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Remember Aaron Swartz - 18 January 2013


Tim Berners-Lee

We have lost a fighter

18 January 2013

We have lost...

Aaron was a huge, magnificent person. I suppose when people talk of a meteoric career you can think of a meteor as something amazing and bright. Also, alas, as something short. A spark, that in Aaron’s case is out - but what an incredible spark he was! Blazing across the dark sky of ordinary people, broken systems, a shining force for good, a maker of great things.

I first came across him online in the hacker community. I mean “hacker” in the most positive way the technical community does, someone who can do stuff, build stuff, with computers. Generally we hung out in Internet Relay Chat rooms. (They’re sort of a window – a chat room – where you can see who else is there and anybody can type anything into the group conversation.) And so, many years ago, there was a Semantic Web Interest Group chat room. The Semantic Web was what was cool and interesting to me at the time and I hang out there and a bunch of other people did too. And this guy “aaronsw” turned up and he introduced himself. He sent a message to the list saying: “Hi, I’m Aaron. I’m not very good at programming but I think what you’re doing is cool and I’d like to help.” And he started doing all kinds of things. He didn’t just talk, he coded! And those who code, who make stuff, get a lot of respect.

He also started organizing people, getting people to agree about how stuff should be done. At one point I was even worried that this “aaronsw” guy, whoever he was, was going to organize, that his organization of his group there was going to threaten the fact that the World Wide Web Consortium, my Consortium, was where all these people would come and do their standards because he seemed to be such a good organizer.

He joined a working group which was doing work on the Semantic Web, the RDF Working Group. At one point this group, which normally met only online, was going to have a rare face-to-face meeting. Normally, everything happens online – we share code, ideas, hopes and dreams. But we actually then had a time when we decided a number of working groups would meet together. And the RDF Working Group decided to meet. And somebody said to me: “So this … umm … Aaron Swartz, he’s going to be coming to the meeting, is he?” And I said: “Yes, I think so.” And they said: “You know, he’s 14.” “What? he’s 14 years old? Oh … He’s a minor! What? We’ve never had a minor, we don’t know what we should do – do we have to get a parent to sign a permission form? We don’t know how to do this!” Here’s this guy who is looked up to and respected and a major contributor - who is wise beyond his years. Suddenly so then he’s revealed face-to-face for being 14. And there’ve been times, other times when I’ve met Aaron face-to-face later at a few conferences and he’s actually had a parent somewhere quietly, discretely in the background. Invisible unless you looked for her. And Aaron would be contributing totally with the best and the brightest of them.

And to say he was contributing with the best and the brightest of them - in fact, he was superlative. He read more. I think, I don’t know if there’s anybody in this room maybe who has read as many books as Aaron read. He thought! The amount he thought - he had to read in order to feed that thought process, maybe. And also he was (this has a certain irony in it) such an ethical person. I’ve not known anybody else who is so ethical: who has thought, all the time, about what is right and what is wrong and what should be done and what should not be done.

And so here was this person who, on the face of it, was a coder. He knew that by writing code that was one way of changing the world. You could change the world directly by giving somebody a hug. You could write a piece of code that would make life easy for a whole lot of people. You could build a website which would make it easier for people to communicate, to work together.

And as he worked on projects in the connected world, Aaron realized that a great waste, a great missed opportunity. He realized that sitting on a lot of government computers was a lot of information which in principle anyone should be allowed access to and in practice they were not. He worked very hard on openness of governments, on advocacy, and taking data which was public and making it actually available on the web. This is something I’ve spent some time on myself, I think its really important, and I was very happy to se Aaron doing this work. He was one of these people jumping up and down trying to persuade governments to just get all the information you have about how the country’s running and put it out there on the web. So he fought for that.

But I remember feeling a little bit of a sinking in my stomach when he said that actually he’d become disillusioned. He’d decided open data wasn’t going solve all the worlds problems. It wasn’t enough. Aaron began to be aware of the complexity of the social systems which he needed to change and the political systems around him. He started to understand how, to get change, you could change the world with software but that you could also use your code to make social change. And you could use that social change, you could create structures and further social changes which would then lead to political change. And he realized that unless you made huge political changes then you wouldn’t be able to solve the problems. And driving this was a fiery sense of justice: it was as though the motivating force behind his work was a keen sense of the real injustices and inequalities in the world.

Aaron was a magnificent person because he took all that on. Took it all on his shoulders and immersed himself in it to a level the rest of us don’t. So he was an amazing person and people a lot older than him kind of looked to him. And looked to the things he wrote. Looked to what he was. Looked to the things he discovered. Looked to the way he operated. Looked to him. So he was a mentor. He is an elder. We have lost an elder.

And we’ve lost a fighter. We’ve lost somebody who put huge energy into righting wrongs. There are people around the world who take it on themselves to just try to fix the world but very few of them do it 24/7 like Aaron. Very few of them are as dedicated. So of the people who are fighting for right, and what he was doing up to the end was fighting for right, we have lost one of our own. So, yes, Taren, we need to all work together, and if we put all our energy together, maybe we can to some small extent, compensate for the loss of Aaron.

So we’ve lost a fighter. We’ve lost a great person. But also, we’ve lost somebody who needed to be nurtured, who needed to be protected. I didn’t work with Aaron as closely as many people here, but I got the sense that all who have known him realized that he needed to be protected. He needed to be held carefully in our hands. He needed to be nurtured. So nurturers of the world, everyone who tried to make a place safe to work or a home safe to live, anyone who listens to another, looks after another or feeds another, all parents everywhere - we’ve lost a child. And there’s nothing worse than that.

Tim Berners Lee

18 Jan 2013

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