Remembering Aaron Swartz: A ‘Deviant Genius’
South by Southwest hosts a panel about the late controversial activist
Early in the conference, there was an uncharacteristically somber event and one of the few SXSW-sanctioned panels that was made open to the public: A remembrance of the late programmer and activist Aaron Swartz, who took his own life earlier this year at age 26. In case you’re unfamiliar with Swartz, here’s how one writer summed up his accomplishments:
Despite being only 26, Swartz had already done more in a quarter-century than others do in a lifetime. He helped develop RSS, helped launch (and then sold) Reddit, founded Demand Progress, was widely known as an Internet activist (one who helped stop SOPA) and, in the last two years of his life, was the subject of a federal investigation.
In other words, he was a prodigy. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, whom many have credited as one of the inventors of the internet, recalled that he was surprised to learn that Swartz was only 14 years old when the two met in person after corresponding about programming for long periods of time. The event was filled with similar about Swartz’s skill, youth, idealism, and vulnerability.
As it was widely broadcast, at the time of his death, Swartz had been under intense federal prosecution, which many critics say was excessive and cruel. His crime was downloading over four million academic articles from an online archive called JSTOR, articles which were public. As Liel Leibovitz wrote in Tablet last summer:
He hadn’t done anything illicit with the documents he downloaded—it is quite possible that he intended them for personal research use, as he had done before when he downloaded and analyzed a great number of law articles to ascertain which legal scholars were receiving remuneration from corporations. And so the accusations against him read like a misguided and overzealous attempt to make a case of him in an effort to deter hackers everywhere. But Swartz isn’t a mere hacker; he’s a civic-minded young man who has devoted much of his energy to better serving the public’s interest by ensuring that information—too often locked behind paywalls for no good reason—be placed in the hands of those who have every right to it.
The panel was a stacked deck of prodigious programmers and activists. In addition to Berners-Lee was David Segal, who worked closely with Swartz and read a jeremiad of sorts from his computer before playing a clip of Swartz speaking passionately about the right to open data at a conference last year. Segal went on:
“We are sorrowful and we are angry. But there is solace in the presence of so many of you tonight.”
This set the tone for the panel, which included Swartz’s partner at the time of his death, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman. Identified by her Twitter handle instead of her name on the dais, she summoned a stunning amount of equanimity in directing the conversation about Swartz forward. She asked academics why they hadn’t risen up en masse following Swartz’s death. She asked developers if they understood their power, calling on them to break out of their bubble and make change in the world. She also called on the media to correct the narrative about Swartz’s death and not write that he was just “a whiz kid who could code” and committed a crime and, instead, note that he was an activist whose Fourth Amendment rights had been crushed.
Behind each charge was the undercurrent of indictment–the general message of the event, the evening, the panel, and Swartz’s legacy–was that much had been corrupted. Programmers who wanted to strike it rich, academics who wanted to play it safe, journalists who couldn’t tell the truth because their parent companies opposed Swartz’s views.
It felt, in many ways, the opposite of the new South By Southwest ethos. Walking around the grounds of the convention center (as well as Austin), one was struck dumb by the transformation of nearly every object, animate or otherwise, into a billboard for a company or media service. Meanwhile, the massive room, which held Swartz’s intellectual wake, was nearly 80% empty.
Speaking most eloquently, perhaps because he cribbed much of his speech from his New Yorker article, was Tim Wu, who spoke about how Swartz’s crime was more of an intellectual prank, something akin to acts undertaken by other giants who eventually changed the world.
In this sense, Swartz must be compared to two other eccentric geniuses, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who, in the nineteen-seventies, committed crimes similar to, but more economically damaging than, Swartz’s. Those two men hacked A.T. & T.’s telephone system to make free long-distance calls, and actually sold the illegal devices (blue boxes) to make cash. Their mentor, John Draper, did go to jail for a few months (where he wrote one of the world’s first word processors), but Jobs and Wozniak were never prosecuted. Instead, they got bored of phreaking and built a computer. The great ones almost always operate at the edge.