Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.
Aaron Swartz ended his own life Friday.
In his 26 years he invented RSS, which makes this blog possible, and then dedicated himself to fighting for internet freedom.
Political philosopher Ari Kohen shared a story about his life, which eulogizes him—correctly, I believe—as a hero:
…He committed himself to the causes in which he so passionately believed: internet freedom, civil liberties, making information and knowledge as available as possible. Here he is in his May, 2012 keynote address at the Freedom To Connect conference discussing the role he played in stopping SOPA, the movie-industry-demanded legislation that would have vested the government with dangerous censorship powers over the internet.
Critically, Swartz didn’t commit himself to these causes merely by talking about them or advocating for them. He repeatedly sacrificed his own interests, even his liberty, in order to defend these values and challenge and subvert the most powerful factions that were their enemies. That’s what makes him, in my view, so consummately heroic.
You can read the whole article here. I highly recommend it.
Aaron’s last great act of activism was one that ultimately landed him in felony charges: legally and within the terms of his user agreement, he downloaded piles of academic articles from JSTOR. He had the intention of making these public for free (which would not be within the user agreement). When JSTOR pulled the plug, he chose to trespass in MIT in order to retrieve the files and prep them for public distribution.
(Note that JSTOR doesn’t pay scholars for the articles it sells; Aaron never stole bread from any author’s mouth.)
I want to repeat that: in order to give you and me free access to scholarly articles, he broke into a campus and stole them.
That makes him the closest thing I’ve seen to a real-life cyberpunk protagonist. Except that in fiction, it’s a gritty anti-hero doing it for money or to settle a personal score. Aaron did it just to follow his ideals.
Often, people ask me what heroism looks like if you don’t want to travel, if you’re not physical, if you don’t fight or run into burning buildings. This is what it looks like.
Aaron was a computer programmer. He took great personal risk in order to help others. He had nothing to gain from it. He was prosecuted on trumped up charges and, his family says, that contributed to his suicide.
I grieve for Aaron and his family. And I admire him greatly.
A fire’s extinguished,
Its smoke will drift on.
It can’t be rekindled
The flame is now gone.
The sparks start to dim,
The embers go cold,
It’s us who bear torches,
Our turn to be bold.
Aaron’s memorial page is here.