Remembering Aaron Swartz


First off, please be forewarned that the following post covers a “heavier” subject than you might be used to seeing here.

If you are at all even tangentially interested in this subject, you have probably already heard the news that on January 11th, 2013, Aaron Swartz (of RSS, Reddit, web.py and so much more) took his own life.

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For well over a year, Aaron had been the subject of a long investigation (some called it a witch-hunt) by the federal authorities for his involvement in the scraping of JSTOR articles from an MIT computer lab.

In July 2011, Aaron was indicted by a federal grand jury for wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer and recklessly damaging a protected computer. There is unending speculation about the validity of these charges, the appropriateness of the grand jury’s investigation, the reasons why the feds took such an interest in a seemingly innocuous act, and the reasons for Aaron taking his own life.

However, I have no interest in trying to hash out the feds’ reasons for prosecuting Aaron here, and I have formed my own opinions on the matter (I humbly suggest you do the same). I also don’t feel it appropriate to speculate on the motivations Aaron may have had for taking his own life. The purpose of this post is to hopefully help honor Aaron’s legacy.

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Aaron, at age 15, with Lawrence Lessig at the Creative Commons launch.

Aaron was only 26 when he ended his life, and any way you look at it, the brevity of this brilliant young man’s life is tragic. For us here at SparkFun, the news of Aaron’s death hit home. Aaron’s influence in the digital world is far-reaching and profound. As I type this, I am using John Gruber’s Markdown, a lightweight markup language he influenced considerably. Aaron was heavily involved in standards efforts like RSS 1.0 at the age of 14. He helped define Creative Commons, a licensing scheme we use for much of what we publish. His involvement in the early days of reddit is well-documented, and he was a major player in last year’s fight against SOPA.

Although Aaron’s actions relating to JSTOR weren’t legal, they also weren’t malicious. Aaron believed that information should be free, especially the potentially beneficial lab studies locked away in JSTOR’s proprietary system (including a large catalog that were publicly funded in the first place). Aaron didn’t do it for fame or profit, but to share knowledge with others. We at SparkFun find that idea aligns closely with our own beliefs in open source. Furthermore, anyone who knew Aaron personally will speak about his kindness, openness, and willingness to help others. He was, by all accounts, a very good person. His unique type of innovative intelligence comes along very rarely, and to see his brilliant light snuffed out so quickly is very sad indeed.

The good news in all this is that Aaron’s influence and legacy remain intact. His contributions have led to great leaps in programming, development, and more. Recently, some friends of Aaron’s partner, Taren Stinebricker-Kaufmann, have put together a fund to help her through this difficult time. Today, we would like to encourage you to donate. This video is the footage of Taren’s eulogy at Aaron’s memorial. It’s a worthy watch:

Please donate if you have the means. I would also feel remiss if I didn’t at least take this opportunity to say that if you are dealing with depression or having thoughts of suicide, remember there are always other options. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a great resource. Thanks for reading.


Comments 34 comments

  • It is sad to see such smart young people do such stupid things because a force much greater than them pushes them to a point where they don’t know where to turn.

    I have had friends commit suicide before, and it really doesn’t hit hard until you realize the potential they had in this world, and Aaron is no exception to it. He had done more for this world in his short life span than I ever will, and I strive to do similar things he did.

    May this be a lesson to all, especially to the younger generation, treat each other with kindness, help each other out when possible, and strive for excellence in whatever you want to do.

  • The criminal “justice” system is a black hole that when you are on the outside you can’t see in, and when you are sucked into it, you can never get out. Just being charged ruins you, regardless of whether you are eventually plead or convicted.

  • aaronsw was an extraordinary individual. He had the smarts and the energy to be involved in a really staggering number of projects, and he seems to have known (and worked or argued with) half of the people who are names in the technical-political community of the web. I never knew him, but I knew of him for years, in the way you know about people who are movers in the bigger scene. I believe in a lot of the causes he made his own.

    While Aaron was an exceptional person with important friends, his case deserves our ongoing attention in part because it’s not actually that exceptional. Overzealous, example-setting prosecution and harassment by law enforcement agencies for alleged crimes on the network has been all too common for decades now. Like Emcee Grady, I’d encourage people to do the reading and draw their own conclusions here, but I’ve come to believe there’s a desperate need for reform.

    The EFF has a good write up about this, and it looks like some progress is being made on introducing legislation that could make a difference.

    • You said it, we have a very powerful federal government with many, many overzealous law enforcement agencies. Since 2001, things have been getting much worse every year. Despite what the EFF might think, I don’t believe that some special case new laws will fix anything, probably just make it worse.

  • There were already too few people like Aaron in the world. He will be missed.

  • Believing that information should be free was common among the earliest hackers in the Bay Area Home Brew Computer Club and liberating information was a goal for those like Capt'n Crunch (who also would call me at 2 AM if he thought there was a bug in my Forth compiler, which there wasn’t, and probably called from Hawaii for free using one of his whistles). Jobs and Wozniak had a brush with the FBI over Blue Boxes.

    But the crux is that the idea is morally and rationally wrong. It takes work to lessen entropy. If your output is information instead of bricks, it should be given away? Work takes time, a portion of your limited time alive. How many hundreds or thousands of man years of life are represented by such a large collection of individual works as were “scraped” in this case? (I can’t see any relation to Open Source, which is voluntary and which I endorse.)

    There is a persistent thread of this information-is-special idea, like the persistent thread of ideal Marxism that runs with youth, that continues in the computing world. It ignores the individual for some ideal of the greater good, like maybe Mahmoud Ahmadinejad creating nuclear weapons and missiles to fly them from internet sources. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle, but you can think about who spent a portion of their life’s work discovering and creating information and whether by its very existence, you have a right to it.

    Yes, the Feds pressed this one very hard. Were they justified? It depends on the value of the stolen material and the income it produced and the research the income supported and the whole chain of obligations such a collection entails. I suspect the final outcome would have been probation.

    Aside from this death inviting a look at the ethical basis of some widely held beliefs, the real topic should be depression. I have known many like Mr. Swartz, depression and all. Those who have never had serious depression have a very hard time even understanding what it is and I would wish it on no one. Many of the best medications have a pronounced negative effects on short term memory and focus and it is tempting to cut back or skip all together. Those out on the end of the intelligence distribution seem especially susceptible. The insidious part is that the person can be seized by the depression without seeing it coming and suddenly the future is only darkness and teeth grinding despair. Without a voice saying things will be different in a week, a day, an hour, 10 minutes, in a flash of “insight” the way out seems so obvious.

    Learn the signs and be there – all the time if necessary.

    • But academic research has already been bought and paid for, much of the time by the public. Grant’s from NSF, NIH etc fund that research (in the USA). The only one who makes money from the papers are the paper publishers.

      As a grad student, I actually have to pay the conferences and journals to publish my work (a requirement of being a grad student is to publish or GTFO). So no, the researchers who do the work were not the ones who lost out on money here, they still got paid for the work, long before it was published.

      • No need to get into basic economics here, but your own statement “As a grad student, I actually have to pay the conferences and journals to publish my work (a requirement of being a grad student is to publish or GTFO).” says you also gain from your work by staying in school. Others gain through advancement, promotion, or prestige if they find that valuable. Why would you be in school if you don;t expect a net gain in terms of somethign that you value? And how do you apply for the grant money or private support (My business supports grad students and post docs working in AI and networking. The government doesn’t pay for everything)? What do you show as evidence of ability? Are you really comfortable saying the value of research is entirely in it’s dollar cost? Do you think Hemingway cheated by accepting more for his work than the cost of the paper and typewriter ribbons? Do I detect a whiff of that idealized Marxism that is so attractive to academics?

        As for bought and paid for, if you consider your LA/TA fees sufficient compensation for your life’s work, then why the need to publish? Chase down vacuum leaks in your adviser’s equipment for the rest of your career.

        Would you say the same thing about the war in Afghanistan? The planes and helicopters and tanks, and bombs were paid for long ago. Much of it over 40 years ago. Why, it must be practically free at this point.

        • You’re really off on a tangent, yes intellectual and creative people should be compensated for their work like everyone else. However, academic journals don’t exist as a compensation mechanism for scientists and other academics.

          Instead, they exist to allow peer-review, dissemination, retention of the information that is the product of academic work. The money they and collective repositories of journals (like JSTOR) charge goes towards the costs of storing and handling the information. For a long time the most effective way to do this was based on paper volumes that have non-trivial creation (printing), dissemination (postal or other shipment), and storage costs for copies of these volumes (in terms of the real estate and multiple archivists to look after and work with volumes). In the last few decades though, digital technology and specifically computer networks have drastically reduced the costs of all three activities. Arguably the first two can be almost negligible and the last one is still significant but much lower on a cost per unit of information than with physical volumes, even with huge collections of information. As a result the access-based old payment structures should at least be re-evaluated and updated.

          By the way, JSTOR specifically is already allowing free access to many public domain documents in it’s archives…

          • So, I guess you are saying writers do not need to list their publications and citations when applying for jobs or research funding. The publications are just for sharing information and have no other value. This is quite the opposite of my own experience and that of my peers. My experience is that the publications exists so that people can publish and get the benefits of having published work, which are many and varied.

            • No I’m not stating that at all, if anything the opposite!

              Look I’m not a scientist, but I am an engineer that works both with and for scientists. That means I’m well aware that articles and other documents can be very valuable to furthering a scientific or academic career. However, I’m also well aware that the value of a given document depends on factors like has it been peer-reviewed or independently verified, and how widely known and respected (usually measured by number of citations in other papers) it is. You’ll notice that all of these measures of value absolutely depend upon some level of sharing, at least between professionals of the same discipline. You can’t peer-review or verify the information within a document you’ve never read, and you can’t cite a paper you don’t know exists! So in a very real sense the professional value of such a document is to a great extent proportional to how widely it’s available.

              Now in the 19th and the majority 20th centuries publishing, as in printing and physically distributing copies of research papers in specific journals, was an effective and probably the most efficient way for a scientist or academic to enable their fellows to read, verify, and use their work. However, as stated in my original reply that process had to be paid for and over time system evolved using restricted access based on payment to fund it. Technological developments have allowed faster and less expensive methods to achieve the same results. Therefore, the traditional structures and payment models should be adapted to the new reality.

            • I think you’re really missing the boat here. Your tanks and planes example is so far from a good comparison. I’m really baffled you view work as being “destroyed” (the point I think you’re trying to make with the tanks) once other people are allowed to see it free of cost.

              To address your final point, yes, it is still important to cite work that we (and others) have done. How does having this information freely available make this different? Do you think things only have value if someone continues to pay for them?

            • So, I guess you are saying writers do not need to list their publications and citations when applying for jobs or research funding.

              Without coming down too hard here, it doesn’t seem like you’re making a good faith effort to understand the motivations and values of either the open access movement or the voices of people in academia who believe there’s an access problem for the body of (publicly funded) knowledge currently mostly available through systems like JSTOR.

              If you really want to engage with the topic, that’s great. If you just want to ax-grind about perceived ideological deficiencies and have arguments-for-the-sake-of-argument, please don’t do that here.

              • I understand the nature of JSTOR and that in general it is a rip-off. The publicly funded angle doesn’t have any meaning since the courts have decided researchers at NASA and other government labs can patent and copyright work that we pay for. If you are saying go against the courts and break the law to distribute information - even massive amounts of information you have no need for personally - then say so. Some will call you a hero, others will clap you in irons. I’m suggesting a closer look at which one is right and on what grounds one would lay claim to the life’s work of another. Why do some people think it is theft? Why do some think it is justified? What if it was Richard Branson’s Virgin Records archive?

  • Here is his Guerilla Open Access Manifesto. Worth reading in a time where the law is increasingly used as a tool to suppress dissent and the conflict between influential patent/copyright holders and public interest is on a collision course.

  • Truly brilliant people are so often endangered by suicide. All the questions behind life and its living are so vast as to be confounding to those who are blessed with such a powerful ability to sort out other problems.

    There’s not an easy answer here, and while there are plenty of bad guys to point the finger at in this case, it is among a super-set of tragic losses of brilliant people by their own hands.

    I am touched by Emcee’s post; it is respectful, kind, and devoid of surplus agenda that could so easily slip in. I would like to re-double his last thoughts, and ask that we keep our eyes open for the signs of depression among our community and loved ones, and to be as obvious an ally as we can to those who may need us.

    And please take special care of those who push so hard to explore the limits of their ability to advance the human experience, they often do so at great risk to themselves.

  • Aaron had an influence on my career choice to go into open source hardware. He and I worked together for a short time trying to get a couple libraries to give their metadata records (book titles, author names, # of pages, illustrations, etc.) to the open library project. We were met with librarians that believed hoarding their metadata would be better off for their branch, and couldn’t see the benefit of sharing data that everyone was buying from OCLC or recreating themselves - over and over and over again… It was during this project I realized that many libraries (not all!) and librarians (not all!) had forgotten their job was bringing freedom of information to the people. So I moved on to a field that I felt understood freedom of information in a more applicable way - open source hardware and software. I’d probably be a librarian right now if Aaron hadn’t happened into my life, and I have to say, Aaron Swartz is regarded as the best librarian there ever was in my eyes.

    Are there any Memorial hackathons happening in the Boulder/Denver area? It breaks my heart that I haven’t been able to make it to any out of state.

  • I would like to say that he is a sad loss to the community. I wish the best to the family and friends of this great individual.

    To see someone take up programming and electronics at 14 is truly exceptional. This man was destine to do great things, but sadly we never will see them happen. I know from a personal experience, while this may not be the reason for Mr.Swartz' actions, I have found that in an environment of a school, having an exceptional ability in programming or electronics can be very depressing. I attend a high state ranking high school in which a good percentage of the graduate class goes to a 4-year college. In my math class, it is quite daunting for others to see me programming my calculator like it is my second language, when they themselves do not understand how to assign a value to a variable. This causes natural disconnect, and if a serious enough situation, the majority of the peers do not understand you, your thoughts and how you talk become a foreign language itself. Programming makes an individual think differently. You no longer see computers as boxes with magic in them. Instead, I can inform someone very fully about how a computer operates, from the raw circuitry, digital buses, memory, to the OS, to front level applications. This has been my thoughts on programming and electronics, while not necessarily positive from a social standpoint, has given me a terrific hobby and possibly a future profession, as well as something to keep my mind from wandering to things like depression.

    To be completely honest, I have never heard of Aaron before this article. He seemed like he was a very good tinkerer. It would have been terrific to meet him.

    It is easy to forget when thinking about this event that the mind of a person like Aaron is not the same as a regular person, not even remotely close. In order to think like Aaron, or even in my mind, a programmer, one must have a mind that is trained very differently, in that the problem solving and critical thinking is greatly enhanced. This ability is both a gift and a burden. Whenever I talk to people with no background in programming, they do not follow what I say. Yet at the same time, I can program things with relative ease.

    I feel like my thoughts are simply going in circles and making no sense, so I’m going to post this and see what you all think.

    • I don’t know how much your situation applies to Aaron’s but it is evident that his applies to yours, and because you are reaching out, I will see if I can answer you.

      It can be an isolating world, but there are a lot of people you can talk to online, and in time you will find them nearby as well, especially in college and career. Build a support system. The root of the word passion is greek for suffering. It’s hard to have the things that mean so much to you, the things that are worth suffering for, be relegated to technobabble by those who don’t understand you. But this is true of so many kinds of passion that you may be more similar to those outside of your particular interests and abilities than you realize. But when that’s not enough, look to communities like this - we are probably here for many of the same reasons you are.

  • Aaron was 26. If he got out of jail after serving 35 years, he would have been 61 years old plus a year or two that it took for the case to come to trial. If the average life span is 78.2 years, Aaron would have had 17.2 years left if he survived being in prison.

    Did Aaron have to be depressed to kill himself?

    “Research shows those who are bullied have a higher probability of considering or performing suicide than those who are not.[5]” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bullycide

    There were people who were cyber bullied like Megan Meier who saw a psychiatrist since she was in the third grade:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suicide_of_Megan_Meier

    There was the suicide of Tyler Clementi who comitted suicide after being videotaped having sex with another man:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suicide_of_Tyler_Clementi

    I looked through the web at people who were bullied and a lot of them killed themselves:

    http://www.independent.ie/national-news/video-irish-children-suffer-effects-of-bullying-more-than-eu-counterparts-3377119.html

    You can all conduct your own research but to blame Aaron for being depressed isn’t research because there is ample evidence that bullied people harm themselves and the prosecutors in this case should go to jail for bullying for using cruel and unusual punishment with prison terms that don’t fit the crime. I guess you can say the prosecutors did their job here.

    • While I don’t think many here are blaming Aaron for being depressed. Yet, The discussion on depression here has stemmed from the suicide component and carries with it assumptions that you are right to point out. However, it would seem that there is something more to a somewhat sudden capitulation from someone who seems to be known for engaging this kind of enemy with optimism and ambition.

      Whether it was clinical depression, a sudden shift in perspective, just too much pressure, or something else, there was a point where suicide looked like the best option. Its hard to say what additional support from his friends and family could have saved Aaron’s life, because he seemed very well supported. Never the less, we can find some value in such a tragedy as a reminder of how valuable a single person can be, and how very fragile even such an energetic and productive young mind can be.

      When we are faced with sad events such as this, it is easy and perhaps beneficial for us to resonate with different, even tangental, aspects of the facts before us. The eulogy given by Taren so perfectly grabs this empathetic energy in her call to action, that whatever we take from this and other such tragedies that we endeavor to do more that is important.

      I think we can really get behind that.

  • I feel Aaron’s loss also, and am very moved by Taren’s eulogy.

  • I love how SparkFun really cares about people like Aaron, I like how SparkFun continues to show that they care about the world more than their profits. Profits should always be a side effect.

  • Those feels. Great article, many well said points. Good job, SparkFun, makes me proud to live in the same state as you awesome guys.

  • Word to the suicidal: Just because it’s raining today doesn’t mean it will rain tomorrow and it can’t rain all the time. Don’t be a punk and wimp out and is this the way you want to be remembered?

    Plus, he just let all his enemies win and saved the government a ton of money. The people who were after him should be throwing a party.

    And remember, if you’re going be an activist then don’t expect the government to be nice and easy on you. It’s cool that you are, but the activist profession is a long, hard and rocky road.

    Lastly, be aware that the government and people have been known to kill activists.

    • Don’t underestimate the power of clinical depression. It’s an insidious disease which makes you your own worst enemy; strength or wimpiness have little to do with it. Help is always available, the above hotline is an excellent resource and not just for suicide.

      • Seconded, as a sufferer and a friend and father of other sufferers. Depression can render a standard list of rebuttals completely meaningless, in even the most logically rigorous individuals. Insidious is a perfect way to describe it.

        • I’m a fellow sufferer of depression too. I tried therapy, medication and it didn’t help and made it worse. You have to realize you are not weak and you do have the ability to beat it. What did it was just finding the courage, will and the want to live.

          Junior in Platoon said it best: “Set your mind free and your ass will follow!” Funny but very true.

          • Each person’s battle is their own. My own solutions have largely followed your prescriptions, even if a bit more nuance is needed to deal with the challenges my condition often presents my family and friends.

            However: the “courage, will and want to live” are all things predicated on a certain valuation and concept of life itself, as well as of the human condition. Those who are apt to question such premises / foundations, and afflicted with depression quickly find themselves in a dangerous position.

            Put another way, what gives one moral fortitude now may fail or change later on; its important to build a defense that is diverse and anti-fragile, and to help those around us to do the same.

            Furthermore, I can not caution strongly enough against associating susceptibility to depression with any kind of weakness or failure in it’s sufferers. The last thing anyone struggling with depression needs is further accusations of helplessness, hopelessness or intrinsic flaw.

            Clinical depression happens in the mind, and is so often viewed by its victims as a character flaw, often with only one ultimate solution. This is not the case however, and I do not think anyone here wishes the tiniest fraction of culpability for the results of such a line of thought.

          • I certainly respect your position, but I don’t think there is any blanket way to address mental health issues. Saying “You have to realize you are not weak” sounds like it was a great approach for you - and I’m glad it was. But mental health is such a tricky and sensitive issue - no two cases are alike. What was a great and helpful approach for you might be horribly wrong for the next person. It all just really depends.

            What is worth knowing is there are always other options. Always. And help is available to those that are having a tough time.

          • Per Brennen’s comment above, we shouldn’t forget the astounding pressure this young man was under, and that if convicted the proposed sentence and/or fine would have effectively ended his personal and professional life. That’s a horrible thing for anyone to have to face, especially someone who loved his calling as much as Aaron clearly did. The addition of any level of depression is an even worse tragedy waiting to happen.


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