The death of Aaron Swartz, or: "fiction's about what it is to be a fucking human being"

Tue, 08 Aug 2023, 06:22:30 PM

by tyler, yes, the tyler!
waddling animated ducks

Aaron Swartz standing amongst books in a library

Aaron Swartz was born on November 08, 1986, and died at age 26 on January 26 2013 after 2 years of court proceedings. At age 13, he created RSS. At age 15, he created what would become reddit, and as people often forget, he also invented the markdown language which any user of VCS systems has used in the past.

Aaron was caught sharing paywalled scientific journals freely accessible to MIT alumni amongst the internet. For this, he was sentenced to a maximum fine in excess of £1,000,000 and fifty years in prison. His difficulty paying his attorneys, as well as MIT’s unwillingness to help with his criminal proceedings, lead to his suicide by hanging.

Carmen Ortiz, the presiding judge over his case, faced multiple inquiries after the case, but was not removed from office and to this day continues to deny that Aaron was overcharged.

“Our beloved brother, son, friend, and partner Aaron Swartz hanged himself on Friday in his Brooklyn apartment. We are in shock, and have not yet come to terms with his passing. Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach.

One of Aaron’s favourite books was infinite jest, by David Foster Wallace, who also tragically passed 5 years prior to Aaron of hanging. “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human” is a quote of his. I spent a long time looking for a fitting title and it just seemed to click for me. Maybe this is tenuous, but i have never thought that art, software and fiction were that far from each other. Aaron’s work enabled the creation and sharing of all three through the often overlooked power of RSS.

Looking through old archives of Aaron’s, one of the most memorable things I’ve found is a collection of notes from his memorial service, at which Tim Berners Lee delivered Aaron’s eulogy in the Internet Archive headquarters. Each is it’s own short story, which paints its own picture of how individuals deal with grief. This is a link to the entire archived collection of notes left for him, below are the pages that resonated the most with me, but i implore you to read through the booklet yourself to find the ones which you like most.

yellowing page for aaron swartz memorial service

Quotes from top to bottom, “he had written the code that had written that code”. “bits are NOT a BUG”. “When the host approaches zero, the guests are limitless.”, “TO BE taken seriously”. “When the writer owns his/her words, the WRITER CAN GIVE”. “to make salt for the people”. “he felt responsible for the carcinogens he didn’t stop”. “when we built the internet there was no subscribe button”. “Why haven’t you read the books of your condition”. “LICENSED THE PUBLISHER OF THE PEOPLE”. “I still think he’s wrong about the Chinese room argument.”. “The night before he died we shared a grilled cheese sandwich”. “you can tell because i’m wearing my radical tie”. “When the citizenry is well informed”. “the bad thing may be in the news tomorrow do you want to hear from me?”. “the first time he spoke, the audience didn’t get it”. “the thrill of meeting ACTUAL grown-up copy[write] activists”. “i’m not sure you’re right but maybe we can get out of this theorem”. “THERE IS NO NEXT Aaron… ONLY YOU”. “The 5 whys of TM cannot solve… why we call toyota, TM, -our management”. “It’s sort of like having a national park with moats and guns and turrets”. “the revolution will be A/B tested” - Aaron. “What we choose to fight is so tiny / this is how he grows, by being beat constantly by greater beings.”. “stop discouraging bulk downloads”. “the government had copyrighted the copy-right database”. “HEARING THE TRIAL Aaron DIDN’T WAIT for”. “Let computers read”. “I ansewered [sic] a couple questions about it at the end”. “Yes, actually typography”. @DAVIDSMOOKE

I can only ruminate about the meanings behind the scrawlings on this note. So many conversations, experiences and in-jokes condensed into one A4 sheet of paper.

a yellowing A4 page for aaron swartz' memorial

“Suicide is the tragic outcome of a treatable disease that attacks the part of the victim which otherwise would save them; the sense of hope that things will get better”

a yellowing A4 page for aaron swartz' memorial with a drawing of a cat in a flat box next to a candle with a little handle

“Every time a rational altruist dies, the rest of us recieve a piece of his soul.” - Holden Karnofsky,

yellowing paper, memorial document. the poem is decorated with flowers around the text

The fans that keep the internet cool
sing behind the congregation angel wings spinning
maybe angels have to hide
in reformation churches
turned church of internet
the wings of angels keep
the internet cool; wings sing on
over the voices of mourners
mourning in the evening
for suicide heroes and lost youth
aaron never made it to the promised land
so who will be our moses?
infuriating and wrong and brilliant all at the same time
making promises to ghosts
keeping promises to the living
there’s nothing to do for the future
once you are in the past
once you have passed
free speech is free books is free knowledge
is free information
he killed himself for the sorrows of knowledge
incarcerated by dollars
knowledge denied to those without dollars
access to knowledge is a human right
suicide is a human regret :heart:
R.I.P. E.K.Keith

Yellowing memorial page for aaron swartz' memorial

I wish i had talked to him just once. you are so lucky if you did.

Yellowing memorial page for aaron swartz' memorial

Thanks, Aaron.

Yellowing memorial page for aaron swartz' memorial

Ideas never really die.

Yellowing memorial page for aaron swartz' memorial

Thank you for showing us how to care about something more than our paychecks. I just wish it hadn’t come at such a great cost. You are, always will be, my inspiration. - Vivek

Thank you for reading

back home!