'Repairing the World' Was Aaron Swartz’s Calling

Remembering the Internet’s open-access Robin Hood at MIT

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – He wanted to repair the world. This was the refrain echoed by those who best knew Internet prodigy Aaron Swartz at a memorial event at MIT. 

Once his intellectual haven, the university had become his adversary and even banned him from campus. As part of his crusade for open access, Swartz had allegedly downloaded nearly 5 million academic journal articles from MIT computers and faced federal charges that could have meant millions of dollars in fines and decades in jail.

And on Tuesday, from a packed hall on the top floor of MIT’s Media Lab, came the voices of those closest to Swartz, who said the university’s actions had contributed to the despair that led to the suicide of the gifted 26-year-old in January.

“I pled with MIT to help Aaron and they hid behind deception and subterfuge,” said his father, Robert Swartz, who studied and works with MIT. “What happened to the MIT I love? How can this wonderful place act so cruelly?”

“How could they destroy my son?” he asked.

In the short weeks since his death, Swartz has become a symbol of freedom on the Internet with vigils, protests, memorial services and hackathons in his name. Permeating everything he did was the notion of fixing the world, tikkun olam in Hebrew, a central tenant of Judaism.

It was part of the very “fabric” of their observant home growing up, his father said. And although the young technologist and activist grew up to call himself an atheist, the values he grew up with appeared foundational.

“That was how we viewed the world as a family, and part of our synagogue’s core ideals. It had a profound influence on him; there’s no doubt of that,” the elder Swartz said shortly after giving his remarks at the memorial.

Jewish values of social justice were rooted in the family, he said, mentioning his own father, William Swartz, who was active in the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Pugwash organization which helped block the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

David Weinberger, a senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and a friend of Swartz, told those gathered at Tuesday’s event, the last of several memorials held around the country: “He was trying to make sense of the world so the world would make more sense, be more compassionate.”

“It was his desire to fix a broken world, to make it whole,” he added before giving what he called “just a casual list” of some of Swartz’s various causes: open internet, open group, open access, progressive politics, media reform, LGBT rights.

Swartz’s activism held that research should not be locked away when it came from publicly funded research like the articles he downloaded from JSTOR, a subscription-only service for accessing academic journals.

JSTOR dropped the charges against Swartz, but MIT, according to Swartz’s supporters, sought to make an example of him and worked with federal prosecutors on charges they said were extreme. At the memorial, some of those who worked for the university suggested it was out of touch with the winds of the modern digital landscape, as well as its own stated commitment to generating and disseminating knowledge.

“Nothing can bring Aaron back,” said Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, Swartz’s partner, in her closing remarks at the memorial. “But MIT has a chance to make a major course correction here. The question is, will it?”

The audience responded with sustained, loud applause.

MIT is currently conducting an internal investigation into its role in the case.

For Daniel Sieradski, a leading figure in the Jewish Internet scene and a founder of the Occupy Judaism activist group, Swartz’s inquisitiveness, including his passion for social justice, in part through a focus on free access to online knowledge, resonated with Jewish ideals. It is a subject Sieradski explored here.

“Judaism really emphasizes the idea that education and knowledge should be open for all,” he said, citing a quote from the Talmud: “Just as I have learned without payment, and you have learned from me without payment, so should you, in future generations, teach without charging a fee.”

Swartz was just 14 when he helped create RSS, which helps deliver content from news sites, blogs and podcasts. By 15 he was collaborating with a team that included Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, on the Semantic Web, which helps facilitate the sharing of data across various online applications. Still in his teens he was one of the programmers who helped develop Creative Commons, a nonprofit organization that lets users share knowledge and creative work using free legal tools.

Most of his work he did for little or no compensation. Later he would become one of the founders of Reddit, a social media website – and he seemed embarrassed by the amount of money he made from his exit there.

His friend Alec Resnick, in mourning him Tuesday, recalled what he described as a “tremendously charming habit” of Swartz to describe people as belonging to different teams.

“Like Team Fame, Team Family, Team Money,” said Resnick. “He aspired to be on “Team Impact.”

Or as Berners-Lee said in a statement read on his behalf, “He had a stronger sense of ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’ than other people.” 

AP
Dina Kraft