Remembering Aaron Swartz

Like the rest of the Internet public, I’ve spent the weekend shocked and speechless over the news of Aaron Swartz’s death.  I’m still vacillating between sadness and anger (so this isn’t going to be a very coherent blog post).  My heart goes out to Taren and the Swartz family, I cannot fathom how to cope with something like this.

There are a few things that I do want to say now.

First, on the prosecutors.  I’m glad that Larry Lessig weighed in to discuss the “prosecutor as bully.”  Suicide is never a simple issue, but there’s also no question that what Aaron was enduring amounted to an outright witch hunt.  He was being threatened with 50 years in jail for downloading too many JSTOR articles.  Even on plea bargain, they were still going to call him a felon and require jail time.  As danah boyd put it, this wasn’t about Aaron-as-criminal, it was about sending a message to the entire Cambridge hacker community.

Scott Lemieux has compiled a list of people who were involved in this abuse of justice.  The top of his list includes: U.S. Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz
Special Agent in Charge Steven D. Ricciardi
Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen P. Heymann
Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott L. Garland

These agents of our Democratic Republic pushed a good man to an early grave.  They ought to be drummed out of the positions of power that they have abused, and I promise I will be one of the legions who devote ourselves to making sure that none of these four ever holds elected office of any sort.  There is no room for their sort here.  They have perverted the justice system.  We have quite enough perverts in government already, I think.

In a just world, the only career opportunity left to these four should begin with a life of quiet reflection, followed by a Valjeanesque attempt to make right by their deeds.  Between the four of them, they might one day contribute 1/20th of what Aaron did in his brilliant, flawed, far-too-brief time with us.

Unlike a lot of the tech community, I met Aaron after his child prodigy years had passed.  We first met in 2009, when he was visiting Providence along with the other two founders of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.  I knew him only as an adult.  He was thoughtful and brilliant and occasionally erratic, permanently the smartest person in the room, and struggling with the burden that creates.  While his colleagues both came to technology via politics, Aaron came to politics via technology.  His fluency in both was astounding.

I visited the Berkman Center in October 2010 to give a very early talk on The MoveOn Effect.  Aaron was a Berkman fellow, and I realized at a couple points in the talk that I was basically just repeating back insights that he and his colleagues had shared with me.  We chatted about it afterward and he asked all the right questions, pointing out the flaws in the manuscript that usually require deep examination.  He thought my answers were solid, and was more enthusiastic about the project than he needed to be.  That was around when I recognized that I was ready to turn the dissertation into a book.  I never expressed to him how much his respect meant to me.  That would have been hard to do, but I wish I’d tried.

I saw Aaron again just last Wednesday.  We were at a summit of international MoveOn-like groups together, and only had the chance to talk sporadically.  He had a big new project –machine-learning sentiment analysis for advocacy organizations — and there were some pretty obvious ties to my next book project, on analytics-based advocacy.  The last thing I said to him was “you know we’re gonna have to sit down soon and have a long talk about this stuff, right?”  His response included that impish, eager, enthusiastic grin, “yep, definitely, soon.”

It would have been a really fun conversation for both of us, I think.

We’ll never have that talk now.  He’ll never finish that project.  It’s like an empty, Aaron-shaped hole in what the future of political advocacy could have been.  I’m angry at him for that, and angry at the US Attorneys who hounded him, and angry at all of us in his extended community who wanted to find ways to help him with the legal case but somehow never did, and angry at myself for oversimplifying such a complicated tragedy into such simple, comfortable terms.

But mostly I’m just sad, like all of us.  We lost a friend.  We lost someone who we looked up to.  We lost a colleague and a fellow traveler and a brilliant, erratic, pulsating star.  That’s hard to cope with.