Aaron Swartz: What We Can Do to Remember Him

This Dec. 8, 2012 photo provided by ThoughtWorks shows Aaron Swartz, in New York. Swartz, a co-founder of Reddit, hanged hims
This Dec. 8, 2012 photo provided by ThoughtWorks shows Aaron Swartz, in New York. Swartz, a co-founder of Reddit, hanged himself Friday, Jan. 11, 2013, in New York City. In 2011, he was charged with stealing millions of scientific journals from a computer archive at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in an attempt to make them freely available. He had pleaded not guilty, and his federal trial was to begin next month. (AP Photo/ThoughtWorks, Pernille Ironside)

Those of you who are bracketed by the digital world -- everyone reading this -- should take a moment to mourn the loss of Aaron Swartz: activist, hacker, pioneer, internaut. I did not know Aaron but his short time on this planet impacted my world; he pioneered many of the applications that make possible my clumsy navigation of the blogosphere. He also championed open access to information -- one of the most important movements of the millennium.

In the end, this is what undid him: he allegedly hacked into JSTOR, an Internet source that shares academic articles, with the intention of releasing scholarly articles to the general public... for free. Faced with the bullying of a relentless prosecutor who sought to incarcerate him for an unconscionable period, Aaron Swartz committed suicide at the tender age of 26.

Aaron's death hit me on so many levels, it is best to number -- in order to enumerate -- them:

1) Academic: I spent many years as an academic -- someone who was trained in a period when scholarly publications were only available as physical documents; someone who later saw the miracle of Internet open up access in ways inconceivable to me: this was a tectonic shift in the business of academic life. I am one of the people who contributed my academic articles -- gratis -- to scholarly publications. JSTOR took my freely given data and then turned around and charged me a premium for access -- selling it back to myself, my colleagues and my friends... and I am glad that Aaron was part of a movement returning that access to someone like me.

2) Civilian: I am an avid Internet user who has made recourse to many of the innovations that Aaron and many like him are pushing. And I am humbled that someone so much younger than me -- someone young enough to have been a student of mine -- could accomplish so much in the world.

3) Personal: I have lost someone very near and dear to me through suicide -- hanging. Yes, I was the one who cut her down; I know how terrible it is. My heart goes out to Aaron -- the excruciating pain he must have felt when he did this same act to himself. I still remember what my therapist told me: "Hanging is the sign of a highly ordered, rational mind -- you have to have an understanding of physics." His suffering has ended but that of his family, friends and associates -- it has only begun.


There is one final connection that makes Aaron suddenly become vivid in my mind's eye. I am also writing a novel -- a mystery -- in which there appears a hacker. I haven't yet named the hacker, at least not with a moniker that sticks. At this point, he is simply someone who is almost a device: a modern-day deus ex machina -- literally the god in a machine.

In olden days, humans-dressed-up-as-gods were lowered in their baskets to resolve plot elements when a story got hairy and the playwright, lazy. I never thought about my hacker very deeply beyond the fact that he performed a specific function. But now I realize that without hackers -- people like Aaron who remain often invisible to the rest of the world -- we could not go about the business of living and sharing and doing.

For those of you who don't know: There's a big tribute going on in the Internet to commemorate the passing of Aaron Swartz. Every academic who feels solidarity is going to post their stuff online with the hash tag: #aaronswartz. That's a lot of people. It will be a celebration of the kind of access Aaron championed, an acknowledgment that these lofty goals can't be stomped out by the nastiness of the small-minded. It will be like a digital 21-gun salute, only bigger and better. This salute will have reverberations across the internet: a warning shot that the producers of knowledge have something to say about the way our justice system and our corporations treat one of our own.

* * *

Truth be told: I don't know why I am thinking about Aaron Swartz so much. Partly, I'm sure, it may be that the manner of his suicide was so much like my sister's. Maybe it's because my wife has a computer science background and so Aaron was something like a colleague and fellow traveler. Whatever the case, I know that grief is something that belongs, appropriately, to the family... but that it also has no boundaries; I am grieving even as I feel it unseemly to grieve. Does this grief belong to me?

I want to fittingly memorialize Aaron -- a guy that I would have loved to drink a beer with -- and that makes me return to my one obsession: my unnamed hacker. I almost thought to name this guy after Aaron, so that he could suddenly move outside of becoming a device -- a convenience -- and enter into the world that simulates flesh and blood. But I thought, finally, that this was tasteless. I choose instead to think about him when I write choice pieces of dialog for this character -- this god in the machine.

And like many academics, I will collect my paltry catalog and send my life's work as an academic -- essays, reviews, stories -- into the interweb cloud... as part of that collective 21-gun salute that, I hope, will resound, not because it is the noisemaking of just one person, but the deafening thunder of thousands. Copyright be damned.

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Khanh Ho is writing the first Vietnamese American Detective Fiction ever. Why? Because being the first is a power trip. Like what you read? Share, comment, subscribe.