron.
Knowing that his future as a potential leader or activist was no longer a possibility, Aaron felt trapped. With felonies charged on him, he would not be able to hold office of any kind and subsequently wouldn’t be able to live the life that he had planned. His partner Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman described him, saying “He was so tired…He said to me ‘Am I always going to feel that way?’” Aaron had sunken into a deep depression, one that had been haunting him since his initial arrest. He wanted to improve the human condition, and his suicide on January 11, 2013 would mark one of the darkest days in recent American history.
* * *
To quote Aaron “I don’t want to be happy. I just want to change the world.” While many of the issues that Aaron fought against are still present in our modern society, I believe that he did accomplish his goal of changing the world. In shining light on the pressing matters of informational freedom and his contributions to both internet and real-world policies, he gave us the tools to help finish what he started. He gave us the key to information — the key to awareness. Through remembrance and cogitation we can aid Aaron is his mission of information and of humanity.
* — There are a multiple novels written about Aaron as well as a fantastic documentary titled “The Internet’s Own Boy” if you’re interested in further researching his life. Also his aforementioned blog is just incredible in of itself, so make sure to give it a look if you get the chance (http://www.aaronsw.com/). Thanks for reading.
Sources listed —