Aaron Swartz

By: Matthew Battles
January 13, 2013

As Lawrence Lessig famously argues, code is law. Beyond the semantic links between “code” and “law”, it’s constantly surprising the extent to which computer software — the machinic manipulation of syntactic systems — reflects and transforms power relations, cultural values, and social norms. And it’s important to remember that — just as in “RL,” our beautifully-broken universe of flesh and bone and books; of apartments, jobs, and departure lounges — those relations instantiated in software are a tissue of decisions. We make choices, all of us, which combine to make these dynamics visible or invisible, oppressive or liberating, ugly or beautiful.

AARON SWARTZ (1986-2012) made choices that rendered the Internet more visible, liberating, and beautiful. The software, systems, and institutions he helped to develop emerged not from the fatally-normative logic of the market, but out of the harrowing, emancipatory conviction that choice is possible in human affairs — and that code should enact choices that tend towards freedom and flourishing. Take RSS, the specification for which an improbably-young Aaron helped to write: superficially, it’s a thorny, alien object, a data scheme that associates text and metadata in a way that allows applications to programmatically redirect and manipulate text and interpret it for different interfaces. But as code, it also expresses normative convictions about the nature of knowledge: that it should be sharable, flexible, accessible, and susceptible to large-scale scrutiny and analysis.

The last time I saw Aaron was at a book-release party for the critic George Scialabba. The room was full of book reviewers, essayists, and political writers, many of them in the orbit of the resurgent Baffler, then undergoing its revival at the hands of John Summers (with technical help from Swartz, the Baffler’s wonted technoskepticism notwithstanding). Superficially — but only superficially — it was a surprising setting in which to find a hacktivist and technologist like Aaron (he also helped keep the lamented journal Lingua Franca’s online presence accessible). As his blog attests, Aaron was a keen observer of and embracing participant in the life of the mind (a life that should include code). The party took place a couple of months after Swartz’s arrest for the alleged illegal mass download of documents from JSTOR. (Scialabba and Summers cowrote a post at Guernica, articulating a skepticism about the federal case that HiLobrow shared). In his short life, he had already shown us the imperative place of the public intellectual in the internet age.

I knew Aaron as an acquaintance, but know many who counted him a close friend and collaborator. Aaron’s social graph is big and brilliant, and they’re voicing their grief and anger with sensitivity and fearsome conviction. Cory Doctorow gracefully limns the challenges of knowing Aaron. Lessig, one of Aaron’s earliest admirer-mentors, blames the government’s malicious prosecution for Aaron’s loss— and given both his wisdom and his knowledge of Aaron and the case, I trust his judgement. danah boyd concurs, with a reflective caveat about the revealing flaws Swartz shared with the fluorescent community of which he was a part. Quinn Norton, one of our most independent, blazingly-intelligent writers on technology and culture, was especially close to Aaron; her remembrance is devastating. These posts only begin to chart the painful outcry, public and private, reflecting Aaron’s sometimes-vexing incandescence. I encourage you to read these remembrances, and to visit the memorial tumblr as well.

The mathematic or computational prodigy is legible, domesticable; Aaron was far stranger than this. Ungovernable, irreducibly feral, his genius took utopia as its object. In a now-irretrievable alternate future, vastly more people use code to share, to learn, and to grow together. And Aaron Swartz is alive.