How to honor Aaron Swartz’s life
Today is the third anniversary of the suicide of Aaron Swartz.
Aaron was one of my closest friends. That night was the worst of my life.
In the weeks and months that followed, many of his friends and family — and many people that never knew him personally — asked themselves and each other the same question: what’s the best way to honor Aaron’s death?
Was it to reform the archaic laws (including the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, passed in the 80s during the hysteria around the fictional film War Games) that had been used to prosecute him? Was it to make academic research available freely to the public? Was it reforming the criminal justice system as a whole, and academia, and the political system?
Yes, yes, and yes — all of the above. But also something more than that — something personal: what I and others concluded was that the best way we could honor Aaron’s life and death was in the way we lived our own lives.
In short, by living to make the biggest difference we could. By staying focused on the big questions — and never letting ourselves grow satisfied that we had all the right answers or were doing enough.
Aaron left a guide for how to do this, both in his own writing and in how he led his life.
First: Stay curious. Read all the time. You’ll never know what’s out there, and what you can do to change it, if you’re not looking out at the world beyond. Aaron read more than anyone I know, often several books a week (his annual book summaries are amazing), but any of us can embrace our curiosity and find ways to seek new information and ideas.
Second: Don’t accept things as they are, or assume they’re that way for a good reason. Aaron questioned everything. Sometimes it got him into trouble. But the beauty of skepticism is that sometimes you see things everyone else is furiously ignoring. It was a foregone conclusion that SOPA, or something like it, would become law. But Aaron saw foregone conclusions not as a deterrent, but as a personal challenge. And we’re all better for it.
Third: Become good at something. And then use it to make a difference. Aaron was a genius computer programmer. He said it was like having magic powers: he could think of something and then make it real. He could have used that power to become obscenely wealthy. Instead, he used his magic to fight for justice. Most of us will never be as good at anything as he was at coding. But if you’re serious about making change, it helps to develop some skills — and then to apply them to problems that really matter.
Fourth: Ask yourself what you could do to make the biggest difference in the world. And then challenge your answers. A raft of psychological research tells us that humans generally do things first, and then come up with reasons for them afterwards. Aaron struggled brilliantly against this. He saw it as imperative that we actually ask the hard questions, and not accept easy answers. The job you’re in: is it really the most important thing you could be doing with your life? The new car: is it more important to you than the difference you could make if you donated the money? These questions can make us uncomfortable. But that’s a good kind of discomfort. It’s something we could all use a lot more of. Even if it doesn’t make life easy, it makes it meaningful.
And lastly: Stay alive. Aaron took life seriously. He worked hard to be good at it. (Read his series “Raw Nerve” for some lasting insights on that front.) But then he ended his own. From the perspective of impact, of creating positive change in the world, this was the biggest mistake he could have made.
Don’t be surprised if at some point in your life, maybe at many points, you find yourself submerged in a darkness that seems infinite and eternal. It might seem to you like it’s always been that way, it will always be that way, and there’s only one way out.
You’re wrong. It will get better. But it will only get better if you find some way to survive.
Aaron constantly asked himself how he could do more to change the world, but on one terrible day, he ended his ability to contribute forever. Don’t do that.
We need you. We need all of us. There’s a lot of work to be done.