Aaron Swartz

In July 2001, Doug Engelbart was invited to speak at the International Semantic Web Working Symposium at Stanford. Doug knew very little about the Semantic Web, so he asked me to come along and act as his translator.

When we arrived that day, the registration line was already out the door. As we stood and waited, we saw Ted Nelson, who came over to say hello. No one paid any attention to these computing legends, which wasn’t a surprise, because no one knew who they were. The field evolves at lightning speed, and we easily forget its pioneers. Even if people knew who they were, they wouldn’t have necessarily known what they looked like.

So when a short, pudgy kid walked by, stopped in his tracks, and started hyperventilating like a girl at a Bieber concert, I took notice. After a few moments, he approached and stuttered, “Are you Doug Engelbart?”

Doug smiled, not because he was recognized, but because he is one of the kindest, most gracious person you will ever meet. “Yes, I am,” he nodded.

The young man then turned to Ted. “Are you Ted Nelson?” he asked.

“Yes, I am,” said Ted. Ted is a showman whose public persona is that of an acerbic, yet charming agitator, but at his core, he too is 100% gentleman.

“Oh my god,” the boy breathed. “I can’t believe it! Oh my god.”

“Who are you?” asked Doug.

“My name is Aaron,” he responded.

They began to talk, this shy, 14-year old, who couldn’t believe what was happening, and these two, gentle computing legends, delighted and charmed by his youthful glee. I asked him what he was doing there. “I’m on the RDF Technical Committee,” he explained. I nodded. That wasn’t a surprise to me. The tech world is largely meritocratic and littered with brilliant teenagers making real contributions. It was far more surprising that he recognized and was in awe of Doug and Ted.

Aaron asked if he could take a picture of those two.

“No,” I interjected, before Doug or Ted could say a word. “You have to be in the picture.” Aaron handed me his camera, and I snapped this shot:

Ted Nelson, Aaron Swartz, and Doug Engelbart

I crossed paths with Aaron Swartz several times over the years, and like many, I tracked his work on the web. In person, he was painfully shy, even sullen, a sharp contrast to his incisive, aggressive online persona. The first few times I saw him, I went out of my way to say hello and ask how he was doing. I was always more interested in hearing about him than I was about his current projects. I think he found that weird and uncomfortable, probably rightfully so. After a while, whenever I ran across him, I simply nodded hello and went about my business.

In tech, everybody knows everybody, and we had lots of friends and interests in common — hacking, the Web, free culture, Wikipedia. And of course, we both idolized Doug and Ted. But we were not friends. I barely knew him, I didn’t follow him on Twitter, and I had stopped following his blog years ago.

So I can’t explain why I was so devastated by the news of his passing late last night. I can’t explain why I stayed up late last night, thinking about Aaron, thinking about the many people who cared about him, thinking about all of my own friends, wondering how much I actually knew anybody, whether I knew what people were going through, whether or not I was truly there for the people I cared about.

Maybe it was because I could never get that very first impression of Aaron out of my head, that shy teenager who derived such joy from meeting two legends whom no one else recognized. That Aaron was so different from the Aaron I saw from afar, both in person and online, in subsequent years.

Or maybe it was simply because, when any 26-year old — regardless of who he is or what he’s accomplished — takes his own life, you can’t help but feel heartbreak.

Rest in peace, Aaron.

13 replies to “Aaron Swartz”

  1. Thanks for sharing, Eugene. I never met Aaron. I was initially skeptical about his work, but later realized I was wrong, and regretted how quickly I had attached my own interpretation on his actions, without first seeking to understand. I had hoped our paths would cross some day. Today I am really sad, in part because it seems like we only get a strong sense of how much the world values somebody after they're gone. It's so sad it had to come to this. Thanks for sharing your story.

  2. Oh, Eugene, I heard this morning — from an Italian Wikipedian friend of mine, posting in Italian, which I think shows Aaron's reach — and have been thinking the same thing today. I only met him once or twice, but we had dozens, maybe hundreds of friends and of course a good deal of projects in common. But at the same time almost all of the comments I have seen are along the lines of "I admired him", "I barely knew him, but…" I wonder if he was lost in a sea of acquaintances. Anyway, you are not the only person who didn't know him well but is none the less devastated.

    1. When I heard the news, I thought about you and the conversation we had about Ben last week. I'm in Hawaii right now, which always makes me think about community, family, and the Aloha spirit. Just had lunch with my friend, Tom, who describes the Aloha spirit here literally as spirituality.

      I think the world in general, but especially the online world, needs more Aloha spirit. I think we all need to remember that we are all human beings, that we all have human needs and desires, and that we should all care about each other a little bit more. Lots of food for thought.

      1. Eugene, maybe a nitpick, but I'm pretty sure nobody in this thread needs to care more! Maybe we could find better ways to express or act on it.

        Phoebe, what you say about "lost in a sea of acquaintances" resonates. There was a quote from Aaron about making sure we make the Internet be something good, and I think there might be a connection here. Are we building a world where it's easy to be lost in a sea of acquaintances? Whether or not that was applied to Aaron, I am kind of worried we are.

  3. Very moving story, Eugene. I never met Aaron, just read a couple of his writings. Your anecdote on how you first met will stay with me though, such a wonderful story.

  4. I am grieved to hear about that his death was a suicide and that is not what he deserved. And no doubt he worked for others and not for himself.

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