Skip to main content

Why the Net grieves Aaron Swartz

By David Weinberger, Special to CNN
updated 3:48 AM EST, Wed January 16, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Weinberger: With Aaron Swartz's suicide, something essential about the Net has died
  • He says Swartz not just "hacker" but prescient prodigy who made huge contributions
  • He says zealous prosecutors wanted to jail him, but he saw information as public good
  • Writer: Swartz embodied what is best about the Net -- sharing, connectedness, promise

Editor's note: David Weinberger is a senior researcher at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet & Society and author of "Too Big to Know" (Basic Books).

(CNN) -- Four days after the death of Aaron Swartz, the digital innovator and blazing intellect, why are millions of strangers on the Internet still mourning as if some essential part of us has died? The answer is simple: It has.

We can understand -- but of course not fathom -- the grief of Aaron's loving parents, of his friends and of people like me who were privileged to have known Aaron over his short years. To understand the depth of feeling among those who never met Aaron, we have to get past the convenient pegs the media have used to explain his story.

David Weinberger
David Weinberger

For example, the media like to shorthand Aaron by calling him a "hacker." Yes, if by "hacker" we mean what software developers generally intend by the term: an exceptionally clever person who can make anything out of anything. To the general public though, it means a "black hat" who violates laws to get at protected information.

Aaron was a builder, not a hacker in the black hat sense. The list of the projects he contributed to is prodigious, as is appropriate for a prodigy who at the age of 13 anticipated the concept of Wikipedia and at 14 was being consulted by senior technologists about a standard to ease the flow of content across the Internet.

Tech: How Aaron Swartz helped build the Internet

That was just the start. Aaron went on to make serious contributions to Creative Commons (an organization that releases licenses so authors can let their work be more easily reused), Open Library (a public library of online works), Reddit (an immensely popular open discussion forum), Markdown (a simple way to write Web pages), web.py (making it easier for developers to create Web applications), Jottit.com (type-and-post website) and much more.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



But you can't explain the Internet's grief simply by referring to Aaron's unearthly technical prowess. You may notice a pattern in the projects Aaron worked on: They're about making it easier to share information on the Internet. That's what got him in trouble with a reckless prosecutor who wanted to put him in jail for 35 years for downloading millions of academic research articles from a provider -- JSTOR -- that puts no limits on how many articles subscribers can download and that did not want to prosecute him. Earlier, Aaron had participated in making public court records much more readily available online.

Yet it would be a mistake to peg Aaron only as a liberator of information for the public good. He also built services to enable social interactions around information and ideas, because that's how ideas have effect in the world. Aaron had a deep sense of the Internet as the site of a new culture of ideas, connection and play.

But it would also be a mistake to peg Aaron simply as a champion of social connectedness. He was that, but he was also a hardheaded fighter for justice. He was acutely aware of the advantages conveyed by accidents of birth: country, race, class, gender, sexuality and more. Access to information and to one another were, to Aaron, tools in the struggle to lessen the world's raw unfairness.

Swartz's suicide sparks talk about depression

Swartz's friend: Government bullied him

Still, thinking of Aaron mainly as a software activist is one more peg we should undo. The world has rarely seen an intellect as voracious and comprehensive as Aaron's. He was a seeker after first causes and had the mental prowess to plow through massive amounts of information and ideas, simultaneously considering the data, the pragmatics, the theory, and the theory of theory.

His insight helped inspire Lawrence Lessig's Harvard-based anti-corruption campaign (Rootstrikers) and two groundbreaking progressive grass-root organizations (Demand Progress and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee). From these platforms, and with his remarkable skills as a writer, he was able to play a crucial role in alerting the Net to the dangers of the Stop Online Piracy Act that would have given the government more power to shut down sites at the blink of the content industry's stink eye.

Put this together and you still don't have that which the Net is mourning. Aaron didn't just contribute ferociously to the Net.

It wasn't just that he was persecuted out of all proportion for trying to contribute more. Above all, he embodied what is best and hopeful about the Internet: its endless information, its ethos of sharing, its joy in connecting friends and strangers, its unflinching transparency about its own limitations, its promise -- by no means yet delivered -- of a world that is more open, more knowledgeable, and, above all, more fair ... a world that reflects the values of the Internet at its best.

That is why the Internet is so wracked with sadness. That is why we will never forget Aaron Swartz.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Weinberger.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery support the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 1:10 PM EDT, Sat April 19, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT