Internet activist Aaron Swartz killed himself yesterday in New York. He was 26.
Aaron had long suffered from depression and other medical issues, but at the time of his death he was facing a more tangible challenge as well — a thirteen count federal felony indictment arising from a 2011 incident in which he snuck into MIT and downloaded a huge number of academic journal articles from the internet archive JSTOR.
JSTOR declined to press charges, as did MIT, but the government went after him anyway, and went after him very very hard. He pled not guilty last December. The charges were moving forward.
I don’t want to talk too much about that, though. You can read more about it elsewhere, and if you’ve got your ears open you will — this is going to be a very big story in certain corners of the internet for quite a while.
Neither do I want to talk too much about Swartz’s technical and political and activist contributions to the world. You can read about those elsewhere too, from folks who know a lot more about them than I do.
I do want to talk a little about this, though — a 2007 talk Swartz gave about how he’d gotten where he was, and how he intended to get where he intended to go. It’s a great little piece of writing, thoughtful and wise and perceptive. There were five steps, he said, and he laid them all out: Learn, Try, Gab, Build, Freedom. And he closed with these three pieces of advice:
- Be curious. Read widely. Try new things. I think a lot of what people call intelligence just boils down to curiosity.
- Say yes to everything. I have a lot of trouble saying no, to a pathological degree — whether to projects or to interviews or to friends. As a result, I attempt a lot and even if most of it fails, I’ve still done something.
- Assume nobody else has any idea what they’re doing either. A lot of people refuse to try something because they feel they don’t know enough about it or they assume other people must have already tried everything they could have thought of. Well, few people really have any idea how to do things right and even fewer are to try new things, so usually if you give your best shot at something you’ll do pretty well.
Aaron Swartz achieved incredible things in his devastatingly short life. And those three pieces of advice aren’t a bad place to start filling the gap he left behind.
So that’s my plan for today. To go do some stuff. To go make something new.