Celebrating a do-it-yourself Web apprenticeship

Updated Jan.15, the day of Aaron Swartz’s funeral; I changed the headline and added a few more links

About finding things out for yourself.

I first saw Aaron Swartz in 2000, when he visited MIT as a runner-up in a youth programming contest, having accomplished at 13 something I couldn’t do at 50 — and me with most of a Ph.D. I don’t remember whether I had a chance to say “congratulations.” At least I got to applaud, and shake my head in wonder.

Many heads are shaking this weekend at the news that Aaron apparently took his own life on Friday, at 26, beset by a federal prosecution over his copying a lot of files from an MIT computer without permission, and probably suffering from depression.

The “why” of his death is just terrible and sad. I would rather celebrate his life by sharing some of his writing, especially items that reflect his passion for tracking down information, asking questions, learning and building things.

In his own words, here’s how a 7th grade assignment helped Aaron find his heroes. http://www.aaronsw.com/weblog/mylifewithtim

About a dozen paragraphs down, that page’s picture of Aaron and “TimBL” (Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the Web) speaks volumes, but so does his unnecessary apology for the quality of his writing — which was already excellent.

I suspect his skill with words — posting curious questions and articulate arguments in email lists — is what set in motion his brilliant, passionate and much too short career.

When he was 14 or so, he wrote an essay on self-education and Web apprenticeship that is no longer at its original address on a family website, but I quickly found a copy in the Internet Archive using its Wayback Machine. Here originally: swartzfam.com/aaron/school/2001/02/19/

From writing he eventually moved on to public speaking, again with self-effacing comments, and posted this script from an online talk he gave to a gathering in India. He borrowed the title from Kurt Vonnegut, another hint of how well-read this young man was: How to get a job like mine.

He was even more public after a successful campaign against legislation he saw as online censorship, and you can see him talk about it on YouTube.

I lost track of Aaron for years. I used Creative Commons and the OpenLibrary.org and the followed the campaign against SOPA and PIPA; I probably used other tools, sites and projects he was involved with, but I didn’t make the connection back to that 13-year-old visiting MIT. When news of his death started spreading from the MIT Tech newspaper to Twitter and beyond, I spent a day following his links and being amazed.

I remembered that I heard from him in 2005 or 2006 after I linked my blog to an automated “river of news” style aggregator for New York Times news stories — something he had set in 2002, using the paper’s first RSS feed. It’s probably not what the feed’s creators had in mind; I think the original idea was to help bloggers link directly to Times stories for discussion purposes, not to build alternatives to the paper’s own front page and archives. But the RSS feed system made it possible, so Aaron did it.

(At 14, his age entirely irrelevant at the keyboard, Aaron had joined an email-list working group of Web experts drafting a formal specification for a more complex “RDF Site Summary” version of RSS, but the Times earlier “Really Simple Syndication” version was good enough for this project.)

In fact, his nytimes.blogspace.com site kept running until September 2009, when the Times changed its feed hosting system. You can still find a scattering of seven years’ worth of Times links through the archive.org Wayback Machine’s copies of that aggregator page.

Even back in 2005, Aaron seemed pleased that someone in Tennessee was using the site to point journalism students to stories they might have missed.

Most of his career, before and since, was about getting people access to information online — through projects including Wikipedia, Creative Commons copyright, campaigns to make court cases and library books available for free, and a startup that became part of Reddit.com.

More recently, in the months preceding his untimely death this weekend, he had been sharing a lot of information in his @aaronsw Twitter feed and blog, on everything from economics to the deeper meanings of the Batman movies.

There’s a little consolation in knowing his work and words will be kept online through the efforts of friends at the Internet Archive and around the World Wide Web, and that his life and work may inspire more activism on behalf of the open-information causes he supported.

For now there is mostly sadness.

Tim Berners-Lee posted to Twitter:

“Aaron dead. World wanderers, we have lost a wise elder. Hackers for right, we are one down. Parents all, we have lost a child. Let us weep.”


mild-mannered reporter who sank into computers and the Web during graduate school in the 1980s and '90s, then taught journalism, media studies and Web production, retiring to write and play more music.

Posted in Digital Culture, Education, HTML, Memorial, WebDesign, writing

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