On Aaron Swartz


Derek Willis


January 13, 2013

After trading some emails with Aaron Swartz in 2004 and 2005 about building a congressional votes database, I began to entertain a ridiculous fantasy: maybe, just maybe, I could coax this brilliant young man into a fledgling world of data-driven journalism on the web.

A fascinating dinner at a Palo Alto diner in April 2005 put paid to that idea. If there was any kind of work system that could appeal to Aaron, I was pretty sure that it hadn’t been invented yet. He visited The Washington Post, where I then worked (he wore a shirt labeled “Unemployed”), but he wouldn’t have lasted more than a couple of days had he actually been an employee. The whole process of journalism, leaving aside any ideological issues, was unfit for his interests, ethics and habits. I hugely admired him for the clarity he had, and the desire to live out his ideals. We need people like that to remind us that what may seem impossible is not.

And yet, as Danah Boyd has written, there is a tension here, because to mythologize Aaron is to make the work he believed in seem more remote or unachievable. That he chose to involve himself in politics, perhaps the messiest and most human of activities, seemed a little odd to me at first. “He’s such a talented programmer, I don’t get it!” Politics (and governance) is a complicated, maddening, compromised business. Books and speeches can make it sound simple, but in my experience those are mostly ideals, not reality.

His death is first and foremost a terrible tragedy for his family and friends. Those who knew him less well, myself included, and the general causes he fought for and believed in, also have lost an incredible source of talent, inspiration and curiosity. But as with most movements, Aaron was one of many working for open access to information and a more responsive public sector. He accomplished more in less time than anyone, perhaps, but that’s not what left the biggest impression on me.

Despite the penchant of many (including my employer) to refer to Aaron as an “Internet activist”, we should not forget that he was also deeply involved in the offline political world. I remember him volunteering to help Bill Halter’s Senate campaign in Arkansas in 2010 (Halter lost the Democratic primary to incumbent Blanche Lincoln). He spoke at rallies about SOPA & PIPA. He could have chosen the “web-only” role, and for someone who had a complicated history of social interaction, that might have been an easier route. But I think he learned that, whatever his talents with a computer, politics needs - demands - people on the ground, face-to-face. I also imagine such activities took their toll on him; a spotlight lays bare our strengths and weaknesses.

I think what I admire most about Aaron is that he was willing to step out of the hacker role (and I use that term in the best and true sense of the word) and into a system that was not of his creation. Most political/government/media types who are unfamiliar with people who create things using computers, particularly on the Internet, struggle to understand how these people can do what they cannot: invent a new reality if they don’t like the one they have. Online, if you don’t like a piece of software, you can write your own. If you disagree with a community, you can leave and set up your own. Such options in the offline world can have enormous costs.

Similarly, many of my friends who build software wonder how anyone can tolerate a political system that seems to work fitfully, if at all, and are amazed at what progress of any kind requires. Aaron was one of those who didn’t need to work in both worlds but chose to. I used to wonder why he would even care to talk to people like me, who could teach him nothing about technology and only a little about other topics. But he loved ideas and what you might call “social studies”. I think he knew that the amazing platform provided by the Internet could only bring about real changes if people were willing to put them into action. That documents and data and records posted online would need to translate into action or impact offline. It’s something those of us who work in the web journalism space need to keep in mind, too.

I have met few people like Aaron Swartz, and no one exactly like him. To me, the main difference between Aaron and almost everyone else was that he seemed far less willing to make many of the compromises that the rest of us do as we do the messy work of building a life. Many others have written about the frustration of maintaining a dialogue with someone who holds himself and others to very high standards. Our longest email thread, about the Washington Post’s coverage of Jack Abramoff, has some of that.

Maybe no one could have saved Aaron. Maybe he alone could have. We’ll never know. But there are millions of people with a desire to improve the world who see both an online world full of possibilities and an all-too-human system of governance and politics capable of almost hideous brutality. How to reconcile the two may not be the most important problem right now. But I feel like it’s a problem that Aaron was working on.