The Passing of a Force of and for the Internet

Posted by Thomas Gideon on 13 January 2013

My heart keeps breaking over and over again. I awoke this morning to immediately see the news that Aaron Swartz, one of the most passionate of hacktivists, took his own life yesterday at the age of 26.

I never really knew Aaron though we had a few friends in common. My heart goes out to those friends. The thought of their grief keeps breaking me down. Knowing of Aaron's passion as demonstrated by the depth and variety of stunning accomplishments for one so young, I can only imagine how deep my friends' sorrow must run.

I definitely knew of Aaron's work. I saw him speak in person as recently as this past May where he gave a keynote at Freedom to Connect that keeps rattling around my brain, sparking new insights into the Internet blackout in protest of SOPA and everything that led up to it.

If you don't know who Aaron is, read Cory Doctorow's eulogy. There is no shortage of similar such outpourings everywhere, today, but Cory's was the first I saw and not surprisingly one of the most tender, clear and evocative of Aaron as a person and, well, something of a force of the Internet.

Aaron's passing is wound up in his latest bit of hacktivism, involving his attempt to free up some academic journals he clearly felt shouldn't be enclosed by unfair barriers. One of his earliest mentors, Professor Lawrence Lessig cogently touches on this story in his own commemoration of Aaron's life and work.

I will also admit to a bit of distress about what is clearly a problem we need to do more to address. We lost Ilya Zhitomirskiy, one of the co-founders of the Diaspora disttributed social network project, at the age of only 22 last year. Ilya and Aaron are certainly not the only people, let alone young ones, in technology and technology activism struggling with depression. Several people close to Ilya, most notably Mitch Altman, have earnestly started conversations at conferences and other gatherings about coping with depression. I hope to see those conversations continue and grow to include more voices, more experience.

As someone thrust more into the role of mentor recently, Aaron's passing gives me a lot to consider in addition to the grief, sympathy and loss. I have already been struggling to make sure I am more and more open to any and all conversations those I support in my work need to have. I don't know what else I can do, yet, but definitely feel like I am fortunate enough to have opportunities to do more than I am. How many people do we not know about, struggling with the exact same things that led Aaron to his final choice?

Mostly every time I see a fresh message or post noting Aaron's passing, I think of my friend Quinn Norton and my heart breaks all over again. She was one of those very closest to Aaron. You can read Aaron's own words about his relationship with Quinn. Despite what must be crushing grief and loss, she has also managed to share a few thoughts in kind about her love of Aaron.