From my friends in the tech world I have over the years heard about someone I hadn't ever met, Aaron Swartz. I feel as if I had been hearing about him forever, but it couldn't have been all that long, since Swartz was only 26 years old when he killed himself yesterday in New York. But starting at age 14, Swartz had won a large number of friends, admirers, followers, and mentors, plus a small but important number of enemies, through his combination of tech-world virtuosity and expansive civic and social imagination.
When we think of someone who at age 14 is already making important coding contributions, as Swartz did, we often think of someone who has offsetting social or temperamental limitations. And indeed in his late teens Swartz had written about emotional problems and depression; I don't know where this fell on the spectrum between a real medical issue and the strain many people feel at that stage of life. But if you watch even a few minutes of his address at the Freedom to Connect conference less than a year ago, in the clip below, you'll have a sense of the maturity and winningness of his explanation of technological, social, and governmental issues, and their interaction.
Cory Doctorow posted that video as part of an appreciation of Swartz early this morning. I urge you as strongly as possibe to read Doctorow's full description of why he felt so close to and protective of Swartz, and will miss him so much.
There is a clear political aspect to Swartz's story as well, which Cory Doctorow explains carefully and well, and about which I am sure we'll hear more. Swartz was a strong and effective advocate of the untrammeled flow of information and knowledge in all directions, and vigilance against control or de-facto censorship efforts by corporate or governmental interests. This ranged from his efforts on the "Stop SOPA" campaign a year ago, which pitted much of the online/tech world against (mainly) the Hollywood interests trying to extend copyright in new ways, to the incident that got him in serious legal trouble and caused disagreements with some of his friends, the JSTOR case. You can read more about the merits of that issue from Doctorow (and from Lawrence Lessig, at the time, and here, here, and here) and the many others who I am sure will be sharing remembrances of Swartz soon. (His own website is here. Two early tributes by friends are here and here and here.)
I am sorry for whatever pains led Swartz to end his life, and sorry for his family. He had a big effect in a very brief time, and I look forward to hearing more from people who knew him.
James Fallows is a staff writer for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. He and his wife, Deborah Fallows, are the authors of the new book Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America, which has been a New York Times best seller and is the basis of a forthcoming HBO documentary.