If you're unfamiliar with the life and work of Aaron Swartz, here is a way-too-quick primer: Swartz was a well-known hacktivist and political organizer, originally from the Chicago area. As a kid, he was obsessed with computers, and as a young teen, he started making a name for himself as a brilliant mind in programming. From a young age, he was involved in big projects, including creating RSS, Reddit, and Creative Commons licenses. Later, he would become one of the leading figures in fighting SOPA and PIPA, starting the organization Demand Progress as an outlet for activism.
Swartz was committed to information being free. He believed strongly that people should have access to ideas without the interference of corporations or money. He was obsessed with democratizing digital access to information. Radically so. At age 21, he published a "Guerilla Open Access Manifesto," writing, "Information is power, but like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves." The manifesto was inspired by Swartz's belief that academic journal articles should be accessible to the public, instead of locked up by corporations, only available to those with enough money.
"Those with access to these resources - students, librarians, scientists - you have been given a privilege," he continued in the manifesto. "But you need not - indeed, morally, you cannot - keep this privilege for yourselves. You have a duty to share it with the world. And you have: trading passwords with colleagues, filling download requests for friends."
Swartz didn't just write a manifesto; he also took action. In 2011, he downloaded thousands of scholarly articles from JSTOR, using a computer he hid at MIT. It's unclear what his intentions were for the articles, but based on his manifesto, it's possible to draw the conclusion that he planned to do radically positive things with them. Swartz was soon arrested by MIT police (for downloading articles) and federal prosecutors eventually charged him for wire fraud and violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, up to $1 million in fines and 35 years in prison. (For downloading articles.) The legal proceedings went on for two years, until he eventually committed suicide while under federal indictment for data-theft. Many people believed that the pressure he felt from the criminal justice system was unfair, and that the federal government was trying to make an example out of him. ("The U.S. government killed Aaron Swartz," his father said at his funeral.)
It was two years ago this week that Swartz hung himself in his Brooklyn apartment. As I watched articles trickle through my Twitter feed on how to honor his legacy, I decided to watch a documentary that was made in 2014, The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz. It's a powerful, emotional and intimate look into his life and work. (It also reveals that Schwartz considered Fiona Apple's "Extraordinary Machine" to be his life theme's song, further proving his genius.) The most extraordinary parts are ultimately the words we hear from Aaron himself, footage from interviews he did in the years leading up to his death.
"I feel very strongly that it's not enough to just live in the world as it is, to just kind of take what you're given, and you know, follow the things that adults told you to do, and that your parents told you to do, and that society tells you to do. I think you should always be questioning," Swartz says in one interview from his early twenties. "Once I realized that there were real serious problems -- fundamental problems -- that I could do something to address, I didn't see a way to forget that. I didn't see a way not to."
The articles, documents, and information that Swartz set out to liberate were squarely based within the realm of academia, but there is something about his points that will inherently resonate with any artists, writers, or musicians who believe that ideas, articles and information should be free, and not mediated by corporate interests. He strongly believed that liberating ideas and information from corporate power could change the world. Even from just watching this documentary, you can feel ripples of inspiring energy -- a sense of skepticism, an impulse to always ask questions, desire to subvert the status quo.
In another scene from The Internet's Own Boy, Swartz's late partner Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman remembers: "Aaron believed that you literally ought to be asking yourself all of the time: 'What is the most important thing I could be working on in the world right now?And if you are not working on that, why aren't you?'"
Once you hear words like that, they're hard to shake. It is baffling that we live in a world where it is not universally understood that individuals like Aaron Swartz are relentlessly dedicated to setting the truth free; to making positive impacts on the world. But two years later, his legacy does just that.