Aaron Swartz, tech prodigy was 26

aaron-swartz-boingboing.jpgAaron Swartz, who as a teenager helped create RSS, then went on to become a folk hero for Internet users who believe information should be free online, was found hanged in his New York City apartment. He had faced a federal trial on charges of wire fraud and computer fraud in connection with the downloading of millions of documents from JSTOR, a subscription-only service for distributing scientific and literary journals. From the New York Times:

“Aaron built surprising new things that changed the flow of information around the world,” said Susan Crawford, a professor at the Cardozo School of Law in New York who served in the Obama administration as a technology adviser. She called Mr. Swartz “a complicated prodigy” and said “graybeards approached him with awe.”

[Uncle Michael] Wolf said he would remember his nephew, who had written in the past about battling depression and suicidal thoughts, as a young man who “looked at the world, and had a certain logic in his brain, and the world didn’t necessarily fit in with that logic, and that was sometimes difficult.”

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Recent years had been hard for Mr. Swartz, Ms. [Quinn] Norton said, and she characterized him “in turns tough and delicate.” He had “struggled with chronic, painful illness as well as depression,” she said, without specifying the illness, but he was still hopeful “at least about the world.”

At the Los Angeles-based BoingBoing.net, Norton talks about her love for Swartz, and digital technology voices such as Larry Lessig and Cory Doctorow vent about his death. Lessig:

He was brilliant, and funny. A kid genius. A soul, a conscience, the source of a question I have asked myself a million times: What would Aaron think? That person is gone today, driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying. I get wrong. But I also get proportionality. And if you don’t get both, you don’t deserve to have the power of the United States government behind you.

Doctorow introduced his post: "To the extent possible under law, Cory Doctorow has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights to 'RIP, Aaron Swartz.'" A sample:

I met Aaron when he was 14 or 15. He was working on XML stuff (he co-wrote the RSS specification when he was 14) and came to San Francisco often, and would stay with Lisa Rein, a friend of mine who was also an XML person and who took care of him and assured his parents he had adult supervision. In so many ways, he was an adult, even then, with a kind of intense, fast intellect that really made me feel like he was part and parcel of the Internet society, like he belonged in the place where your thoughts are what matter, and not who you are or how old you are.


But he was also unmistakably a kid then, too. He would only eat white food. We'd go to a Chinese restaurant and he'd order steamed rice. I suggested that he might be a supertaster and told him how to check it out, and he did, and decided that he was. We had a good talk about the stomach problems he faced and about how he would need to be careful because supertasters have a tendency to avoid "bitter" vegetables and end up deficient in fibre and vitamins. He immediately researched the hell out of the subject, figured out a strategy for eating better, and sorted it. The next time I saw him (in Chicago, where he lived -- he took the El a long way from the suburbs to sit down and chat with me about distributed hash caching), he had a whole program in place.

I introduced him to Larry Lessig, and he was active in the original Creative Commons technical team, and became very involved in technology-freedom issues. Aaron had powerful, deeply felt ideals, but he was also always an impressionable young man, someone who often found himself moved by new passions. He always seemed somehow in search of mentors, and none of those mentors ever seemed to match the impossible standards he held them (and himself) to.

This was cause for real pain and distress for Aaron, and it was the root of his really unfortunate pattern of making high-profile, public denunciations of his friends and mentors. And it's a testament to Aaron's intellect, heart, and friendship that he was always forgiven for this.



More by Kevin Roderick:
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