Remembering Aaron Swartz


Aaron Swartz, the activist, programmer and writer, took his own life a couple of days ago. He was the target of a case by the US government, MIT and JSTOR, and was facing possibly decades in prison. (Update: JSTOR was for dropping the case early and had a sense of proportionality, whereas MIT seems to have no such sense. But here is a statement from MIT President L. Rafael Reif indicating that MIT will start an investigation.) Rick Perlstein in The Nation (image via Wikimedia Commons):

I remember a creature who seemed at first almost to be made up of pure data, disembodied—a millionaire, I had to have guessed, given his early success building a company sold to Condé Nast, but one who seemed to live on other people’s couches. (Am I misremebering that someone told me he crashed in his apartment for a while, curling up to sleep under a sink?)

Only slowly, it seems, did he come to learn that he possessed a body. This is my favorite thing he wrote: about the day “I looked up and realized I couldn’t read the street sign. I definitely used to be able to read that sign, but there it was, big and bright and green along the highway, and all I could make out was a blur. I had gone blind.” Legally blind, it turned out; and then when he got contact lenses, he gave us an account of what it felt like to leave Plato’s cave: “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. It’s much harder being a misanthrope when you can see people’s faces.”

This man is dead now.

Yes, and not a person of pure data after all. I remember the time, at the height of our friendship, when he announced he was taking a month off from connecting to any computer. I remember him telling me afterward about what it felt like: glorious, radiant, strange, alive, true (he mostly read history books). Dude got to see what it was like outside Plato’s Cave two separate times in his life. How many of us can say that?

More here, here, and here.

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