The IFTF Blog
Remembering Aaron Swartz from the Amazon
Discussions of tactics and theory stretch long into the night, across rooms and cars and hotels and restaurants. And then there are the parties.
An airplane hanger, filled with kids, all dancing. Row upon row of them, covered in sweat and caked with mud, still carrying their bags, moving with abandon. They stretch for what seems like forever. And at the end is a huge stage, with dancing girls, a rocking band, and lights so powerful that when they rotate forward they illuminate the entire crowd. As the set ends, it feels like the whole building is about to explode.
Aaron didn't just write well though—he was an extraordinarily memorable guy—a 22-year-old millionaire college dropout, who told me that he'd decided to spend the rest of his life only working for and with nonprofits.
For an activist and graduate student like myself, that made perfect sense, but having grown up in Silicon Valley, I recognized immediately that for a techie, this made him pretty unique. So many young, successful entrepreneurs in the tech world seem so deeply attached to their companies or to the thrills of "startup culture" that despite having raked in millions, they dedicate much of their lives to raking in even more. Many follow the Steve Jobs route and stay dedicated to their companies for the long haul in executive roles. Others end up going the serial entrepreneur route, almost as if to prove that the first jackpot they hit wasn't just luck.
That isn't to say that such people are naïve; such decisions seem to frequently go hand-in-hand with the view that making money in tech is a noble goal that improves the world. Indeed, I've drank a good bit of that Kool-Aid myself; the only investment I've ever made (still in the low four figures) is in a "socially responsible" mutual fund that is quite heavy in tech stocks. That said, when you're already a multi-millionaire, putting your heart and soul into to making more money is probably an indication of the sort of libertarian view in Silicon Valley that Aaron eloquently railed against in a blog post that he wrote when he was 18, defending the role of government in society.
And that's a big part of what made Aaron seem so special to me. His commitment to dedicate his life to work with nonprofits was particularly refreshing, and it seemed obvious when I met him that he was on track to make enormous waves. Lawrence Lessig's post about Aaron demonstrates what an enormous impact he made during his far-too-short life.
Fittingly, the last place I remember seeing him was sitting in the stairwell of the hotel that we both stayed in, struggling to get his laptop within range of the WiFi router, perhaps writing the very post that I cited above. I wish I'd met Aaron more than once, but even in that brief evening, he left a mark, and I'll never forget him. This is an enormous loss.