In Memory, Aaron Swartz

When I begin to write, I start with an almost audible internal monologue, a set of rambling and rarely cohesive set of words and fragmented sentences that if I’m lucky, I’ll edit later into a rambling and barely cohesive set of run-on sentences.

But until I wrote that sentence, every time I’ve started this post, I had not gotten farther than “I… uh”

I… I’ve never really completely understood that when a tragedy occurs, particularly with famous people, the reactions, the emotions, the out-pouring of grief, or anger, or sadness. I don’t mean that I don’t logically, or psychologically, or sociologically understand the connection that people form to a person that they’ve never met, but yet touches their lives through music, or art, or politics, or whatever bridge that forms with someone you never know, but still know through that connection. I’m not a stranger to suicide, but even then, I’m not sure that even that particular tragedy when it has happened to strangers, celebrity strangers, has ever really moved me prior to now

Now? Now I can’t stop thinking about Aaron Swartz.

If you know anything about that how’s and the why’s and the who’s of the technology and the politics and the issues of the internet, you’ll know about Aaron. If you don’t, you should. Start where I learned about his passing — from a link by Jason Kottke to Cory Doctorow’s post. Then others, from Duncan Davidson to Larry Lessig to danah boyd and maybe what touched me the most, from Quinn Norton

You should know, and once you know, I don’t know anyone in my life that wouldn’t care. Aaron seemed to be able to make you care.

I never knew Aaron Swartz, I never met him, I never interacted with him. But I’ve known a little something about Aaron maybe as long as anyone has known about Aaron in the internet world. I had vague memories of Phillip Greenspun’s ArsDigita prize — I remember (after Phillip’s reminder) when Dave Winer bitched about the 17 year old kid, Reddit, Recap, the MIT/JSTOR incident, all that I had read.

Most of all, I’ve read and known as much as you can know a stranger through his own words

During a particularly difficult conversation with a colleague last year, I linked to Aaron’s words post-Steve Jobs biography, because it said what I was trying to say, about how I approached things, and even sometimes, and unfortunately, how I expressed things.

Another time I had linked to Aaron’s “Sweating the Small Stuff” post in the attempt to explain to others just what it took to do the job we do.

Aaron could communicate things and see things in ways that I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to do.

Aaron was 26 years old. I’m almost 40. I’ve worked very hard and very long and I’ve been lucky as well to be in a position to be good at what I do, but in what is part of a source of both connection and conflict with friends and colleagues, my work and the work I’m involved in is never good enough.

Because I want to be as smart, and as lucid, and as good at what I do as Aaron Swartz.

As Duncan pointed out, Aaron once said that “I think a lot of what people call intelligence just boils down to curiosity.” I don’t disagree with that, but the most awe-inspiring thing about Aaron was his ability to act on that curiousity at the level in which he did.

And even still, like all of us, Aaron was human, with all the foils and flaws of us all, maybe made even harder and harsher by his intellect. Our greatest strengths are just as often our greatest weaknesses.

I can understand where he was, at least as much that anyone that can only know him through his own writing and through the writing of his friends can understand. I went through some things in my 20’s that were a pale comparison to what Aaron was facing with the federal trial. Had I faced what Aaron was facing, I don’t know that I would be here today. Looking at 40, I want to say the same things that Duncan Davidson would have said and that Quinn Norton said to him and undoubtedly others in his life have said and would say. It gets better.

Aaron’s life inspired his friends, and those of us that were his fans. And those friends and fans will make sure that his life continues to effect change.

I just wish for Aaron, for his family, for his friends, for all of us, that he was still with us to see it.