Remembering Aaron Swartz

by Henry Farrell on January 12, 2013

I don’t want to write about the circumstances of his suicide – it’s too raw. I do want to write about who he was. I suspect that the media will turn this into a story of Aaron as persecuted hacker, which gets at only one part of him. He was one of the kindest, sweetest, and most generous people I ever knew. He made a lot of money at a very young age, which would have ruined most people (including me). It didn’t ruin Aaron. He used it to live an itinerant life, jumping from project to project, all intended to work towards creating a better world. His enthusiasm was boundless, as was his generosity. When Crooked Timber had big server problems a few years ago, he immediately jumped in to offer to host us (we ended up finding hosting elsewhere). He saw that Rick Perlstein didn’t have a website, back before Rick Perlstein was Rick Perlstein, and he built one for him. He gathered together everything he could of the old Lingua Franca, preserving it and making it available. A skilled techie, he helped put together the revived Baffler, a journal noted for its discontent with things technological. Aaron’s life was a struggle against the forces of entropy, decay and political corruption. He never saw a good cause, but he wanted to adopt it, and do everything he could for it (if a criticism could be made of him, it was that he moved on too quickly from project to project). I knew he had been in a dark place the last few months, because of what was happening to him, but I didn’t know how dark. I’ve lost a dear friend, but American politics and intellectual life has lost someone who did many good things for many people, often quietly, but always to good effect. Other CTers may have other memories of him; those are mine.

Update: “Aaron’s family and current partner”: “Quinn”: Also, “Cory Doctorow”:, “Larry Lessig”:, “Mark Bernstein”:, “James Fallows”:, “Brewster Kahle”: , “Carl Malamud”:, “The Baffler”: By request, “Aaron’s guest-posts here at CT”: Scott McLemee’s “story on Aaron from a few years back”: is here.

Update 2: “What Larry Lessig Says”:

bq. For remember, we live in a world where the architects of the financial crisis regularly dine at the White House — and where even those brought to “justice” never even have to admit any wrongdoing, let alone be labeled “felons.” In that world, the question this government needs to answer is why it was so necessary that Aaron Swartz be labeled a “felon.” For in the 18 months of negotiations, that was what he was not willing to accept, and so that was the reason he was facing a million dollar trial in April — his wealth bled dry, yet unable to appeal openly to us for the financial help he needed to fund his defense, at least without risking the ire of a district court judge. And so as wrong and misguided and fucking sad as this is, I get how the prospect of this fight, defenseless, made it make sense to this brilliant but troubled boy to end it.

The last time I saw Aaron, we didn’t talk about the JSTOR incident itself, for all the obvious reasons. We did talk about the Kafkaesque nightmare he had landed in, where literally _anything he said_ could be taken grossly out of context and used against him by a prosecutorial apparatus apparently more driven by vindictiveness, stupidity and politics than by any particular interest in justice or the public interest. He told me how, when the police finally came around to search his apartment, some weeks after the charges had been laid, he jokingly asked them what had taken them so long. Of course, he then found these words being twisted by the prosecutors to suggest that he had effectively admitted he was guilty.



Nate Roberts 01.12.13 at 3:12 pm

Thank you for this reminiscence. I just posted it on JSTOR’s Facebook page, along with this obituary:

I wonder if they will have the nerve to delete it.


Henry 01.12.13 at 4:23 pm

I don’t think JSTOR are villains here – they were trying to deal with a bunch of difficult and conflicted interests in a situation of great uncertainty. Maria Bustillos, who did a lot of work on this, reports on Twitter that they did everything they could behind the scenes to push against the indictment.


Barry Freed 01.12.13 at 4:40 pm

He had at least one guest post here at CT that I can recall. Any chance you can append the URL to that and any other of his posts as an update?


John Quiggin 01.12.13 at 8:22 pm

This is truly a tragedy


Dan Hardie 01.12.13 at 9:28 pm

What a squalid business that prosecution- or, rather, persecution- seems to have been. And what a talent to waste. From my one experience of speaking to him, he was extremely kind as well as immensely gifted. My deepest sympathies go to all his family and friends.


lee wang 01.12.13 at 10:07 pm

Why did people around Aaron fail to notice his psychological needs for help when they knew for sure that he had been haunted by the thought of committing suicidal? Had his warning not serious enough because of his precocious achievements and towering standing in the field or because his depression had been so ingrained that he refused to be helped? What do we benefit from losing such an altruistic and genuine fellow? It is sad to know his mental suffering. The prosecutor’s relentless pursuit may not be the immediate cause of his death but certainly speeds up the vicious process lurking behind. He was dying in his cocoon because nothing had seemed to be able to make him feel happy and worth living. His depression had zapped his life juice. This tragedy saves the trouble for the prosecutor and his office, which will be remembered as the persecutor for his inevitable demise.


straightwood 01.12.13 at 10:39 pm

Bradley Manning, Julian Assange, and Aaron Swartz: these are thought criminals who must be hunted down and imprisoned, while Wall Street plutocrats and their protectors run Harvard and are pillars of society. It is a good thing that righteous professors continue to denounce the criminals and praise the heroes.


Eli Rabett 01.12.13 at 11:19 pm

Name and shame the prosecutors. Ask them if they are proud.


Jeremy 01.12.13 at 11:41 pm

Rick Perlstein also has a great piece for The Nation remembering Aaron. Apparently he was the first person outside the Perlstein household to have finished Nixonland.


purple 01.12.13 at 11:50 pm

This isn’t a tragedy. This is the trajectory this country is on.

The U.S. can literally do nothing with it’s most brilliant people put throw them in prison for life. For what ? For trying to make people more educated.

Meanwhile we go off drooling to cheer Zero Dark Thirty. The vast majority support torture.

The country is finished.


Dan Nexon 01.13.13 at 1:03 am

Thanks for sharing this. A terrible loss.


parsimon 01.13.13 at 2:26 am

Maria Bustillos, who did a lot of work on this

Huh, small world. I know her from years ago in the bookselling community.


The Raven 01.13.13 at 2:31 am

I think the fight for internet freedom has claimed its first martyr.

You know, the people who invented the ideology of the open internet have a lot to answer for. I knew some of them, back when I roosted in Silicon Valley. Most of them were comfortably upper middle-class software professionals and academics, who had no idea what it was like to have all the forces of the state arrayed against you. But younger people like Swartz, Assange, and Manning took up their ideals, and the state has come down hard on them. When the police are at the door, when you’re looking at decades of imprisonment, you need support, and the ideologues did not give even a hint of warning.


Timothy Scriven 01.13.13 at 3:10 am

Crossposted from my Facebook:

A hero is dead. I used to enjoy reading about his exploits even before the big one- when he was arrested for downloading millions of articles from JSTOR. There was a lot to love about Aaron, he knew the risks but he still took them. He was clever, biting, sensitive and unfailingly heroic- if I’m being honest I think I had a bit of a celebrity crush on him. He was only twenty six when he died but he’d accomplished more than most people will even dream of. I really wish I could have met him personally.

Never mind that JSTOR indicated it didn’t want him prosecuted (not that we should care if they did), never mind that Aaron wasn’t acting for personal gain, never mind that the pain of it was clearly starting to break him, and many of his friends were whispering that something like this might happen- the prosecution was determined to charge him with offences that might have put him in jail for decades.

As the Guardian article says:

“Whatever else is true, Swartz was destroyed by a “justice” system that fully protects the most egregious criminals as long as they are members of or useful to the nation’s most powerful factions, but punishes with incomparable mercilessness and harshness those who lack power and, most of all, those who challenge power.”

The prosecutor who killed Aaron has blood on his hands, and we should never forgive him. This world is fucked up and something must be done now.


laura 01.13.13 at 4:15 am

This was just devastating news. Like everyone in the Internet community, I am deeply saddened. Best wishes to his partner and his family.


Sebastian H 01.13.13 at 4:58 am

This is a classic case of prosecutorial bullying and plea bargaining abuse. If you don’t submit to them completely they work to literally destroy you. There are numerous cases where people end up confessing to crimes they did not commit because of the immense pressure prosecutors can bring to bear that are well out of proportion to the offenses committed. We really need to do something about it.


Andrew Montin 01.13.13 at 7:29 am

There should be a movement to discourage academics from contributing articles to closed access journals, and that movement should have Swartz’s name on it.


Z 01.13.13 at 1:30 pm

It’s a sad fact about our world that someone like Aaron Swartz decided to leave it. I’ll just quote him.

I had no idea the world really looked like this, with such infinite clarity. It looks like a modernist photo or a hyperreal film, everything in focus everywhere. Everyone kept saying “oh, do you see the leaves now?” but the first thing I saw was not the leaves but the people. People, individuated, each with brilliant faces and expressions at gaits, the sun streaming down upon them. I couldn’t help but smile.[…]

My eyes are open and I can now experience the beauty that’s been more than a few feet in front of my nose.


Z 01.13.13 at 1:34 pm

Of course, the last two lines are also Aaron’s.


Cian 01.13.13 at 3:22 pm

If you have any interest in the case against Aaron you should read this. Yes it’s from his expert witness, so hardly unbiased. But it rings true, and all the facts that have emerged support his arguments. This was a misdemeanor, and a bullshit case from an ambitious deputy DA who thought he could build a political career on prosecuting hackers. Go after Ortiz by all means (if nothing else she deserves it for her ‘terrorism’ cases), but he deserves most of the blame. If you can ruin his career, you’d be doing a service.

Part of the problem here is that the government prosecutors were clearly clueless. The original charges and claims demonstrate that. But that doesn’t justify the ways they were pressuring Aaron (deliberately taking his words out of context to persecute him).

My guess is Aaron would probably have won this case. The government case was extremely weak. However it would have cost him millions, and maybe have ruined him financially. And for the duration of the trial he would have been running the risk (however slight) of facing 30 years in jail.


Cian 01.13.13 at 3:27 pm

I never met Aaron, but I admired him greatly. In a world where talent is usually overshadowed by ego – he was remarkably self-effacing. And looking back over his life, I’m amazed by all the ways he touched my life. From RSS and (a very influential framework for writing web apps), to his support of the Baffler to his various initiatives in open access. He was also wonderfully non-tribal, as this tribute here demonstrates:


Turbulence 01.13.13 at 5:33 pm

@20, Cian, I disagree. I think the article is sophist garbage. And I do understand the technology pretty well: I have two computer science degrees from MIT.

I especially liked this bit: “Aaron did nothing to cover his tracks or hide his activity”. That’s true, if you ignore things like (1) covering his face with a bicycle helmet when in line of sight of a camera, (2) walking backwards to avoid having his face caught on camera, (3) constantly changing his MAC address to evade blocking, etc. Look, Aaron was not an idiot. He knew damn well that his actions were unauthorized.

Aaron’s suicide is a huge tragedy. But the idea that he didn’t do anything wrong is just transparently absurd. Is the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act overbroad? Sure.


Katherine 01.13.13 at 5:35 pm

Bradley Manning, Julian Assange, and Aaron Swartz: these are thought criminals who must be hunted down and imprisoned,

Please don’t put Assange in the same category as Swartz. To my knowledge, Swartz is not wanted for evading an arrest warrant from Sweden for rape.


Martin 01.13.13 at 5:58 pm

It’s interesting you mention the Kafkaesque situation he was faced with. Swartz himself commented on Kafkas “The Trial” thusly:

“A deep and magnificent work. I’d not really read much Kafka before and had grown up led to believe that it was a paranoid and hyperbolic work, dystopian fiction in the style of George Orwell. Yet I read it and found it was precisely accurate — every single detail perfectly mirrored my own experience. This isn’t fiction, but documentary.”


deliasmith 01.13.13 at 6:16 pm

Swartz is not wanted for evading an arrest warrant from Sweden for rape

Neither is Assange.


I.G.I. 01.13.13 at 6:33 pm

@23 Sex and bourgeois sex morality are the easiest scare and terror tool of modern capitalist state. Considering the broader context of Assange’s actions and his position he was clearly set up; everything – including the result, him neutralised and discredited – fit a bit too well…


Harold 01.13.13 at 7:49 pm

I am very sorry and distressed about this tragic situation and my heart goes out to the family and everyone who knew this talented individual. What a loss for humanity as well.

Swartz’s comments on Kafka mentioned at 24 are very poignant. I am also reminded of Godwin’s 1794 gothic novel Caleb Williams or Things As They Are, which I read last year for the first time, about how an inconvenient individual can be crushed by institutional forces, or even by just one person with institutional forces behind him.;_or,_The_Adventures_of_Caleb_Williams


bob mcmanus 01.13.13 at 8:08 pm

Since we are linking to books, This is a book I finished this weekend. The title itself might disturb some. I have also thought about Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi.

Somehow I doubt getting a prosecutor fired would be the most courageous way we could give this young Internet hero an enduring legacy. As Lessig says, we shouldn’t pathologize this event. Neither should we try to de-politicize it.


Cian 01.13.13 at 9:10 pm

@22: Aaron’s suicide is a huge tragedy. But the idea that he didn’t do anything wrong is just transparently absurd.

Given the article linked to argued:
I know a criminal hack when I see it, and Aaron’s downloading of journal articles from an unlocked closet is not an offense worth 35 years in jail.

perhaps you might want to tone down the rhetoric. He doesn’t say that he didn’t do anything wrong, he says the response was grotesquely out of proportion.

If you wish to comment on the facts of the case, you might wish to familiarize yourself with the charges.


Turbulence 01.13.13 at 9:21 pm

Cian @29, I am familiar with the facts of the case; that’s why I can say that the bit I quoted is just a bald faced lie. Do you disagree? I don’t know why you are encouraging people to read a post that contains bald faced lies.

Now, is 35 years in prison too long? I guess so: it is not what I would have given him if I were the judge. But judges often don’t award the maximum; I imagine that having Lawrence Lessig speak on your behalf at the sentencing hearing has to count for something.


Salient 01.13.13 at 9:34 pm

oh fuck you Turbulence, “Remembering Aaron Swartz” is not the place to attempt to litigate the case against him.


David 01.13.13 at 9:35 pm

I am neither a computer scientist nor a lawyer. However, it seems to me that Turbulence is being deliberately obtuse.


Turbulence 01.13.13 at 9:36 pm

Salient@35, you’re right, his memory is much better served by insisting that he was an idiot and lying about him. Carry on then!


Turbulence 01.13.13 at 9:37 pm

David@32, can you explain how “Aaron did nothing to cover his tracks or hide his activity” is a true statement?


Henry 01.13.13 at 9:54 pm

Turbulence, please. As salient says, this thread is not the place.


Barry 01.14.13 at 1:33 pm

Henry, could you please just ban the @sshole for – oh, ever?


Barry 01.14.13 at 8:55 pm

It was pointed put (i’ve lost the link) that an SS agent named Patrick Mivhaels was involved.


leederick 01.14.13 at 11:48 pm

Why was Swartz unable to ask for financial help to fund his defense?

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