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Thursday, December 18 2014 @ 11:21 AM CST

So Open It Hurts: What the Internet did to Aaron Swartz

Lib Tech

What these adults saw in Swartz was someone who could realize the messianic potential of the Internet, someone who could build the tools that would liberate information and keep it free from the corporations and bureaucrats who would wall it off. Underlying it all was the hacker belief that the world could be perfected if enough of us tapped society’s vast reserves of knowledge and put it to proper use. “With his intellect, we wanted to harness it for good instead of evil,” says Lisa Rein, a Lessig aide who worked closely with him. “I was worried that Microsoft would get ahold of him.”

So Open It Hurts: What the Internet did to Aaron Swartz

New Republic

On his third day at Stanford, Aaron Swartz forced himself to attend a party. He wasn’t interested in having a good time—in fact, crowds of strangers made him anxious. He merely wanted to document the mating rituals of the “teenager,” a species that alternatively mystified and horrified him.

“In my culture (of vaguely technical people), people converse by sharing information through mutually-beneficial discussion and debate,” Swartz wrote on his blog, “but the teenager’s system is altogether different and wholly alien to me.” It also struck him as irrational. The teenagers interacted through soundless, spastic movements known as dancing. When they opened their mouths, it was to enact a custom the non-scientist would recognize as flirting. “The protocol begins by sharing basic personal information to establish identity, then moves to the humorous recitation of cultural information,” he explained.

To Swartz, practically everything at Stanford needed fixing, and not just the way the students related to one another. The school’s ID cards were intrusive (“It even has a RFID transmitter in it, so they can track us while we walk”). The library was a disaster (“books with catalog numbers starting with P are on floor W4, those starting with PA through PZ are on floor W6. Yes, that’s right, W6”). By his tenth day, Swartz had even grown suspicious of the washing machines. “I’d guess that the process removed microscopic germs,” he wrote, “except for the fact that germs only thrive in damp, warm environments.” He dropped out before his sophomore year.

Granted, all of us would be mortified to find our 17-year-old musings frozen for eternity on the Internet—every goofball utterance and angst-ridden thought preserved for the world’s browsing pleasure. But Swartz was no ordinary goof. He was a hacker, a breed of computer savant that looks out at civilization’s greatest achievements—space travel, constitutional democracy, Rachmaninoff’s 3rd piano concerto—and sees only a set of algorithms to debug. The reason hackers hate driving, the author Steven Levy wrote in his definitive account of the subculture, is that traffic delays “are so goddamned unnecessary the impulse is to rearrange signs, open up traffic-light control boxes, … redesign the entire system.”

Swartz had been redesigning systems for as long as he could remember. When he was 13, he built an early Wikipedia-like site that made him a finalist in a national programming competition. The following year, he joined a group of a dozen or so people working on the code behind a version of RSS, the innovation that allows websites to gather content from other sites, creating a kind of automatically updated virtual newspaper.

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