Aaron was one of us

We can change the future, and we must.

I sat last night at Aaron Swartz’s memorial in San Francisco, among the very people who built the Internet, the web, the culture of young entrepreneurialism and Web 2.0 startups. Among the pioneers of Creative Commons, Electronic Frontier Foundation, open source software and those fighting to keep the public domain public.

Aaron was one of them.

It was a family reunion, under dreadful circumstances nobody would have wished for.

In his life Aaron had worked and learned among the thoughtful leaders who built the web we now benefit from today. He worked with the W3C, when the web was still “1.0,” and then in the social web and the hotbed of innovation and startup culture at Y Combinator.

Aaron’s passion for providing access to knowledge drove the most recent years of his life, from the campaign against SOPA to the liberation of public court records from PACER. And of course the downloading of journal articles, leading to the events that has brought his death so much into the public eye. Yet as Carl Malamud passionately insisted last night, Aaron was not a lone actor, but part of a peaceful army of reformers.

A young man who had accomplished more in his time than many of us will in our full allotment, Aaron truly inspired. Not just in the causes that dominate the headlines around his death, but in all his involvement with our world, no matter who we are. Web standards, open source, startups and copyright activism.

Aaron wasn’t a distant celebrity, or a saint. Aaron was one of us, and we can learn from that.

We can learn from his death, but there is even more to learn from his life, and from the lives of the host of pioneers, leaders, thinkers and geeks who have so eloquently paid tribute to him. Every day we have a choice about our actions, and have opportunity to contribute rather than withhold.

Are we generous with our knowledge, are we liberal with our creations? Is our involvement in our business, technical or social communities helping others, or more oriented to our own enrichment?

These are the questions I’m asking myself today.

Some of the things we can do seem small — being patient and helpful to others, considering how we license our content and where we choose to publish, contributing to open source, being aware of issues of freedom — but these are things we can build on.

We have lost one of us, but we have it in our reach to grow and encourage many more, and to be a better version of ourselves.

  • He is an inspiration.

  • soshaljustic

    This is a very thoughtful tribute. Thank you. Many of us that did not know Aaron well, need more of these tributes and short bios, that can allow us to see into the computer geek world. An Aaron world, that many do not know. A whole generation and two of people will never experience a computer keyboard under their fingers before they die. They will never know what downloading or uploading is, or what it is to email, be online or know what a social network is. Inconceivably millions are still alive today that will die, untouched by this very technology. How would we even go about describing Aaron to them, the gravity of his death, when they will never fully come to know the impact of his life?

  • nwmhqqty

    But Aaron wasn’t prosecuted for protesting SOPA or helping liberate PACER records, he was indicted for sneaking into someone’s closet and downloading all of their copyrighted materials. What would O’Reilly do if he hacked his way around the Safari bookshelf and liberated the content so everyone could have a free copy of as many books as they wanted?

    It’s easy to lionize him now and join with the crowd, but what would you do if the hackers came after your content and your meal ticket?

    • I think you are perhaps replying to voices other than mine. I don’t agree with everything Aaron did, but I do benefit from much of his work in open standards, Creative Commons and the public domain. Furthermore, I was very struck by his willingness to engage with others and not be an elitist. I acknowledge above, and indeed it’s critical to do so, that he was no saint. My injunction to myself and all of us is to be conscious that every day, even in small ways, we can help other people.

      For the “meal ticket” issue, with your gracious acceptance, I’m not going to divert this thread into that discussion, because those issues have been played out elsewhere and continue to do so. Not everything that earns people their meal tickets is necessarily right.

      In this post, I wanted to note and take inspiration from Aaron’s humanity and sharing.