Monday, January 14

Saturday morning, I rolled over and shut off the alarm on my phone and got on Twitter for a second to see what was up in the wider world. I saw that Quinn Norton had mentioned something about Aaron Swartz, and then I realized that what she’d said probably meant that he was dead.

Most of the web that I pay attention to just kind of exploded with it after that. This stream of grief and anger. I found myself standing in my kitchen crying over a guy I’d never met.

I never so much as exchanged an e-mail with Aaron Swartz. I maybe commented a time or two on his blog. There might have been other occasions, but the only time I can remember saying anything about his work in public was to write here, back in 2010, that something he’d written about how smart people see the world sounded like bullshit. (It probably was. Smart people are wrong plenty.)

He wasn’t a friend or a collaborator of mine. He was just one of those voices out there - a writer I followed as both of us were becoming adults, a hacker of some renown, a guy whose politics I often liked. I’m writing this entry in Markdown, a lightweight markup language he influenced considerably. He fought the good fight on machine-readability, which matters quite a bit to how I use the web. Like a lot of nerds, I spent a good chunk of the last 6 years on reddit, where I started to learn how to program in earnest. When he got busted for scraping articles from JSTOR from an MIT network connection, I was struck by the similarity to semi-serious plans I’d once made at UNL (hadn’t I started writing a little Perl robot one afternoon?), and by the brutal, sadistic absurdity of the Feds prosecuting anyone for such a benign act.

In the last few days I’ve noticed how important he was to a huge proportion of the people I respect in the technical & political world, the people who are voices out there and hackers of some renown. It turns out he was a friend and collaborator to a lot of the good ones.

RIP, Aaron.