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Reading Everything Aaron Swartz Wrote

A new posthumous collection of Swartz's work shows his range as a scholar and intellectual.

Flickr / Sage Ross

The title of a new posthumous collection of Aaron Swartz’s writing is tricky: The Boy Who Could Change The World. It could refer equally to a boy who changed the world and one who could have but did not. The title doesn’t take a position one way or another, and neither does the book, which is not a biography. With the exception of some short section introductions The Boy is made up of Swartz’s own writing, mostly from his personal blog.

Boy might be a stretch, but Aaron Swartz will always be a young man. As a teenager he helped develop the RSS feed technology that made the rise of blogs possible. Merging a startup with Reddit in 2005 set him up to pursue his interests beyond programming in politics and media. After an unsuccessful foray into Democratic electoral politics, Swartz had his biggest victory when he organized to halt the Stop Online Piracy Act, a Congressional lunge down the slippery slope toward Internet censorship.

Then in 2011, Swartz semi-surreptitiously connected a laptop to a network switch in a MIT closet to mass-download academic papers. When he was found out, the U.S. Attorney charged him under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. In January 2013, after two years of expensive and draining prosecution and with at least some prison time looking inevitable, Swartz hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment. 

I didn’t know Aaron well enough to speculate on how he’d feel about his book, but I knew him well enough that calling him Swartz feels wrong. We hung out maybe a handful of times, he interviewed me for his podcast. When he killed himself I think I felt more grief than I was entitled to, and I tried not to think about him too much. Aaron was so devoted to public service that I found it impossible to separate my personal sense of loss from the collective one. Even though we disagreed about a lot, I still feel like part of the we that was counting on Aaron, at least to be around down the line.

The Boy Who Could Change The World is a hard book to review; I get the sense that’s not what it’s for. Picking apart Aaron’s thinking about the media or money in politics feels ugly, like criticizing the flowers at a wake. Instead of arranging the writing chronologically, or even chronologically within its thematic sections (free culture, computers, politics, media, books and culture, and unschool), The Boy’s editor has made the perplexing choice to fragment and scatter Swartz’s intellectual path. Skipping from Swartz as a 14-year-old to 21 to 17 makes it hard to track what ideas he’s absorbing and what he’s leaving behind. The collection doesn’t present Swartz as a thinker whose evolution is important for the rest of us to understand; it’s an elegiac project about a young man who had a good heart, unlimited potential, and wanted to help people. Except for the occasional reference to David Foster Wallace’s suicide a few years before Aaron’s, a reader who picked up the book might wonder what happened to him. 

The New Press, 256 pp., $17.95

I wish that the collection had begun with its final section on “unschooling.” It includes Aaron’s writing from age 14 when he’s coming to the decision to abandon high school for autodidacticism as well as a lecture from a decade later titled simply “School” that more than any piece in the book displays Aaron’s abilities as a scholar and intellectual. The volume is a diary of Aaron’s self-education; you can see his brain move. From adolescence Aaron defiantly took the reigns of his own education, and the results are impressive as well as characteristically charming. An encounter with a Noam Chomsky documentary on Netflix throws him for a loop, Foster Wallace’s self-conscious footnotes self-consciously find their way into Aaron’s blog posts. Trying to find a way to put his talents to work improving the world was, for Aaron, a vital component of his self-education.

I think one of the reasons Aaron seems permanently boyish is that he was so open and enthusiastic about learning in a way that adults—including and perhaps especially so-called learned adults—rarely are. He was constitutionally open to new information, facts he hadn’t heard and angles he hadn’t thought of. Aaron’s education was closer to what the Greeks called paideia—the formation of attention, the education of a citizen—than the modern version most of us get. With his exceptional programming skills to trade and a screen he felt comfortable behind, Aaron could follow his passions and interests. He befriended historian Rick Perlstein by emailing him out of the blue with an offer for a free website. 

Coming of age during the Bush Administration’s war on reason, science, and logic, Aaron found refuge in empirical Truth. “Truth is independent of our beliefs,” he writes in a 2006 blog post, “no less than any other partisans, centrists ignore evidence in favor of their predetermined ideology.” Liberals were right, conservatives were wrong, and that the latter were in charge was a symptom of dysfunction. The people were being misled. At times he thought public access to information was of greatest importance, so he ran an unsuccessful populist campaign for a spot on the Wikimedia Foundation’s Board of Trustees. Afterwards, he continued working to increase the body of public information, finding clever workarounds to provide Library of Congress and federal court documents without unnecessary fees.

Publicizing public information suited Aaron’s talents. It was a sort of hacking, but where the law is not something to dodge but another system with vulnerabilities and loopholes. Aaron’s imagination and attention to detail made him excellent at it, but his ambition wouldn’t let him rest of his laurels. Providing access to information wouldn’t be enough to combat the right-wing conspiracy of lies. He tried aggregating politician data, then trying to elect progressive candidates directly, but neither worked very well. At one point he even toyed with the idea of finding bankrollers for a vast left-wing conspiracy. But failure, for Aaron, was a necessary part of trying, which was the only way to learn.

His prosecutors claimed Aaron was downloading academic papers files to release them publicly, a tactic that’s advocated in the Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto, a rousing piece in the collection that’s uncertainly credited to Aaron—the editor suggests it might be the work of multiple authors, which sounds plausible to me. Based on what I know about Aaron, I don’t think that was his intention. I suspect he planned to release only the public-domain work that was being improperly kept behind a paywall. I don’t think he intended to break the law, I think he meant to skirt it. I think he believed that mattered.

In a way, Aaron is a cautionary tale for unschooling. One of the lessons that school teaches is that the people who make the rules don’t really have to follow them. It’s something even the most rebellious students learn one way or another, but Aaron looked up a different set of rules and hacked his way out of school instead. On one hand Aaron was happy with his choice and felt more engaged and happier with online peers, on the other he absorbed a dangerous lesson about navigating bureaucratic systems. Plenty of legal scholars and technology experts thought Aaron had kept on the right side of the letter of the law, but the criminal justice system is resistant to the kind of hacking he tended to practice. I don’t know if he considered fleeing the country, but I doubt it. Maybe if he had lived to see Edward Snowden make dodging extradition look good, things would have been different.

I was surprised when I saw the security footage of Aaron entering the MIT building, his bike helmet held half-heartedly in front of his face, his telltale hair poking out the sides. I had read the Manifesto, but I didn’t think it really reflected Aaron’s intentions. I was worried about what could happen to him, but not that worried. I figured he had enough institutional support to keep his punishment to a slap on the wrist. Mostly I was angry that he hadn’t taken what he was doing seriously enough; with a team and a little bit of planning, there’s no reason the authorities should have been able to tie Aaron to the action. But covert ops wasn’t one of his strengths, and he never got the chance to learn.

If I’m part of the we that counted on Aaron, then I’m also part of the we that failed him. I thought his connections and credibility and reputation would keep him safe, and maybe he did too. Maybe we convinced him that a boy like him could change the world, or at least always hack an escape route. But there’s no individual who can’t be picked off if they cross the wrong line, or just the wrong prosecutor.

When I saw Lawrence Lessig—Aaron’s close friend, mentor, a respected lawyer and Harvard professor—distance himself from Aaron’s actions after his death, I was furious. In a blog post denouncing Aaron’s prosecutor Carmen Ortiz (whom he somehow neglects to name), Lessig took care to preface himself by saying

if what the government alleged was true then what he did was wrong. And if not legally wrong, then at least morally wrong. The causes that Aaron fought for are my causes too. But as much as I respect those who disagree with me about this, these means are not mine.

It was cowardly, disrespectful, and it isolated Aaron again in death. He was The Boy, a tragic waste, not a murdered comrade or a martyr. Saying he was misguided served as an excuse for not being at his side.

In the book’s postscript, Aaron meditates in a short blog post written when he was 19 about what it means to leave a legacy. Inventing things works, but he wanted more than to be in-sync with the ideas of his time. Even Supreme Court justices are gears in a machine that functions in predictable ways. One way to make a real impact is, he writes, “trying to do things that change the system instead of following it.” Aaron was so earnest he didn’t realize he was determined to walk into a knife fight, and so impressive the rest of us didn’t think he could lose. We were all wrong. It’s a costly lesson to learn.