Remarks for Aaron Swartz MIT Memorial

Benjamin Mako Hill

March 11, 2013

These are my notes for remarks I made at an memorial for Aaron Swartz held at the MIT Media Lab. Video of my remarks is posted online in WebM and on YouTube.

Aaron and I moved to Cambridge at the same in 2005 and Aaron was the first close friend I made in this city.

During my first few years in Cambridge, Aaron was one of my favorite people to scheme with. We started and — then usually abandoned — a whole string of projects. We would argue for hours and hours about sociology, economics, technology, and ethics.

I remember one time I took Aaron to the Boston vegetarian food festival to see a talk by Peter Singer who is an ethicist at Princeton who many people credit as the intellectual founder of the modern animal rights movement. Aaron went to ask Singer if we (humans) have an ethical obligation to keep animals from hurting each other?

As Aaron approached Singer, I sort of shrunk back a little bit. Embarrassed. The question just seemed, I don't know, “troll-ish” and I figured it would just annoy Singer. But, to my surprise, Singer sighed, thought for a bit, and said something like, “yes, if we can do it without causing more suffering in the process, I suppose we should.”

That that's the Aaron I knew. A recklessly creative intellectual refusing to be hemmed in by what most of us take for granted. And in that process, always thinking about the greater good.

Aaron and I mostly talked about ethics as they related to a broad set of issues around free culture. Aaron and I were both deeply worried by what we saw as a world where technology and knowledge was increasingly locked up, owned, and controlled.

Think about it: How much of our communication happens through technologies, networks, and tools that are controlled by firms we do not trust at all? How much of our understanding of the world are things we read in books, journals, newspapers that are under the control of people we do not trust? What might a more democratic world look like?

Aaron, over the 8 years that I knew and worked with him, was one of the most effective individuals working toward better answers to this question.

The Singer story illustrates something that my friend Dafydd said a couple weeks ago: Aaron had this rare ability to not just think or work within the system, but to think and work with the system. He didn't just play by the rules. He played with the rules.

At a memorial in San Francisco, Brewster Kahle talked a bit about how Aaron had helped download hundreds of thousands of public domain ebooks from Google and upload them to the Internet Archive. Now, when Google digitized public domain books, they decided to make them available, but not too available. If you want to search them from the web, fine.

But if you want download thousands of them and put them on a hard drive and send it to a remote village with no Internet connection — something that people at One Laptop Per Child routinely want to do (and that's just to use a Media Lab reference). You're out of luck. There's some rate limiting. So you can only download public domain books from Google slowly.

So Aaron, apparently, figured out exactly how fast he could download them and he downloaded them, on a bunch of computers, at exactly the maximum possible speed. For years. Years. And hundreds of thousands of books are now free.

One time, I met up with Aaron in Kendall Square. He was hanging out right outside the Cambridge Center food court. He thought maybe if he was on the Google guest WiFi — which you can get standing outside their office — it would count as an internal IP and — and he might not be subject to the rate limiting.

Turns out that it was. It didn't work. But what a great idea!

And that's how I'm going to remember Aaron. Thinking outside the box. And literally standing outside sometimes. Driven to make the world better. And enormously successful in doing so.

The result, today, is a public domain — and a world — that is much richer because of Aaron's work. And today we're all facing a future that looks darker without him.

I find it very, very strange to watch my friend become a rallying cry and a name attached to laws and hackathons and rallies. I feel awkward and disoriented, even though I know he would have wanted it.

But as, over the last weeks, “real life” has crept back, I've found myself asking, in a number of situations, “what would Aaron do?” — and then adjusting my own behavior accordingly.

I've talked to some other friends and I realize that it's not just me that has been doing that.

And that thought, that thought, is exciting.

Because if all of us that knew him — and if some of us that didn't — act a bit more like Aaron in the wake of his death, it gives us a lot of reasons to be hopeful.