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The Brilliant Life and Tragic Death of Aaron Swartz

He was a child prodigy, an Internet pioneer and an activist who refused to back down – even when the feds tried to break him

David Amsden Mar 11, 2013
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Swartz with Norton and her daughter Photo: Quinn Norton/Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

Swartz with Norton and her daughter Photo: Quinn Norton/Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

The partnership, however, was complicated from the beginning and only grew more strained over time. Swartz’s contribution was significant: He spent that first month converting the site from Lisp into Python – his programming language of choice – after which the site ran smoother and experienced a surge in popularity. As time went on, however, Swartz displayed an indifference toward the project, preferring to spend his time reading at MIT’s library rather than attending meetings. On his blog, he addressed his apathy toward computing, writing a post in the spring of 2006 called “A Non-Programmers Apology,” in which he described writing as his true calling: “Perhaps, I fear, this decision deprives society of one great programmer in favor of one mediocre writer. Even so, I would make it. The writing is too important, the programming too unenjoyable.”

His fitfulness was increasingly a source of frustration to his new partners, since Swartz had been made an equal equity holder of a company he expressed little interest in being a part of. On Halloween in 2006, Condé Nast purchased Reddit for an undisclosed sum believed to be around $12 million, with Swartz receiving an equal payout. Though Swartz’s partners assumed he would exit the company after the sale, he decided to stay on when Reddit was moved across the country to San Francisco, where it was set up under the supervision of Wired magazine. Though Swartz then had a net worth that just broke seven figures, he continued to live as he would his entire life, moving into an apartment near Alamo Square with three others and setting up his bedroom in a room so small it was referred to communally as “the closet.”

From the moment he arrived, he found his new work environment oppressive. “He’d complain about how he couldn’t get his work done because the system had so many restrictions,” says his father. “Basically, it was a clash between the mindset of a publishing company and a programmer.” Swartz made no effort to hide his disillusionment, arriving late to the office, often leaving midday never to return and blogging about his disdain as if unaware in doing so he was making private thoughts public.

Among Swartz’s closest friends in San Francisco was Quinn Norton, a tech journalist and self-defined anarchist with a charmingly caustic disregard for convention. Though she was 13 years older than Swartz and was married with a young daughter, they developed an immediate kinship. “We weren’t from the same planet as each other, but we sure as shit weren’t from this one either,” she says. “He had dropped out of high school – I was thrown out. Both of us had this allergy to traditional institutions.” During Swartz’s first months in San Francisco, he would have long conversations with Norton, sometimes about his frustrations with Reddit. “He wasn’t sure if he had done a good thing,” says Norton. “He began to see it as a way people wasted time.”

That Christmas, two months after he’d started working in Reddit’s San Francisco office, Swartz took a trip to Berlin to attend the Chaos Communication Congress, one of the most popular hacker conventions in the world. On his way back home, he stopped in Cambridge for a visit when his lifelong stomach troubles asserted themselves, leaving him writhing in pain for several days. On January 18th, 2007, he wrote a post on his blog titled “A Moment Before Dying,” which began, “There is a moment, immediately before life becomes no longer worth living, when the world appears to slow down and all its myriad details suddenly become brightly, achingly apparent.” Written as a short story in the third person, the post described a young man, “Aaron,” who had decided to kill himself. “For Aaron, that moment came after exactly one week of pain, seven days of searing, tormenting agony that poured forth from his belly.”

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The post alarmed his Reddit partners; it was the first they had heard from him in weeks, and it appeared to be a suicide note. Ohanian, one of the original founders, called the local police department, and officers were dispatched to the apartment. Just before they arrived, Swartz snuck out to the street, and in the wake of the incident, went to lengths to downplay its severity – changing the original post from “Aaron” to “Alex,” as if to make clear that suicide was not something the actual Aaron would ever seriously consider.

Later that winter, Swartz’s relationship with his Reddit partners, always fraught, reached its nadir when they demanded his resignation. He did not protest. That April he decided to move into an apartment with Norton, whose marriage was in the process of unraveling. Along with Ada, her daughter, they found a place in the Mission District, where they lived as an unconventional family, with Swartz taking care of most of the rent, Norton devising ways to sneak vegetables into his diet, the two reading David Foster Wallace out loud to each other. Not long after they moved in together, Norton became Swartz’s first girlfriend – a relationship that, fittingly for two eccentrics, began with an unconventional pact.

“You realize this is not realistic, right?” Norton said to Swartz, laying together in bed. “So we’ll do it for a year, and then we’re done, OK?”

“OK,” Swartz replied with a smile.

During that year, he began to gravitate more toward projects with an overtly activist edge. As Doctorow would write, “The post-Reddit era in Aaron’s life was really his coming of age. His stunts were breathtaking.” Having done the startup thing, he was able to live out a kind of generational fantasy – financially independent, beholden to no institutions, free to pursue only what ignited his most heartfelt passions.

“Aaron worked on projects he thought mattered,” says Brewster Kahle, an Internet-freedom advocate who recruited Swartz to work on Open Library, a project that set out to make a Web page for every book ever published. “You immediately saw that he was genius at figuring things out that would matter to millions of people.”

But he also found it hard to make full commitments. After a year, frustrated that brick-and-mortar libraries wouldn’t share their catalogs, he was searching for his next endeavor. “Aaron floated – that’s how he worked, and you had to accept it,” says Kahle. “He didn’t ask to get paid much. He really thought of himself as a volunteer for the world.”

Throughout their relationship, Norton and Swartz had a spirited debate about activism and authority. She believed the system to be inherently corrupt and beyond repair, while he believed institutions could be changed from within. In July 2008 Swartz wrote a document titled “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto,” which was, in a sense, an expression of his belief that organized action could work to keep powers in check. “Information is power,” it began. “But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations.” Swartz ended the manifesto with a call to arms. “We need to take information, wherever it is stored,” he wrote, “make our copies and share them with the world.”

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After a year together, Swartz and Norton ended the relationship, keeping true to their original promise, though the romance would be rekindled and extinguished a number of times. Swartz moved back to Cambridge, settling in a small apartment. Soon after arriving, he learned of a group of activists who had converted a dilapidated former fraternity off Harvard Square into an informal headquarters called the Democracy Center. Swartz set up an office: a folding chair, a card table, a bookshelf and little else. On his door he taped a cartoon titled “Grownups,” with a stick figure who has filled her apartment with plastic playpen balls: “Because we’re grown-ups now, and it’s our turn to decide what that means.”

He was 21 years old, eager to find a new project, and soon hooked up with Carl Malamud, the founder of Public.Resource.Org, a nonprofit devoted to pressuring the government to stop charging money for access to public documents. Swartz was interested in Malamud’s latest endeavor, a liberation of the government’s Public Access to Court Electronic Records system, or PACER, which charged at the time eight cents a page for court documents, generating a surplus of $150 million a year from material not protected by copyright. When the government started a pilot program offering free access to PACER from a limited number of public libraries, Malamud envisioned uploading the entire database and placing it onto an independent server, one that would offer the same material but be better organized, easier to search and free, anytime and anywhere.

That fall, Swartz wrote a script designed to crawl through the PACER system, sucking up documents at high speeds. From his office in Cambridge, he downloaded an estimated 20 percent of the database, or 19,865,160 pages of text. This required months of work, though Swartz found the time to reread all of the recently deceased Foster-Wallace’s non-fiction. “DFW’s suicide hit me very hard,” Swartz wrote on his blog. “I see so much of myself in him. I will consider my life a success if I can do half of what he did.”

At eight cents a page, the documents had a value of more than $1.5 million – and the fact that they were no longer controlled solely by the government did not sit well. In April 2009, an FBI agent contacted Swartz, interested in talking about the downloads. It turned out the agency had been investigating him for months, at one point conducting surveillance on his parents’ home. The investigation was eventually dropped – no laws, after all, had been broken – but Swartz was now on the government’s radar. He filed a Freedom of Information Act request to receive a copy of his FBI file, and when it arrived, he posted the full contents to his blog. “As I hoped, it’s truly delightful,” he wrote, the first and last time a brush with the law would be a source of amusement.

A year later, in September 2010, Swartz connected a refurbished Acer laptop to MIT’s terminal in Building 16, a modernist glass and concrete structure on the campus. Registered as a guest on a system he had used most of his life, he signed onto JSTOR, an online library of academic journals that universities pay yearly subscription fees of up to tens of thousands to access. Using a script he had built not unlike the PACER crawler, Swartz began to download an extraordinary volume of articles. Over the course of the next three months, he found ways to circumvent attempts to block his connection, eventually hardwiring his laptop directly to the school’s servers from a restricted utility closet. By January 2011, he had downloaded nearly 5 million documents from JSTOR’s database.

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