I had the privilege of knowing Aaron Swartz, who passed away yesterday, over the past seven years. He was a truly incredible person, and his work was inspirational to me personally and our non-profit PPF’s mission – and that of our sibling organizations, the Participatory Culture Foundation and Fight For the Future. Aaron was sui generis for real.
I’d like to first echo the moving remembrances of others who knew him closely: Cory Doctorow, on Aarons’s selflessly inspirational nature and way of being; Prof. Lessig, on his disproportionate legal prosecution (fix copyright!) and his dedication to getting corrupting money out of public policymaking; and especially Rick Perlstein, on the massive depth & breadth of Aaron’s reading and his pure generosity with his time & skills. Raw Thought FTW – seriously, check the archives on that and see how much he externalized productively, taking down a book or two a week and blogging about his takeaways. His critical insights were sharp. I’ve seen him hold remarkably fluent conversations with experts in economic policy and the civil rights movement in American history – with effortless command of the relevant historical literature. How many people can do that these days?
I saw Aaron just this past Wednesday at a MeetUp in NYC for progressive technologists and we chatted – about the usual topic, viz. innovative new Web tools for civic engagement, and especially about how much we were looking forward to the upcoming “Up With Chris Hayes” segment (aired today – video, loads w/ brief ad) featuring fiction writers on political rhetoric & especially feat. George Saunders (!) – we were both reading his new collection of stories. I’ll miss Aaron, it’s a heartbreaking loss for the world. I mean, three friends giving remembrances of him on the leading social networking service today were Eli Pariser, Anna Galland, and Carl Tashian – not to mention everyone he affected in his many overlapping professional & work circles – and their good heartedness is evidence of Aaron’s moral impressiveness.
Some of what I have to say in memory of Aaron now is about his urgent work towards reforming the campaign finance system with Prof. Lessig’s “Change Congress” and Rootstrikers – reinvigorating a modern, functional democracy as a positive ideal. But that’s a bigger topic. Instead, for now I’ll mention some of what Aaron and I had been chewing over recently, when we hung out at conferences or at get-togethers in Brooklyn – he believed, as we do with PPF, in the capacity of technology to radically reform the political process towards better outcomes and healthier people. What’s more, he believed in the necessary role of human creativity and the laborious, grinding work of real-world political organizing efforts along the way. And last, we agreed that the existing tech landscape has barely begun to produce the kind of powerful toolkits that will result in a publicly-accountable, empirically-based representative democracy. Online activism was just one of his many projects & interests, but he was always game to take a critical view of the landscape with me. Aaron’s felt sense of social justice was massive, complex, visceral. I’ll do my best to continue to dedicate my work towards his inspiration.