Dear Aaron Swartz:
Sorry. I’m two days late to the Day of Hacktivism in your honor. Except I’m not a hacker and I’ve only just learned about you.
Some things I’m thinking about:
You don’t know me. I’m not your demographic. I’m usually about 10 years behind in technology. In fact, most technology and electronic-based anything bewilders me; just ask my colleagues. I don’t know why people want that level of noise in their lives, or why the urge to constantly “share” is awesome. Then again, you said in one of your blog posts that you don’t like to exclude anyone, so maybe you and I would have had something to talk about after all.
I don’t know you. All I know are the stories and anecdotes from the superb documentary that was made about you, The Internet’s Own Boy, given by your friends and family and colleagues and significant others, who had nothing but generous and effusive things to say. Which, of course, they would, since they were on your team. But who you really are, what really kept you awake at night, what your real imperfections and failures and flickers of ego were, and what you were really thinking in that crackling brain of yours, I don’t know. And probably no one did.
I don’t know where you went. You had a reason for ending your life at the time. Maybe when you look back on that reason now, you can chalk it up to the misguided and exaggerated fears of youth (did you know that your lawyer was pretty sure you’d win your case?). Or maybe you’re in a much better place, and it was all a carefully orchestrated exit so that you could get on to your next reincarnation, your most exciting chapter to date. Or maybe I don’t know anything, and your friends, loved ones, and followers still grieve to this day, still wonder, still wish.
I don’t know why your story has stuck with me. I’ve seen a thousand and one documentaries about the lives of ordinary and extraordinary people, doing the mundane and the righteous. My activism switch gets flipped often, but eventually it switches off again and I go about my daily business. Strange thing: my switch hasn’t gone off yet. I saw what you did, the way you conducted your life, the choices you made, the impulses you followed, and the urgent way you asked that all of us live our lives for the greater good, and it’s done nothing but make me want to be engaged. I did not think I had that level of engagement in me anymore. But maybe I do.
I’m not going to succeed you in your work. I’m not a coder or web developer (obviously) or a computer geek of any kind. I would never have the desire to hack anything. I don’t work at MIT or Harvard or have an apartment in Brooklyn. I have a Blackberry that’s a hundred years old. I’ve never used RSS. I do not know what it’s like to be “plugged in,” or to consider running for political office. I have never donated to a crowdfunding project. But what I do know is that it takes all kinds. Clearly. And my kind is still needed. And somehow I think you would have understood this.
I’m not sure what the right answer is. The internet blew up and blazed a trail into all of our lives before anyone could even take a breath. And the laws that are used to mitigate the fall-out are probably short-sighted and made immediately irrelevant simply by the warp speed in which technology evolves. And you know that whenever humans are involved, things get messy and contradictory and greed-driven. You just didn’t happen to tolerate excessive levels of messiness and contradiction and greed…and I don’t either (hey, something else we have in common). I’m with you on this much: privacy is important and so is open access and just where would the world be without whistleblowers.
I’m not going to give up. My last blog post expressed what I believe at a deep level, which is that eventually humans get it right, and if we’re only looking as far as our elections to gauge how right (or wrong) we are—and for that matter, if we’re only using the popular technologies at hand to change the world and not looking within ourselves first—then our souls have much further to go. You happened to sense that making a real difference could be done within our existing institutions and political systems. That was your dream, your eventual calling. You would have succeeded, too, I have no doubt. It doesn’t happen to be my calling, but I’ll tell you what is: writing. Just writing it all down and giving it to the world, however small a corner of the world I can touch. If I’m thinking this, someone else is, too. If this novel is coming out of me, someone will want to read it. If this bumbling essay written on a snowy afternoon makes someone tap into their own creative flow and share their truths with the world, then I succeeded (because maybe sharing isn’t all noise, after all). This chain of wonder has happened too many times in my life to count. But every time it happens, I am both humbled and awakened by it. Just as I was humbled and awakened to learn about you and who you were and what you did.
So peace out, Aaron, and I mean that in a non-hipster, non-sarcastic kind of way. May your spirit live on. Truly. May the work you did here on earth live on. May people start to get it right as a result of having known you and listened to you and absorbed the example you set. May there be more like you who question everything as a matter of course.
Hacktivists unite! Or at least armchair activists with an old laptop and some notebook paper. And an ancient Blackberry. And a view onto the landscape—here in Colorado, not Brooklyn.
With the highest respect, I bid you a very belated adieu…or an early greeting, wherever you may have alighted by now, with whatever wings you may have grown.