Dear Aaron Swartz,
You passed away three years ago today. It is kind of embarrassing, but it has taken me that long to catch up. I was shocked to learn that on a daily basis my computer is filled with things you had a hand in creating: RSS, Markdown, Creative Commons and Reddit. You helped build all this before you were 26.
Then I ran into the documentary ‘The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz’, unsurprisingly it is freely available. It made me both angry and sad. Angry at the US government for pursuing an outrageous sentence for downloading academic papers. And sad that you are no longer with us.
You know those platitudes that get trotted out in these sorts of situations? ‘Gone to soon’ and stuff like that? They often get written when talented musicians like Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain and Jim Morrison pass at an early age. Those guys never had the chance to live up to the expectations set by their early formative work. You are the first software developer I have found that also falls into this category.
Your abandonment of startup culture and transition into political and social activism was inspiring. It recast you as the perfect digital antihero.
In the three years since you passed, the ball has kept rolling. Some things have gotten better, while others worse. Governments are releasing more data and academic institutions are continuing to adopt open-access mandates. Although, this seems counterbalanced by increasingly intrusive digital surveillance laws. What bothers me most though, is the looming end to the Obama Administration. I can’t help but think that the current race to the White House would be different if you were still around.
I’m not sure exactly how, but I think that re-engaging people with the political process will be a software solution. Something that sidesteps mainstream media and creates a new way for people to access and contribute to politics. Something that breaks the disproportionate influence some vested interests have in shaping public opinion. Current activism platforms are a logical first step, but I think we can do so much more. I would have loved to learn your thoughts on this, and I’m hoping I will find something in your back catalogue of essays.
Without a doubt, the most difficult part of including this fan letter in my family tree of influences is following your ancestors. You were so widely read I have no idea where to start, no idea who would be in the top three influences of your work.
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