The death of Aaron Swartz marks the end of an era — an era that had been slowly fading away until his passing gave it a terrible, sudden finality.
We rarely speak of that era now, because it is still so fresh in the memory of some us, while others don’t remember it at all. It was an exciting time to be alive: the Internet was connecting everyone, everywhere, for the first time. Antiquated browsers like mosaic were giving way to newer software which made the impossible possible: people could look at pictures over the Internet. Text was still king, usenet was still thriving, but the possibilities seemed limitless. If you have a technical question, you could find the answer online, without asking anyone about it. Wikipedia was a place where massive flamewars raged across talk pages, carefully crafted entries were replaced by the word ‘boobies’, and a random passerby might start a page on France because nobody had written anything about that yet. People were ambivalent about the introduction of the .com domain and what it might mean for the web. There were rumors that Steve Jobs might return to Apple. No one understood Netflix’s business model — they’d give you three CDs you could keep as long as you wanted, but they still charged you every month? Friends asked each other whether Amazon actually sent the books you ordered or if the site was just a giant scam. How did you know that they wouldn’t just use you credit card once they had it? Cell phones were shrinking in size and some, it was rumored, had a special mechanism to send messages to one another, a protocol somewhere between email and IRC. ‘Doing research on the Internet’ meant being familiar with the subject hierarchy at Yahoo. If you wanted an email address, you installed sendmail on the computer in your office and give yourself your own email address — your university didn’t offer it. Today, if you ask the Internet a question there is one right answer, fifteen wrong answers, and seven mediocre answers hidden behind ads and mandatory email registration. It was a simpler, more ambitious era.
Back then, people were putting information on the Internet in case anyone was curious. The blogosphere was small, your site had to be rebuilt every time you posted an entry, and people read and talked about each other’s posts. Unkempt, acronym’d heroes like ESR and RMS became famous not just for their software, but for analyzing society as if it were software. No one was sure whether this was the end or the beginning of capitalism, but we knew that the old guard was out to stop us. There was an endless amount of low-hanging fruit to be plucked, an infinite number of ways to make the world a better place. All that was needed was elbow grease.
Aaron Swartz was literally the poster boy for this movement. He was the kid who was smarter than he had any right to be leading a cultural movement full of people who had been kids smarted than they had any right to be. He wrote vulnerable, naive, scandalously unwise blog posts at a time when people regularly blogged their breakups and hookups because they figured no one would find the blog, or be able to identify the author if they did. He was brilliant but uncredentialed, the ultimate triumph of substance over hierarchical authority. Today, the word ‘geek’ means “I play video games when its not football season”. Today it is difficult to imagine the original, Aaron Swartz meaning of the term — obese, deeply unkempt men desperate to meet girls but scarily incompetent at face to face interaction, people who refused to trim their mustache no matter how far it extended over their lip. These were the people who, somehow and for some reason, were going to change the world.
I wanted to be one of those people but never was — I was an extrovert who specialized in typos, the two things that disbarred you from membership in the coding crowd. I never met Aaron Swartz or, frankly, followed his career that closely. Leaking PDFs from JSTOR didn’t seem to me like necessarily the right thing to do — and certainly not the smartest. The prosecution and suicide of Aaron Swartz shows us just how far we’ve come from the era when a teenager could design RSS. It reminds us that there are real, serious stakes to our fight to make the world a better place by making information free. And it underscores the fact that those who want to stop us are brutal, greedy, and stupid. May his memory be a blessing.