In memoriam, Aaron Swartz

(This post is written by Eli, a former President of NUS Hackers.)

Aaron Swartz was my hero. He died two days ago, committing suicide at the age of 26, too early in a colourful and accomplished life, and now, too late.

I won’t cover all that he has done; people who know him personally have written extensively about his life and his accomplishments. The best pieces to read about him in the wake of his death, in my opinion, are this, this, this and this.

(Suffice to say, it’s highly unlikely that you’ve not used something he’s touched: he co-wrote the RSS spec at age 14, worked on early Reddit, and created, the design of which later influenced Google’s App Engine.)

To me and a few of my friends, however, Aaron was a hero; someone we worshipped who was not too different from us, but smarter, braver, and justifiably more accomplished. His work was proof, I thought, that anyone could - with enough energy, and judicious use of technological leverage - make a significant dent in the world. (Later, at NUS, I shared his essay on Dweck with a few friends. It changed the way we thought of ourselves.)

Most importantly, however, Aaron didn’t wait; he had the audaciousness to do things regardless of his circumstances. He had the audaciousness to try.

I met him briefly at an ebook conference I was speaking at in 2011. I had, for a couple of years, gotten brave enough to do things as he had. I shook his hand and acted like the idiot fanboy I was; this was in the middle of the JSTOR proceedings. I had always believed he would win the trial. I also thought that he would then go on to do other great things, and that one day, potentially, I might be able to work with him on something. I never even told him how much his work meant to me.

Now none of that will ever be.

The lesson I took away as a teenager, following Aaron’s life, is that you should start trying to change the world today. Making a dent is no longer impossible when seen in this light; the question becomes: given that I am a student, a teenager, someone living in Asia, what can I do given my circumstances to help solve problem X?

The results, if Aaron’s work is anything to go by, is that you can go pretty far if you just try.


Tim Berners Lee wrote the most beautiful eulogy I’ve ever read for Aaron:

Aaron is dead. Wanderers in this crazy world, we have lost a mentor, a wise elder. Hackers for right, we are one down, we have lost one of our own. Nurtures, carers, listeners, feeders, parents all, we have lost a child. Let us all weep. will be black for the next few days, in memory of Aaron Swartz.

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