Remembering Aaron Swartz
including a review of The Idealist, by Justin Peters
You haven't seen a roomful of students' eyebrows shoot up simultaneously until you begin your CS50 section with a content warning for suicide.
content warning: suicide.
It was the week we were covering web development and walking through a project that had students scraping an RSS feed to extract news stories geotagged as local. It was also Aaron Swartz's birthday.
And so it seemed wrong not to include, in that lesson, some words for the young visionary who was no older than some of my students when he invented the protocol we'd be using that week. It seemed wrong not to take the occasion to remind my students that the things they were learning could be used to literally change the world. And it seemed wrong not to tell the story about how federal prosecutors enforcing unjust laws hounded that young man until he took his own life.
And so I took a few minutes to talk about the activist, hacker, and visionary who invented Rich Site Summary as a way of allowing websites to share their content with the world. I talked a bit about how Aaron's projects -- RSS, Markdown, Creative Commons, Reddit, the anti-SOPA movement -- each drove forward in their own way his vision of an Internet, and a world, built for the creation and exchange of ideas. I talked about how the tools they were learning to use could be used to change the world, given passion and a willingness to bounce back from failure. And I talked about how Aaron's pursuit of a better world led him to cross a line that neither JSTOR nor MIT saw fit to punish him for, but which nevertheless earned him the ire of a federal prosecutor, the choice between accepting a charge that would darken his activism for the rest of his days or a trial that dragged on interminably, and ultimately, drove him to take his own life.
I took ten minutes to tell my students the story of the young man who invented RSS, and then returned to walking them through that week's problem set.
I arrived at Harvard a month or two too late to really understand the hurricane that was already overhead, and even the immediate aftermath played out just as I was finding my perspective and my voice. And I've read Aaron's story before, in blog posts and in the Abelson Report. But this is really the first time that I've dived into the story and the tragedy as deeply as Peters's book goes.
The first half of the book meanders through the history of copyright law (more on that in a bit), but the second half hit me like only a tragedy unfolding in one's hometown can. Aaron gets dinner with his girlfriend at Mary Chung's. Aaron is arrested making the bike ride up Mass Ave from MIT to Central. Aaron takes the train from Penn Station to South Station every two weeks to check in with his bail officer. The owner of the Harvard Bookstore offers to hold a fundraiser to support his defense. I knew that he had downloaded from a closet in a building at MIT, but I hadn't really realized just how much of a through-and-through Cambridge story it was until I had it spelled out like that.
Making the matter even more personal, Peters's book de-mythologizes Swartz, even as it frames the accomplishments of his life. I've read profiles that laid out the things he built, the causes he championed, and his shyness in a crowd. I hadn't read before about his weakness, his at-times crippling anxiety that he was an imposition on the world, or the restlessness that left a string of former project partners holding the bag as Aaron flitted to an endless string of newer passions.
And that makes his story even more painful to read, since it makes it easier to see Aaron, though I've never met him, in the faces of my classmates and friends. His inability to bury his convictions beneath the cynicism and numbness requisite for 'normal human function'; his simultaneously-held confidence in his own ability to change the world and crippling doubt that he would ever have a place in it; the unfiltered passion he could have for things that he saw mattered -- these, more than anything, leave me with the feeling that I might turn a corner at Harvard or MIT and run into Aaron, head down and hurrying on the way from a late-night hackathon to an early start on saving the world. He's been dubbed "The Internet's own boy", but I hadn't realized just how much he was Cambridge's own son.
The last thing that I didn't realize before reading Peters's book is that Aaron's sympathies to the effective altruism movement ran deep. I had read on Wikipedia that he had left a bequest to GiveWell in his will, but I hadn't realized that he'd been volunteering for GiveWell as a sometime researcher and developer. Peters doesn't make a big deal about it, but all of the breadcrumbs are there: If Aaron were alive in 2016, he'd call himself an effective altruist.
If I had the chance to sit down to dinner with three figures from history, I'm not entirely sure who makes the list, but I know for sure that one seat is set for Aaron. I'm cooking my own plans for saving the world (more on that in coming posts), but there's no one, alive or dead, whose brain I'd more like to compare notes with.
I promised a review of The Idealist, so here goes the rest of it.
For all that the human story struck me in a way that only a tragedy in your own (adoptive) hometown can, Peters's book, qua biography, is merely okay. I'm not sure what keeps it from being great -- perhaps the lingering sense that the author regards Aaron's intense inner fire as something understandable but slightly alien, rather than something familiar and entirely relatable. Perhaps it's the off-taste of having my home (and by most measures, my people) described by someone who has never known then and loved them like I have. But whatever the reason, the heart or the shoes, Peters's prose gets the job done (and certainly not without a certain grippingness and finesse), but still feels like it falls slightly short of the scope of the raw material the author is working with.
Nevertheless, The Idealist is a solid read. The first few chapters cover the history of copyright in American law, from its basis in the British Statute of Anne to the CTEA in 1998. It provides a reasonable gloss of the emergence of the Web as a medium of information exchange, and segues rather smoothly into a narration of the rise of the free-content movement. Aaron appears as a young kid eager to contribute, goes on and on, grows into more of a phenomenon, ends up seated at the right hand of the Lessig -- er...anyway.
It's not a complete biography (it excludes, for example, his work on RSS), though it does walk through his childhood; his rocky disillusionment with Stanford; his involvement with Not a Bug, alias Reddit, née Infogami; his first run-in with the law regarding PACER; and, with grinding finality, the set stage that induced him to scrape JSTOR. One thing that Peters does very well (from a certain perspective) is make the entire story feel coherent, logically progressing from cause to inevitable effect, from the Statute of Anne until that fateful day in January 2013. I say "from a certain perspective", because I'm certain the truth isn't quite as clean as Peters presents it. Still, it makes for a smooth, easily digestible read, if not one possessed of a full spectrum of nuance.
As I mentioned earlier, one place where The Idealist does show significant depth is its effort to get inside Aaron's head. It paints a sympathetic picture of a young man, likely recognizable to anyone reading this blog, painfully sensitive to the world and yet uncynically set on changing it for the better. I saw more than a little of myself in Aaron and cheered internally as he began to come out of his shell.
Problems? As I mentioned, there's something off about the prose that's difficult to put my finger on, and at times I thought it'd be nice to have a more even-handed and less streamlined presentation of events. If all you want is a biography of Aaron Swartz, then The Idealist probably has too many chapters on copyright and the history of the Web for you. But on the whole, I was happy to have read the book, despite being left with the impression that there might be another book on Aaron's life that I might potentially have enjoyed more. (If you've got a recommendation, chime in in the comments!)