I moved to Boston in 2005 at the same time that Aaron Swartz did and we were introduced by a mutual friend. Aaron was one of my first friends in Boston and we became close. When Aaron moved to San Francisco, I moved into his apartment in Somerville where he kept a room for a year or so. Mika and I still live there. His old posters remain on our walls and his old books remain on our shelves. Aaron’s brothers Ben and Noah both lived with us and remain close friends.
I have spent hours (days?) reading and thinking about Aaron over the last two weeks. It has been disorienting — but beautiful — to read the descriptions of, and commentaries on, Aaron’s life. Although I suspect I may never feel ready, there are several things I want to say about Aaron’s death, about Aaron’s work, and about what Aaron means to me.
1. Aaron’s Death
The reaction to Aaron’s death has been overwhelming and inspirational. At some point in the near future I plan to join some of the important campaigns already being waged in his name.
There are many attempts to understand why Aaron died and many attempts to prevent it from happening to others in the future. Unfortunately, I am familiar with the process of soul-searching and second-guessing that happens when a friend commits suicide. I’m sure that every one of his friends has asked themselves, as I have, “What could I have done differently?”
I don’t know the answer, but I do know this: Aaron was facing the real risk of losing half his life to prison. But even if one believed that he was “only” facing the likely loss of ten percent — or even one percent of his life — I wish that we all, and I wish that I in particular, had reacted with the passion, time, anger, activity, and volume proportional to how we have reacted in the last two weeks when he lost the whole thing.
2. Aaron’s Work
Of course, Aaron and I worked on related projects and I followed his work. And despite all the incredible things that have been said about Aaron, I feel that Aaron’s work was more focused, more ambitious, more transformative, more innovative, and more reckless (in a positive sense) than the outpour online suggests.
Although discussion of Aaron has focused his successes, achievements, and victories, the work that inspired me most was not the projects that were most popular or successful. Much of Aaron’s work was deeply, and as it turned out overly, ambitious. His best projects were self-conscious attempts to transform knowledge production, organization, and dissemination. Although he moved from project to project, his work was consistently focused on bringing semantic-web concepts and technologies to peer production, to the movement for free culture, and to progressive political activism — and on the meta-politics necessary to remove barriers to this work.
For example, Aaron created an online collaborative encyclopedia project called the TheInfoNetwork (TIN) several years before Wikipedia was started. I talked to Aaron at length about that project for a research project I am working on. Aaron’s work was years ahead of its time; in 2000, TIN embraced more of the Wikimedia Foundation’s current goals and principles than Wikipedia did when it was launched. While Wikipedia sought to create a free reference work online, Aaron’s effort sought to find out what a reference work online could look like. It turned out to be too ambitious, perhaps, but it taught many, including myself, an enormous amount in that process.
When I met Aaron, he was in the process starting a company, Infogami, that was trying to chase many of TIN’s goals. Infogami was conceived of as a wiki aware of the structure of data. The model was both simple and profound. Years later, Wikimedia Deutschland’s WikiData project is beginning to bring some of these ideas to the mainstream. Infogami merged with Reddit as equal halves of a company with a shared technological foundation based on some of Aaron’s other work. But when Reddit took off, Infogami was rarely mentioned, even by Aaron.
I think that is too bad. Reddit got traction because it made the most popular stuff more visible; Reddit is popular, fundamentally, because popular things are popular. But popular is not necessary positive. For that reason, Reddit never struck me as either surprising or transformative. But what started as Aaron’s half the company, on the other hand, aimed to create a powerful form of democratized information production and dissemination. And although Infogami didn’t take off, the ideas and code behind the project found life at the heart of Open Library and will continue to influence and inspire countless other projects. I believe that Infogami’s lessons and legacy will undergird a generation of transformative peer production technologies in a way that the Reddit website — important as it is — will not.
3. What Aaron Means to Me
A lot of what has been written about Aaron speaks to his intelligence, his curiosity, his generosity, his ethics and his drive. Although I recognize all these qualities in the Aaron I knew, I’ve felt alienated by how abstract some of the discussion of Aaron has been — my memories are of particularities.
I remember the time Aaron was hospitalized and I spent two hours on the phone going through my bookshelves arguing with him about the virtues of the books in my library as we tried to decide which books I would bring him.
I remember Aaron confronting Peter Singer — intellectual founder of the modern animal rights movement — at the Boston Vegetarian Food Festival to ask if humans had a moral obligation to stop animals from killing each other. I lurked behind, embarrassed about the question but curious to hear the answer. (Singer sighed and said “yes — sort of” and complemented Aaron on the enormous Marxist commentary he was carrying.)
I remember 1-800-INTERNET.com.
I remember talking with Aaron about whether being wealthy could be ethical. I argued it could not but Aaron argued — uncharacteristically I thought — that it could. Aaron told Mika she should slap him if he ever became wealthy. The very next day, it was announced that his company had been acquired and that Aaron was a millionaire.
I remember the standing bets I had with Aaron and how he would email me every time news reports favored his claims (but never when they did not). And I remember that I won’t hear from him again.
Aaron was a friend and inspiration. I miss him deeply and I am very sad.