On Friday, the 26-year-old polymath Aaron Swartz was found dead in his apartment, the result of an apparent suicide. Swartz contributed his intellect and effort to an astonishing number of technologies and political causes, including collaborating on Reddit’s early development.
At the age of 14, Swartz co-authored the 1.0 version of the RSS specification, enabling millions of news sites and blogs to share their posts easily and consistently.
Swartz was deeply involved in the development of the Creative Commons copyright alternative licenses, and founded DemandProgress.org to help defeat the legislative overreach of the proposed SOPA law.
Prior to his death, Swartz was facing fines and a possible lengthy prison term if convicted on charges that he illicitly downloaded huge quantities of journal entries from the non-profit JSTOR archive via a laptop stashed in an MIT closet. JSTOR had declined to press charges, but MIT and the Massachusetts prosecutor on the case did not follow its example. Swartz also acknowledged suffering from depression at times.
Cory Doctorow has posted his remembrance of Swartz to Boing Boing, which we excerpt here:
Aaron accomplished some incredible things in his life. He was one of the early builders of Reddit (someone always turns up to point out that he was technically not a co-founder, but he was close enough as makes no damn), got bought by Wired/Conde Nast, engineered his own dismissal and got cashed out, and then became a full-time, uncompromising, reckless and delightful shit-disturber.
The post-Reddit era in Aaron’s life was really his coming of age. His stunts were breathtaking. At one point, he singlehandedly liberated 20 percent of US law. PACER, the system that gives Americans access to their own (public domain) case-law, charged a fee for each such access. After activists built RECAP (which allowed its users to put any caselaw they paid for into a free/public repository), Aaron spent a small fortune fetching a titanic amount of data and putting it into the public domain. The feds hated this. They smeared him, the FBI investigated him, and for a while, it looked like he’d be on the pointy end of some bad legal stuff, but he escaped it all, and emerged triumphant.
He also founded a group called DemandProgress, which used his technological savvy, money and passion to leverage victories in huge public policy fights. DemandProgress’s work was one of the decisive factors in last year’s victory over SOPA/PIPA, and that was only the start of his ambition…
Depression strikes so many of us. I’ve struggled with it, been so low I couldn’t see the sky, and found my way back again, though I never thought I would. Talking to people, doing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, seeking out a counsellor or a Samaritan — all of these have a chance of bringing you back from those depths. Where there’s life, there’s hope. Living people can change things, dead people cannot.
I’m so sorry for Aaron, and sorry about Aaron. My sincere condolences to his parents, whom I never met, but who loved their brilliant, magnificently weird son and made sure he always had chaperonage when he went abroad on his adventures. My condolences to his friends, especially Quinn and Lisa, and the ones I know and the ones I don’t, and to his comrades at DemandProgress. To the world: we have all lost someone today who had more work to do, and who made the world a better place when he did it.