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So Open It Hurts

What the Internet did to Aaron Swartz

Courtesy of Sage Ross

On his third day at Stanford, Aaron Swartz forced himself to attend a party. He wasn’t interested in having a good time—in fact, crowds of strangers made him anxious. He merely wanted to document the mating rituals of the “teenager,” a species that alternatively mystified and horrified him.

“In my culture (of vaguely technical people), people converse by sharing information through mutually-beneficial discussion and debate,” Swartz wrote on his blog, “but the teenager’s system is altogether different and wholly alien to me.” It also struck him as irrational. The teenagers interacted through soundless, spastic movements known as dancing. When they opened their mouths, it was to enact a custom the non-scientist would recognize as flirting. “The protocol begins by sharing basic personal information to establish identity, then moves to the humorous recitation of cultural information,” he explained.

To Swartz, practically everything at Stanford needed fixing, and not just the way the students related to one another. The school’s ID cards were intrusive (“It even has a RFID transmitter in it, so they can track us while we walk”). The library was a disaster (“books with catalog numbers starting with P are on floor W4, those starting with PA through PZ are on floor W6. Yes, that’s right, W6”). By his tenth day, Swartz had even grown suspicious of the washing machines. “I’d guess that the process removed microscopic germs,” he wrote, “except for the fact that germs only thrive in damp, warm environments.” He dropped out before his sophomore year.

Granted, all of us would be mortified to find our 17-year-old musings frozen for eternity on the Internet—every goofball utterance and angst-ridden thought preserved for the world’s browsing pleasure. But Swartz was no ordinary goof. He was a hacker, a breed of computer savant that looks out at civilization’s greatest achievements—space travel, constitutional democracy, Rachmaninoff’s 3rd piano concerto—and sees only a set of algorithms to debug. The reason hackers hate driving, the author Steven Levy wrote in his definitive account of the subculture, is that traffic delays “are so goddamned unnecessary the impulse is to rearrange signs, open up traffic-light control boxes, … redesign the entire system.”

Swartz had been redesigning systems for as long as he could remember. When he was 13, he built an early Wikipedia-like site that made him a finalist in a national programming competition. The following year, he joined a group of a dozen or so people working on the code behind a version of RSS, the innovation that allows websites to gather content from other sites, creating a kind of automatically updated virtual newspaper.

But even more suggestive of his future greatness were the hopes so many grown-ups had invested in him. Tim Berners-Lee, the MIT professor whose bio immodestly (if accurately) claims he “invented the World Wide Web,” met Swartz at 14 and all but crowned him his successor. Lawrence Lessig, the Harvard law professor who was once the country’s most prominent advocate for liberalizing copyright law, took Swartz under his wing when he was 15. Swartz was welcome on any e-mail thread or chat room populated by the world’s leading hackers before he could shave.

What these adults saw in Swartz was someone who could realize the messianic potential of the Internet, someone who could build the tools that would liberate information and keep it free from the corporations and bureaucrats who would wall it off. Underlying it all was the hacker belief that the world could be perfected if enough of us tapped society’s vast reserves of knowledge and put it to proper use. “With his intellect, we wanted to harness it for good instead of evil,” says Lisa Rein, a Lessig aide who worked closely with him. “I was worried that Microsoft would get ahold of him.”

It was a staggering responsibility. If you’re a tennis prodigy, the toll on your body and psyche is punishing. If you’re a chess prodigy, you may be perpetually harried and stressed. But in neither case do you believe that one false move could set back all of humanity. The computer prodigy is not so lucky. Because he knows the power of the technology he has mastered, he knows how distressingly fragile the barrier is between freedom and censorship—it’s a simple matter of who writes the code. Aaron Swartz had been groomed to write that code since he was a child. It’s why what happened in his Brooklyn apartment, on that gray afternoon last January, may have been so inevitable.

From the time he could barely walk, Swartz displayed a preternatural gift for learning on his own. At age three, he once asked his mother, “What is this ‘Free Family Entertainment in Downtown Highland Park’?”—the Chicago suburb where the Swartzes lived. Swartz’s mother was flummoxed. “Mom, it says right here on the refrigerator,” he elaborated, pointing to a flyer. Not only was Susan Swartz unaware of the free entertainment. She hadn’t known her son could read.

Swartz’s father, Bob, was a computer consultant and the family home was already connected to the Internet by the time Aaron was six or seven. He promptly taught himself to program—his first creation solved a Sudoku-type puzzle—and he produced copious amounts of code before graduating elementary school.

Swartz’s parents were quick to recognize their son’s enormous intellect and gave him space to cultivate it. “You read about these Tiger Moms—that’s the opposite of the way we viewed things,” says his father. “Our perspective was—and remains so—that our kids should follow their interests.” They often deferred to his judgment and ignored his quirks. If they noted his moodiness, they would do so cryptically, as if afraid to offend. “Ahhh—Aaron! A complicated kid,” Susan Swartz once e-mailed a friend of her son’s after he’d brooded about being left off a list of contributors on a project.

The Swartzes allowed Aaron to take control of his own education at a young age, and he officially withdrew from high school after ninth grade. Between the Web and a grueling diet of books (Swartz would consume more than 100 per year), there wasn’t much he couldn’t master on his own.1 His father recalls him holding forth passionately on abstract legal concepts as a child. As an adolescent, he became devoted to the fiction of George Saunders, a writer with strong moral commitments whose idiosyncratic style (Saunders routinely makes up words) appealed to the autodidact in him.2

Swartz also obsessed over the TV show “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” about a high school girl imbued with special powers and charged with protecting the world from vampires and demons. Although Buffy’s responsibilities as a “slayer” crimp her teenage lifestyle—she has little time to socialize and struggles to make friends—she comes to accept her destiny. After the series finale in 2003, Swartz wrote a blog item ticking off no fewer than twelve flaws in the episode, including: “How did all those ubervamps get there? Do they breed or something?” But he did find at least one development to cheer: “Buffy now gets to be a real girl, her burden is lifted.” 3

Swartz had few friends in his neighborhood, and he turned to the Internet to find a community. In August of 2000, he joined an e-mail discussion group set up by some programmers who were designing RSS. Swartz didn’t just share his fellow RSSers’ interest in programming syntax; he found they were cut from the same sociological cloth. Like Swartz, most of the RSSers had taught themselves to program. If someone asked a question deemed too pedestrian, he was likely to get the acronym RTFM in response—for “read the fucking manual.” Whether they were debating an obscure technical point or metaphysics, the RSSers came at each question from first principles, as though they could trust no logical chain they didn’t initiate themselves.

This ethos carried its own ideology—the ideology of free-flowing information, or “open access,” as it became known. A self-taught computer savant rarely felt more helpless than when he was cut off from the websites and books he used to navigate the world. Without them, he couldn’t learn what he needed to earn a living, much less invent some disruptive technology.“I’d skipped college,” says Kevin Burton, who first met Swartz through the RSS group. “The fact that I couldn’t access materials [available to college students] was why open access was always important to me.”

A little over a year ago, Burton found that he needed up to ten hours of sleep each night to feel rested. This was a new development for him, and doctors were at a loss to explain his condition. He read dozens of medical papers (which he gained unauthorized access to online) and finally decided he had a rare genetic defect, whose effects he could mitigate by eating broccoli. It worked almost immediately. “It wasn’t fatal, but I was sleeping an extra two hours a night, which adds up to years toward the end of your life,” he says. Swartz was also moved to experiment on himself, as when he performed facial exercises to increase the flow of oxygen to his eyes, on the theory that it could cure nearsightedness. Other hackers routinely handled their own legal cases and even sussed out corporate wrongdoing and political corruption.4

Over time, this process of liberating information would become self-reinforcing, even radicalizing. “The door opens a little bit, and you say, ‘Hang on a second,’ and so you open the door a bit more,” says Ben Hammersley, another Swartz acquaintance. “Then it’s like, ‘Holy shit.’ Of course the only thing to do at that point is open the door completely.”

When he was 14, Swartz began turning up on the conference circuit where his fellow programmers gathered to compare notes and catch the tech guru of the moment. He was thrilled to finally meet the people he felt closest to in the world outside his family.

Although word was getting out that Swartz was only a teenager, in person he seemed even younger than people expected—somehow barely adolescent. He was undersized for his age and had a voice that, with a little seasoning, might have landed him in an Austrian boys’ choir. He wore ill-fitting t-shirts that hung down near his knees and only ate bland white foods, like rice and pasta. (Swartz had a chronic bowel condition that sometimes crippled him with stomach pain.)

“I remember distinctly going out to lunch with Aaron and feeling weird that I was twice his age,” recalls Matt Haughey, a programmer who first met him at a conference and began working with him several months later. “I was walking down the street thinking, ‘Does it look like I’ve kidnapped him? Like he’s my kid brother?’” And yet, when he only focused on Swartz’s words, Haughey forgot he was talking to a child.

One of the higher-profile stops on the circuit was the “Emerging Technology” conference in Santa Clara, California. The hotel that hosted the gathering was full of big-time hackers, but no one drew more attention than Swartz. “Wow! AaronSW! RSS Spec!” a self-professed groupie named Joey deVilla exclaimed upon meeting him. “I love what you’re doing.” Swartz caravanned with a few dozen hackers to a party at the home of Danny O’Brien, the author of a closely read industry newsletter. They later migrated to a screening for the just-released Star Wars prequel. Right before the lights dimmed, Swartz pointed to the accordion deVilla schlepped everywhere and goaded him into playing the movie’s theme song. “It was very clear that he was one of us,” deVilla says.

Swartz’s ticket to the conference was Lawrence Lessig, then a Stanford law professor who was using the occasion to unveil Creative Commons, a group that would push for looser copyright laws. A few months earlier, one of Lessig’s aides stumbled across Swartz on a programmer e-mail list and decided to bring him on as an adviser. When she contacted him, Swartz said he was only 15 and that she needed to get his mother’s permission.

It’s hard to overstate Lessig’s status in this world in the early 2000s. Dressed in a black blazer and t-shirt, he was a masterful lecturer and showman. The programmers had never encountered anything like his presentations before.5 Lessig was best-known for his iconic 1999 book, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, which posited that the choices programmers made when designing the Web had far more influence than any law could. The law could tell you who to associate with and who not to, but you could always ignore it. If, on the other hand, a programmer decided it should be impossible to connect with a certain type of website, the average person had no way around it. The programmer was God. Suffice it to say, the audiences were intrigued.

At the top of the hierarchy of programmers stood the hackers, the coding obsessives bent on transcending the limits of what was technologically possible. (For this crowd, “hacker” is a complimentary term connoting ingenuity; only in pop culture has it become associated with criminal activity.) It is the hacker’s job to take an existing pile of code or equipment and mold it into something new, say a touch-tone phone refashioned as a messaging device. To them, this is not just a matter of engineering; it’s a whole theory of history. “Being a hacker is at the essence of advancing humanity,” wrote Tantek Çelik, who knew Swartz as a teenager.

In the late ’90s, Lessig taught a class about the Internet that was open to both Harvard law students and MIT engineers. Early in the term, he asked, “How do you know if something you’re doing is wrong?” The lawyers said an action was wrong if it was against the law. The hackers said it was only wrong if you failed to accomplish it. It was the most fundamental statement of the hacker ethos, and it teemed with idealism: If it were possible to increase human welfare through engineering—through delivering more social interaction or knowledge or happiness to more people—then it would be immoral not to. “Once you can, it becomes morally imperative. You have to,” says Hammersley.

There was only one hitch, which Lessig dutifully explained, but which often went unheeded: The law would not be standing by idly. “The belief had always been that lawyers can say what they want, and we’ll always build the technology to route around it,” says Ben Adida, a programmer who worked with Lessig and Swartz. To the hackers, the law was at best anachronistic, at worst arbitrary, even cruel. “Lessig was one of the first folks to say, ‘You know the power that code has over the way people interact online? You would be foolish to think law is not going to regulate it,’ ” Adida recalls. 

When he debated with anyone else at Creative Commons, Lessig would “play with you like a cat with a mouse,” says Haughey, who worked with the group. That wasn’t the case with Swartz. Lessig would half-jokingly refer to his young charge as his mentor. He was known to tell donors that Creative Commons couldn’t fail so long as Swartz was looking after its code. From the beginning, the organization was keen to thrust him into the spotlight. “I loved the idea of the prodigy—a kid who was so keen and so serious,” Lessig says. “I was excited to stand him up in front of every serious person in Silicon Valley and show him off.” 6

Creative Commons sent Swartz around the country and had him address audiences on its behalf. He was having the time of his life. But, like any kid, he was sometimes less interested in changing the world than simply fitting in. “Went to the Creative Commons celebratory dinner. Larry drove me in his cool car,” Swartz gushed on his blog from Santa Clara.7

In the fall of 2002, Lessig was arguing a major copyright case before the Supreme Court and gave one of his personal tickets to his protégé. Swartz flew to Washington and attended a party where Creative Commons staffers “kept introducing me to people in ways that made my face blush in 20 different colors,” he wrote. Afterward, he took a cab to the Supreme Court with some fellow activists who planned to sleep out so they could secure tickets for the next day’s hearing. The atmosphere was festive—like camping for a college basketball game, except geekier—and Swartz, who was booked at a nearby bed and breakfast, couldn’t bring himself to leave. He lingered until after 2 a.m. “He didn’t want payment,” says Lisa Rein of Swartz’s relationship to the group. “He just wanted to meet people.”

As his physique caught up with his intellect, it became even harder not to think of Swartz as an adult. But, up close, he went about his very grown-up projects in remarkably childlike ways.

One such project was a company called Reddit, a quirky news aggregator that would become one of the most popular destinations on the Internet. When he first joined the site—after dropping out of Stanford and moving to Cambridge, Massachusetts—he was giddy. “He’s the guy who, when he’s excited, is incredibly fast,” says a friend from the Reddit days. “When everything’s going well, he comes back the next day with a new version.”

But, before long, Swartz lost interest. He got in the habit of taking weeklong “vacations,” as he called them, in which he would amass every book he could find on a subject and confine himself to his room. He spent one vacation poring over parenting books, determined to become an expert on child rearing. (A romantic interest had a toddler.) “It was getting irritating,” says a Reddit co-worker. “We have this wunderkind who can help us, but he’s sitting in his room reading.”

Part of the problem may have been clinical. Swartz would later write about his eating binges and mood swings, the days when he was too paralyzed by sadness to even venture outside. These stretches may have been flare-ups of depression or bipolar disorder, though it’s impossible to know: Swartz’s father has said Aaron was never diagnosed with depression or on antidepressants.

Whatever the case, when Reddit entered into acquisition talks with Condé Nast, Swartz grew agitated about the idea of working for a large corporation—one that was in the business of shielding content from the masses, no less. He would sit in meetings with the Condé Nast brass looking every bit the uncommunicative genius. The message from his partners was: “Just don’t fuck it up.” If Swartz were to leave abruptly, he might torpedo the deal. By staying put, he would ensure that they got paid upward of a million dollars each. (Swartz had an equity stake in the company.) When the deal finally closed on Halloween 2006, the Reddit crew threw on costumes and went out to celebrate. Swartz put on a brown corduroy jacket and said he was dressed up as “a square” or “the man,” according to one person present. He stuck around for dinner but went home by ten o’clock.

Courtesy of a friend of Aaron Swartz
After earning around a million dollars on the Reddit deal, Swartz put on a blazer and told people he was dressed up as “a square” or “the man” for Halloween.

Under the terms of the deal, Swartz was supposed to move to San Francisco and work from the offices of Wired, another Condé Nast property. He showed up for less than a month then bolted for a several-week jaunt across Europe. When he returned, he holed up in his old Cambridge apartment, which he had insisted on keeping. He didn’t answer e-mail or phone calls.

In early January, after Swartz had been AWOL for over a month, his Reddit colleagues stumbled across a disturbing entry on his blog titled “A Moment Before Dying.” In the post, Swartz wrote about a character named “Aaron” who had long struggled with body-image issues until he learned to control his weight through starvation. One night “Aaron” began to have searing stomach pains. He writhed on his floor in agony for the better part of five days. On the sixth, his boss called to say he’d been fired. The second half of the post deployed the phrase “the day Aaron killed himself” as a kind of refrain.

One of Swartz’s Reddit colleagues called the police, who forced their way inside the apartment, but Swartz fled as they arrived. When another colleague asked why Swartz was trying to provoke his own firing, Swartz said the life of the clock-puncher made him profoundly unhappy, even though he had barely given it a chance and the Reddit team was essentially left alone at Wired. “One of the big downsides to his education was that he never had to ... learn to live with the failings of bureaucracy,” says Lessig. “He was always just free to just walk away.” Reddit asked him to resign three months after the sale to Condé Nast.

To those who knew him best, Swartz was kind and self-effacing. He would lose himself for hours playing with friends’ children and would help his younger brothers with homework at all hours of the night, even from several time zones away. He always took the smallest room in any house he shared and was famous for sleeping in spare quarters—even a bathroom floor at one point. He could also be droll. “I’m part of the Jewish cabal that controls the Internet,” he once joked to a friend. When she said she hadn’t heard of this cabal, Swartz deadpanned: “Oops.” 8

But for all his warmth and playfulness, Swartz had few of the coping mechanisms of the average high school senior. “He needed a couple years to be stuffed in a locker, to get his social stuff together,” says one friend from this period. Above all, he was constantly on guard against sellouts and phonies, in that grand teenage tradition. He saw corruption almost everywhere he turned.

One day a few months after leaving Reddit, Swartz was in his San Francisco apartment looking especially glum when his roommate, Peter Eckersley, asked, “How can we cheer you up?” Swartz was having none of it. All the code he had written was buggy and terrible. The country’s institutions were broken—“We will keep mistreating people,” he bleated. He went on in this vein until finally Eckersley insisted that Swartz could surely find something in the world to take pleasure in.

Swartz thought for a moment. “Yes, actually,” he said. “Beautiful typography.” Everything else fell short.

The reigning worldview among politically minded hackers is libertarianism.They fear powerful actors taking control of the Internet and snuffing out privacy and self-expression. Swartz worried about this, too. But he wasn’t only interested in pushing back against corporate suits and bureaucrats. Much more than his peers, he was deeply concerned about justice—about lifting up the poor.

This conviction made Swartz prone to powerful epiphanies. In 2008, he was invited to a retreat held by an outfit that helps libraries overseas get access to academic journals. The group viewed scholarly work as a kind of Holy Grail that all mankind must be allowed to drink from in order to spread enlightenment, and the gathering, which took place at an 800-year-old Italian monastery, gave off a missionary vibe. The guests participated in intense policy discussions by day and then, at night, decamped for a nearby trattoria where they carried on until three or four o’clock in the morning.

Many guests expressed frustration with the exclusionary practices of JSTOR, the online archive that houses almost every published academic paper in economics, sociology, political science, history, philosophy, and anthropology going back decades, sometimes farther. As a nonprofit institution, JSTOR talked a good game about embracing the values of the academy. It occasionally even opened its archives to developing countries under one-off arrangements. But it was extremely reluctant to negotiate large, long-term discounts to its subscription fees.

It hadn’t quite dawned on Swartz that students and scholars abroad could be so deprived of information, but once it did, “he was passionate,” says Monika Elbert, who organized the event. “Rich people pay huge amounts of money to access articles. But what about the researcher in Accra? Dar es Salaam? Cambodia? It genuinely opened his eyes.”

Still, Swartz differed from these mostly mild-mannered librarians and activists in an important way: He wasn’t averse to breaking the law. From his perspective, it would be one thing if there were no Internet, if you would have to parachute academic journals into sub-Saharan Africa like food for refugees. But with the trivial ease of distributing knowledge online, refusing to open the archives was worse than non-sensical; it was an affront to Swartz’s sensibility—the “if you can, then you must” code of the hacker.

Before leaving the monastery, Swartz co-authored a document called “The Guerilla Open Access Manifesto” and posted it on his blog. “Information is power,” it began. “But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves.” It continued:

Providing scientific articles to those at elite universities in the First World, but not to children in the Global South? It's outrageous and unacceptable. … We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. … We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access.

Most of Swartz’s erstwhile allies criticized him for going too far. “I don’t accept that copyright infringement is civil disobedience and, more importantly, I don’t accept that advancing [open access] through deliberate violations of copyright law would do more good than harm,” wrote Peter Suber, a former philosophy professor regarded as the dean of the U.S. open-access movement.

But Swartz wasn’t chastened. A few weeks after he returned to the United States, he teamed up with a prominent activist named Carl Malamud to liberate a government database called PACER, which stored legal documents from federal court cases and charged eight cents a page to download them. The plan was to download some files at a library where access was free, but Swartz did it remotely after having a friend pilfer an account from a librarian. Once he’d grabbed about one-fifth of the entire database, nearly 20 million pages, the government began to investigate. Both men lawyered up and steeled themselves for the worst before the Feds finally decided Swartz had broken no law.

Though Swartz had a broad sense of purpose, he could rarely sit still long enough to see through any particular plan. Even during the investigation, Swartz e-mailed Malamud to say he had some friends “looking for a hobby” and wanted suggestions for more documents to liberate. Malamud couldn’t believe the kid’s chutzpah. “I think people need to focus and stop running off in a million directions,” Malamud wrote back.9

In January of 2009, Swartz told Malamud that “I need to figure out what to do when I grow up,” despite having recently launched a group called—an online hub for political data like campaign-finance and lobbying records. He toyed with writing a book and with working for the Obama administration, but neither idea panned out. He helped start a group called the Progressive Change Campaign Committee whose goal was to fund causes the Washington power brokers ignored, but eventually left amid a dispute over his role in the organization. In the spring of 2010, Swartz began working on the congressional campaign of a Rhode Island state representative named David Segal. Segal got creamed in a four-way primary that September.

The following week, Swartz attended a conference on Internet freedom in Budapest. The formal proceedings bored him, but one night at dinner he and some fellow activists commiserated over the hundreds of millions of dollars it would cost to liberate JSTOR once and for all.10 Within a few days of returning to the United States, Swartz bought a new laptop, logged into MIT’s computer network as a guest, and began downloading JSTOR’s entire contents. The download continued until police confronted Swartz in January 2011. By July, a grand jury had indicted him on four felony counts, including wire fraud and computer fraud. It later added nine more.

Some of the most notorious images of Swartz on the Internet these days are the stills of him sneaking into an MIT computer closet to “hard-wire” into the school’s network. The pictures, which a surveillance camera captured, show Swartz shielding his face with a bike helmet. “The prosecutor’s framing of that is that he’s an evil miscreant hiding his dirty deeds,” says Danny O’Brien, a former tech journalist who became Swartz’s friend. “The activist viewpoint is that it’s someone adopting a Guy Fawkes mask. I look at it as that’s Aaron looking embarrassed that he had to do this dumb thing to get the files.”

Anyone familiar with Swartz’s record could see how lost he was. “He was seeking,” said John Summers, the editor of the leftist political journal The Baffler, which Swartz began helping to edit around this time. “He didn’t get too long on anyone.” Swartz later confessed to David Segal that he had never achieved anything in his life that mattered. That the statement wasn’t remotely true was beside the point. Swartz was convinced, and doomed.

Other hackers have killed themselves, too. Before there was Aaron Swartz, there was Ilya Zhitomirskiy, a 22-year-old founder of the social-network site Diaspora*, frequently described as the “anti-Facebook” because it gives users control over their personal data rather than packaging it for advertisers. Before Ilya, there was Len Sassaman, a brilliant cryptographer who helped make Internet communications anonymous, especially when governments or powerful corporations might want to nose in on them. Before Sassaman, there was Christopher Lightfoot, who was revered for his daring, Swartz-style bulk downloads of British government data. And before Lightfoot, there was Gene Kan, who made a name for himself in the peer-to-peer movement—the technology used to swap music and video files outside the reach of their copyright holders.

The particulars of each case were different, of course. Like Swartz, Sassaman had the occasional run-in with the government over his online exploits. Kan seemed to briefly make his peace with the powers-that-be by going to work for Sun Microsystems, the Silicon Valley giant. And, in any case, who can really say why anyone might take that tragic, irreversible step? But all in their own way came across as highly concentrated distillations of computer hacker culture: precocious, technically brilliant, bracingly idealistic. All were prone to disillusionment when reality fell short of their vision for it.

The irony is that, by the time Swartz took his own life in January, he really had begun to change the world. The same week he started downloading JSTOR, in September 2010, he learned about a Senate bill called COICA, the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act, which would give the government sweeping powers to shut down websites for even the most innocent copyright violations.Within a few weeks, Swartz had collected 300,000 signatures for an online petition opposing the measure. This helped delay it until the next session of Congress and gave the resistance time to organize. When the final version of the measure died in early 2012, Swartz deserved a real share of the credit.11

Gohsuke Takama/Wikimedia Commons
Swartz with Lawrence Lessig, the Harvard professor who half-jokingly referred to the 15-year-old as his mentor.

Starting in the fall of 2010, Swartz began to seem more grounded and less manic than he had been as a younger man. In June 2011, he entered a long-term relationship with another progressive activist named Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman. He was eating well and working out every day, a practice he’d previously scorned. They talked about getting married. Swartz had resumed writing the book he’d started and was busy researching drug-treatment policy for a nonprofit foundation.12

But the JSTOR case was like a cancer, according to Stinebrickner-Kauffman. The U.S. Attorneys’ office went to extraordinary lengths to make an example of Swartz, threatening him with decades of prison time for what was at worst a minor offense. He was overwhelmed by hearings, motions, delays. Each Monday for the first few months after he moved to New York City in 2011, Swartz boarded a bus back to Boston to demonstrate that he hadn’t fled the country. The case was bankrupting him, and even the prospect of a plea bargain offered little hope. The government was insisting on six months of jail time and a 13-count conviction if he wanted to sidestep a trial. Lawrence Lessig had been right all those years ago: In the battle between law and code, the law was a shockingly persistent adversary.

The day Swartz killed himself, he told Stinebrickner-Kauffman he was too tired to get out of bed. She played music, tickled him, even splashed him with water—nothing would break his funk. Swartz said he wanted to take it easy and didn’t respond to her texts after she reluctantly left for work. She discovered his body hanging from a belt when she got home.

Swartz’s old friend Ben Hammersley has an expression about the computer language HTML, which is critical for making Web pages, but which aficionados considered a mess until the mid-2000s. The expression is that HTML was used for a good decade or so before it was finally invented. That’s how long it took for the hacker community to control it. But during that time there were no great alternatives, and so everyone used HTML, with occasionally disastrous results.

Like too many other computer prodigies of his generation, Aaron Swartz was used long before he was invented. He hadn’t lived long enough to know that not every mistake he made would reverberate for all time or haunt him until the end of his days. In this, he was not so different from any other teenager who sweats the pop quiz he failed or the fender he banged up. What distinguished Swartz was that, from a young age, he was handed a fantastically powerful set of tools—“you can do magic,” he would exhort his fellow programmers—and told it was his destiny to create a more free and just society.

For Swartz and his fellow computer prodigies, this was a deeply isolating existence. “Ilya was made to feel that he was the only hope to save the world from Facebook. Len was one of few cryptographers who understood the threat of global digital surveillance. Aaron was this great hope for fighting things like [COICA],” says O’Brien. The pressure was intense when they screwed up, because it meant they had failed in their historical mission. It could be downright unbearable when they succeeded. “The flip side of everyone telling you, ‘Wow, if you hadn’t been there, everything could have gone wrong,’ is, ‘If I go to prison, it destroys not just me but my whole vision of how much better the world could be,’ ” O’Brien says.

We want people doing this work, of course—in many cases, we need them doing it. It’s just far from clear that we want them doing it before they can drive a car or buy a beer. In Aaron Swartz’s case, too many adults refused to see that a child isn’t a messiah or even a leader of men, however brilliant he may be. A child is just a child.

  1. When he was 15, Swartz stumbled across his platonic ideal for a high school education: A Boston Globe story “about a boy who learned while traveling the country with his father, and is now an assistant professor at MIT,” as Swartz summarized it. “Amen to that!” he wrote.

  2. Swartz later became a die-hard David Foster Wallace fan, too. Wallace once remarked that the unwritten “end” of his masterpiece, Infinite Jest, could be “projected by the reader somewhere beyond the right frame,” and Swartz spent months mining the text for clues. He eventually knitted them into a plausible conclusion, which he laid out on his blog under a “gigantic spoiler” alert.

  3. Swartz was prolific at creating new blogs. In addition to his personal blog, he and a friend started a blog called “Science That Matters,” whose mission was to introduce readers to “the most interesting research that is buried in the tens of thousands of journals that academics are obliged to fill as they fight each other for tenure.” They would write up posts about papers they believed could “alter the way we view the world”—one early find showed how drug-addled rats would voluntarily detox when placed in a stimulating environment—if only anyone had ever heard of them.

    Swartz also once created a blog devoted entirely to Google features most people were unaware of. “I heard about Google Catalogs from a friend. I wanted to know what other Google features were out there that I was missing,” he said in an interview. Swartz solicited emails from readers and reported the most interesting discoveries.

  4. Even among the apostles of information-sharing, Swartz stood out as a bit of a fanatic. When Swartz horned his way into the RSS discussion group, the project was in its second iteration. Many in the group had been working on it for over a year before they opened it up to the web. Most were in their twenties and thirties. One of Swartz’s first posts to the list asked:

    "Who wrote this spec? How did they get chosen? How did they write it? Will transcripts of that discussion be made available?"

    He later added, “Don't misunderstand - I'm very thankful for the work you've done…”

  5. The centerpiece of Lessig’s talks was a series of all-black slides, each with a few words of stark white text, designed to mimic a computer screen. You can watch Lessig’s first-ever presentation in this style here.

  6. Lessig even brought Swartz on stage to make a presentation during the launch of Creative Commons in December 2002. You can listen to the audio of his presentation here.

  7. Swartz, in addition to being in awe of Lessig, was occasionally bemused by him. Consider this from the same blog post:

    "When [Lessig]’s not speaking he’s very quiet and brooding. He hangs his head down and thinks. Sample conversation: 'Who paid for your flight out here?' 'You did.' 'Oh, good. [pause] Who paid for your hotel?' 'You did.' 'Oh, good.'"

  8. At the Wikimania conference in 2006, Swartz teamed up with three friends and entered the satirical “Web 1.0 Elevator Pitch Competition.” Their highly amusing pitch was called “1-800-INTERNET.COM”:

    "So think about this. You’re sitting in a Starbucks, and you need to connect to the internet. But you can’t, because there’s no internet. But what is there, near every Starbucks? There’s a payphone! You pick up the payphone, and you call…. 1-800-INTERNET. You can connect to our bank of researchers on our fast T1 connections and get any information you need! …

    [M]ost people on the Internet are going for the eyeballs, but they’ve just left all of these … earballs."

    You can watch the video here.

  9. Swartz had a variety of other ideas for information to obtain in bulk, some of which Malamud endorsed, some which he had reservations about, and some of which simply amused him. One of their more humorous exchanges came when Swartz suggested acquiring a list of the recently deceased from the Social Security Administration, replete with their date of birth and Social Security numbers. “[T]his for the purposes of identity theft assistance?” Malamud joked. “I think it's to help the dead stay involved in politics,” Swartz responded.

  10. One reason Swartz may have been less than enthused by the conference is that he distrusted the motives of its sponsor: Google. “I was invited to a Google-funded conference on freedom of expression in Budapest next week to attack Google's net neutrality sellout,” he emailed a friend a few days before attending. Many activists believed the conference was a PR-move intended to clean up the fallout from Google’s reversal on some high-profile issues like net neutrality.

  11. You can watch Swartz recount his own role in the COICA fight here.

  12. Swartz had by no means lost his entrepreneurial spirit by this point. In late 2012, he began to revive his old project, except this time the idea was to take a more active approach to organizing and lobbying for political reform. That October, he enthused to a programmer he was trying to hire about his ambitions for the group:

    "As I said, it's really taking off -- we're getting thousands of new members every day. I really think this is the big one for me, the one that will end up being the biggest thing I've ever done, with millions and millions of users. And if we had better programmers, we'd be growing even faster. Even little optimizations have a huge impact through our growth rates: a 1 percentage point improvement in our growth rate means 8 million extra members over the next year. So Iwant to get someone great running the programming side as soon as I can."