Note from John, 11/7/2020: This blog post was originally written for my old blog that I rarely published anything on called Discount Genius. That blog is now defunct so I decided to move this post to my new blog that I rarely publish anything on.
For the last couple of days, I have been obsessively checking Hacker News for new articles about Aaron Swartz. I did not know the man. I am not remotely connected to him in any personal way. I had not heard of him before his arrest and had not read much about him since. The last couple days have left me pondering what exactly it is about him that has affected me so profoundly.
For those who are unfamiliar with his story, it has now been written many times by many different people. The Wall Street Journal has covered it, as has The New York Times. Tributes have been penned by Cory Doctorow, Larry Lessig, and the President of MIT. The expert witness who would have testified on his behalf explained how Aaron died an innocent man. The most touching tribute came from those who knew him best who created Remember Aaron Swartz.
I find myself on the outside looking in not with morbid curiosity, but with a genuine concern and care for those most affected by this tragedy. This is atypical for me. I have lived much of my life ruled by a cold logic with regards to tragedies that do not immediately influence me. I ignore death and disease and famine and war justifying myself with the thought that there’s nothing I can do about it now anyway. Maybe someday when I’m older or stronger or richer I will care and I will contribute. The loss of Aaron Swartz has broken that pattern and it has taken me a couple of days to try to figure out why. Why am I so upset? Why am I so quick to take up my pitchfork and call for an end to the career of an attorney I have never met? Why has the suicide of one man had a greater emotional effect upon me than almost any war, natural disaster, or school shooting in my lifetime?
The conclusion I have arrived at after two days of pondering is probably incomplete and may shift with time. Aaron Swartz is what I wish I was. I am a bright technologist, but I’ve never built anything of note. I have strong opinions about how to improve this world, but I’ve never acted to bring them to pass. I have thoughts every day that I would share with the world, but I allow my fears to convince me to keep them to myself. If I were able to stop being afraid of what the world would think of me, I could see myself making every decision that Aaron made that ultimately led to his untimely death. This upsets me immensely. I am upset that we have a justice system that would persecute me the way it did Aaron. I am upset that I have spent 27 years of my life having made no discernible difference to the world around me. Most of all I am upset that Aaron’s work here is done when there is so much more he could have accomplished.
I took a computer systems class in college with a lab that involved solving programming challenges in the fewest number of operations. A live leaderboard was kept that showed the number of operations in which each group had accomplished each task. One task sat for days with nobody having accomplished it in fewer than the four operations needed for full credit. Once somebody accomplished it in three, it proved to the rest of the groups that three was possible and others soon solved it in three. Aaron Swartz has shown us what is possible and it is now up to us to try to match him.