Aaron Swartz Wanted To Save the World. Why Couldn’t He Save Himself?

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Feb. 7 2013 9:47 PM

The Idealist

Aaron Swartz wanted to save the world. Why couldn’t he save himself?

(Continued from Page 1)

Aaron Swartz was born in November 1986. The oldest of three brothers, he grew up in Highland Park, Ill., a wealthy suburb 23 miles north of Chicago, in a big, old Tudor Revival-style house on a wooded lot within walking distance of the grounds of the Ravinia summer music festival. His father, Robert, was a computer consultant, while his mother was a homemaker who loved knitting and beading. His grandfather, William Swartz, was the chairman of a sign company who was involved with Pugwash, a disarmament organization that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995. “The notion of trying to do good and make the world a better place suffused the way we looked at things,” says Robert Swartz. “The notion of not being interested in things, money, acquisitions is the way we looked at the world.”

Aaron was a precocious child, and an early reader. At 3 years old, his father recalls, he read a note on the refrigerator and then turned to his flabbergasted mother, asking, “What’s this free family entertainment in downtown Highland Park?” When Aaron was of school age, he entered the North Shore Country Day School, a picturesque private school in Winnetka, Ill. The school was 6 miles from his house, which made it difficult for friends to come over and play. Aaron, though, found ways to entertain himself—playing the piano, reading books, joking with his brothers.

From a young age, he was adept with machines and fascinated by puzzles. “When he was little he became interested in magic squares—squares in 3-by-3, where in all directions the numbers in the squares add up to the same number,” recalls Robert Swartz. “And so I suggested that he write a program to find magic squares, which I gave him a little bit of help with. But then once he knew how to program he picked it up relatively quickly. ”

The Swartz family was one of the first in the area to have Internet access, before the heyday of graphical browsers. Aaron had computers early on, and he would tote a huge laptop from class to class. He built websites for himself (aaronsw.com), for his family (swartzfam.com), for people interested in “the up and down world of the case against Microsoft” (Redmond Justice), for those who wanted to convert text to ASCII binary and back again (Binary Translator), and for the Star Wars fan club Chicago Force. “He came to a Jedi Council (what we called our board of directors) meeting once when his parents dropped him off,” remembers Phillip Salomon, a group member. His early AIM screen name was “Jedi of Pi.”

Around that time, Aaron started to get bored with school. “He'd come to me and ask for things to read,” says Robert Ryshke, the head of NSCDS’s upper school from 2000 to 2005. “Aaron was an unusual character in the sense that, with an adult like me, the principal of the school, he was very assertive. He'd come to my office, schedule an appointment, open up his computer, and say, ‘I've been thinking. Do you have a book in this area?’ ”

Swartz felt strongly that North Shore Country Day didn’t meet his (or any other student’s) needs. In the summer of 2000, just before he started ninth grade, he launched a blog called Schoolyard Subversion. “Seriously, who really cares how long the Nile river is, or who was the first to discover cheese,” he wrote. “How is memorizing that ever going to help anyone? Instead, we need to give kids projects that allow them to exercise their minds and discover things for themselves. Instead of stuffing them with ‘knowledge’ we need to give them the power to find out what they want to know.”

Though Swartz was physically small, preternaturally intelligent, and iconoclastic, he wasn’t socially isolated. He had friends, and competed in Science Olympiad and on sports teams. Class videos he shot around this time reveal a kid with a goofy sense of humor (one of these, a six-minute take of a sock puppet delivering the weather, earned him an F, he notes, because it lacked “hard facts” about weather) and an easy rapport with his classmates—or, at least, the ones who co-starred in a loopy 11-minute “telenovela” that ends with a sombrero-wearing Swartz being gunned down by a boy in a purple football jersey. (“Ay, yi, mi muerto! Mato! Mato!” he yells, passionately if not quite grammatically.)

Swartz’s disaffection had less to do with his peers than with the larger concept of organized education. At first, he was determined to reform things from within, and his blog brimmed with optimism about mobile schools and inspirational teachers and a “big meeting” in which Swartz referred Ryshke, the head of the upper school, to books about education reform.

Eventually, his reformist ardor cooled, and Swartz focused on devising an exit strategy. This was the beginning of a lifelong pattern of impatience with unpleasant situations. Instead of trying to adapt to what he believed were rigid, broken institutions, Swartz would try to make those institutions adapt to him. And if they didn’t change, he would leave.

“We talked about going early to college, going the child prodigy route, but I think he wasn't interested in taking English and taking pre-calculus,” says Ryshke. “For that whole year, I probably met with him and his parents four or five times, easily. And they were gracious. They obviously wanted to support their son; they didn't want him to do something that was potentially not going help his future. But, in the end, he was motivated. He was motivated to do something different.”

Swartz blogged about closing his ninth-grade year by airing his grievances at a school assembly:

I stood up in front of the entire high school, swallowed hard, and read:

Everyday, millions of innocent children are unwillingly part of a terrible dictatorship. The government takes them away from their families and brings them to cramped, crowded buildings where they are treated as slaves in terrible conditions. For seven hours a day, they are indoctrinated to love their current conditions and support their government and society. As if this was not enough, they are often held for another two hours to exert themselves almost to the point of physical exhaustion, and sometimes injury. Then, when at home, during the short few hours which they are permitted to see their families they are forced to do additional mind-numbing work which they finish and return the following day.

This isn't some repressive government in some far-off country. It's happening right here: we call it school.

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Neither Robert Ryshke nor other NSCDS sources could remember whether this actually happened. ("It would not be unlike Aaron to have done this," Ryshke acknowledges.) Regardless, the story reflects his belief that high school was a malevolent enemy that needed to be vanquished. No matter what anyone else thought or said, Swartz knew he was making the right decision. ("He said he had tried to convince a lot of his classmates to drop out with him, and he hadn't succeeded with any of them," says Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, describing Swartz's memories of that time. "I can only imagine what their parents were thinking.") In the summer of 2001, at age 14, Swartz withdrew from North Shore Country Day.

*     *     *

While Swartz struggled to make his way in the offline world, his online life was thriving. He’d accompanied his father on a business trip to MIT, where he sat in on a lecture by Philip Greenspun, a professor and open-source-software advocate. Greenspun had a company called ArsDigita, which sponsored a contest in which teenagers competed to build useful, non-commercial websites. Swartz entered the contest in 2000 and was honored as a finalist for his entry, The Info Network, an encyclopedia that anyone could edit. (This was months before Wikipedia launched in 2001.)

“Getting ‘real information’ to people on the World Wide Web is 13-year-old Aaron Swartz's job. He's tired of all the banner ads, the sponsorships and other miscellaneous ‘junk’ hogging the screens,” explained the Chicago Tribune in a June 2000 article about Swartz’s contest entry. “That's not what the Internet was made for. It was based on open standards and freedom, not ads,” Swartz told the Tribune. It didn’t matter that Swartz’s friends and family were the only ones that used The Info Network, or that, for some reason, its highest-rated entries tended to concern Chicago Cubs benchwarmers like Shane Andrews and Jeff Reed. At an early age, he’d discovered what he loved to do: find information, organize it, and share it with anyone who cared to look.

The Web also enabled Swartz to thrive socially. “I have developed my most meaningful relationships online,” the 14-year-old Swartz wrote in April 2001. “None of them live within driving distance. None of them are about my own age. Even among those who I would not count as ‘friends,’ I have met many people online who have simply commented on my work or are interested by what I do. Through the Internet, I've developed a strong social network—something I could never do if I had to keep my choice of peers within school grounds.”

Aaron Swartz with Interim Executive Director Brad Patrick at Wikimania, 2006.
Aaron Swartz with Interim Executive Director Brad Patrick at Wikimania, August 2006.

Courtesy ofGus Freedman/Wikimedia Foundation Inc.

He connected with his online network via his blog, which he started in early 2002 and which quickly became popular among the hard-core tech set. Swartz was a good, clear writer even as a teenager, opinionated and prolific. If he often came across as aggressive or disdainful, it was likely because he was trying to compensate for his youth—which, early on, was something he was always conscious of, and which he didn’t advertise. Wes Felter, a researcher and blogger who knew him at the time, says Swartz would reject “bland arguments” that he was just a kid and didn’t have enough experience to be spouting off his opinions. “He would fight back and say, ‘No, I believe in a certain thing, and unless you actually provide a good argument, I'm not going to change my mind.’ ”

Many of Swartz’s correspondents were involved in the Semantic Web movement, a push to structure the online world so it would be easier for computers to parse. The dot-com boom had prompted tremendous, rapid growth, and the Web was like a city with no zoning ordinances. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), an organization created by World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee in 1994, pressed to standardize the Internet—to ensure that pages would display properly, and that the transmission and retrieval of information would keep getting better, not worse.

The W3C did a lot of this work through mailing lists. On these email chains, participants hashed out coding questions, debated standards, and laid the groundwork for the future of the Internet. Though the lists were primarily used by academics and professional programmers, anyone could participate. “There was a tradition started in the early days of the Internet. It was a meritocracy,” says Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive. “So if you are talented, and help, then you're a first-class member of whatever group you want to be a part of.”

Aaron Swartz, then 13, posted his first message to the rdfweb-dev group on Aug. 21, 2000: “Hello everyone, I'm Aaron. I'm not _that_ much of a coder, (and I don't know much Perl) but I do think what you're doing is pretty cool, so I thought I'd hang out here and follow along (and probably pester a bit).”

Lots of kids are obsessed with trains. Not as many are passionate about tracks and switches and signals. But even then, Swartz was fascinated by the foundational inadequacies that kept large systems from working as smoothly as they could. This was precisely the stuff that the academics at W3C cared about. Swartz fit right in.

Around this time, Swartz also joined a working group devoted to RSS. The news-reading technology had originally been developed by Netscape, but the company lost interest in maintaining it, leading online tinkerers to pick up the slack. As of 2000, two groups of programmers wanted to take RSS in two different directions. One of them was a group affiliated with the Semantic Web, which moved to rewrite the standard to include metadata that was easier to parse. Swartz aligned himself with this crowd, and helped work on a standard called RSS 1.0.

Many obituaries have stated that Swartz created or co-created RSS. He didn’t. Swartz was part a splinter group that created a version of RSS that relatively few people used. Nevertheless, his contributions were real, and valued, and his collaborators were inevitably surprised when they learned Swartz was a teenager.

“You meet these people in text originally,” remembers Dan Connolly, a software engineer who spent 15 years affiliated with W3C. “The guy’s writing code, making intelligent comments; as far as you know, he's your peer. Then you find out he's 14, and you’re like, ‘Oh!’ ”

*     *     *

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