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.