January 12, 2013

Aaron Swartz

The first time Aaron came to Eastgate, he could barely see over the receptionist’s counter. We’d been exchanging email about the RSS standard for some time; I needed RSS for Tinderbox 1, the standard was bitterly contested, and in the technical flamewar he’d distinguished himself as the voice of reason, of getting the engineering right and ignoring the feuds and fracases.

I had no idea he was 14. When he called to set up a lunch meeting, explaining he was in Boston for a conference, I figured he was a 40-ish software engineer, someone who worked at IBM or DEC.

He was sharp and incisive and impatient. He knew everyone, even then, and was generous with introductions and candid in talking about his colleagues. He had school trouble, as you’d expect, but his parents and his school gave him lots of rein and it worked out pretty well. Instead of a few boring years on the Hellmouth, he spent his time with the stars of the Web. He did what I should have done.

He came to the Turkey Snow Dinner, the outdoor grilled turkey in two feet of Boston snow, the dinner where the Norwegians got their car stuck in the driveway. He’d sent his regrets – he had to catch a plane – but everything was cancelled and so there he was and a good time was had by all.

He had little patience for weakness and less for bugs. He’s one of two people I’ve met who really believed in flawless code, and he was the one who knew what he was doing.

He went to Stanford for a year, spent the summer on an incubator project, then switched to his roommate’s project. That was Reddit. They sold it, he cashed out. He was young and handsome and smart and rich and the world was all before him.

And now it’s not.


People point to the old blog posts about being depressed. But he was 17 then. C’mon.

People point to the JSTOR trial and the fear of prison. And that’s a big deal. But there’s another parallel between us: when I was in my late teens, I spent a fair amount of time thinking about prison. There was a war on, my choices seemed to be jail or exile and I wasn’t sure I was up to jail. A smart Quaker girl at school slapped that down real fast. “Thoreau managed. Ghandi was small and sick. You’ll be fine.” It never came to that – I got my 1-O – but she was not wrong.

No simple answers. A last lesson, I guess, and like most of Aaron’s lessons, perhaps it’ll make some sense later. It doesn’t now.