Remembering Aaron Swartz

I don’t want to write about the circumstances of his suicide – it’s too raw. I do want to write about who he was. I suspect that the media will turn this into a story of Aaron as persecuted hacker, which gets at only one part of him. He was one of the kindest, sweetest, and most generous people I ever knew. He made a lot of money at a very young age, which would have ruined most people (including me). It didn’t ruin Aaron. He used it to live an itinerant life, jumping from project to project, all intended to work towards creating a better world. His enthusiasm was boundless, as was his generosity. When my blog had big server problems a few years ago, he immediately jumped in to offer to host us (we ended up finding hosting elsewhere). He saw that Rick Perlstein didn’t have a website, back before Rick Perlstein was Rick Perlstein, and he built one for him. He gathered together everything he could of the old Lingua Franca, preserving it and making it available. A skilled techie, he helped put together the revived Baffler, a journal noted for its discontent with things technological. Aaron’s life was a struggle against the forces of entropy, decay and political corruption. He never saw a good cause, but he wanted to adopt it, and do everything he could for it (if a criticism could be made of him, it was that he moved on too quickly from project to project). I knew he had been in a dark place the last few months, because of what was happening to him, but I didn’t know how dark. I’ve lost a dear friend, but American politics and intellectual life has lost someone who did many good things for many people, often quietly, but always to good effect. Other CTers may have other memories of him; those are mine.

Update: Aaron’s family and current partner. Quinn Also, Cory Doctorow, Larry Lessig, Mark Bernstein, James Fallows, Brewster Kahle , Carl Malamud, The Baffler. By request, Aaron’s guest-posts here at CT. Scott McLemee’s story on Aaron from a few years back is here.

Update 2: What Larry Lessig Says.

For remember, we live in a world where the architects of the financial crisis regularly dine at the White House — and where even those brought to “justice” never even have to admit any wrongdoing, let alone be labeled “felons.” In that world, the question this government needs to answer is why it was so necessary that Aaron Swartz be labeled a “felon.” For in the 18 months of negotiations, that was what he was not willing to accept, and so that was the reason he was facing a million dollar trial in April — his wealth bled dry, yet unable to appeal openly to us for the financial help he needed to fund his defense, at least without risking the ire of a district court judge. And so as wrong and misguided and fucking sad as this is, I get how the prospect of this fight, defenseless, made it make sense to this brilliant but troubled boy to end it.

The last time I saw Aaron, we didn’t talk about the JSTOR incident itself, for all the obvious reasons. We did talk about the Kafkaesque nightmare he had landed in, where literally anything he said could be taken grossly out of context and used against him by a prosecutorial apparatus apparently more driven by vindictiveness, stupidity and politics than by any particular interest in justice or the public interest. He told me how, when the police finally came around to search his apartment, some weeks after the charges had been laid, he jokingly asked them what had taken them so long. Of course, he then found these words being twisted by the prosecutors to suggest that he had effectively admitted he was guilty.

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

Henry Farrell

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.