At Memorial for Aaron Swartz, Seeking Inspiration From an Activist’s Life

“Aaron’s dream of a world was nothing less than a world without suffering or injustice of any kind."
Ms. Stinebrickner-Kauffman. (screencap: Democracy Now)

Ms. Stinebrickner-Kauffman. (screencap: Democracy Now)

The hard thing to reconcile at Saturday’s memorial to the Internet activist Aaron Swartz was that the young man remembered for his idealistic soul and brilliant mind was the same young man who, one week before, had hung himself.

For more than two hours, friends and former colleagues remembered Mr. Swartz’s intellect and caring nature, his quirks of personality and generosity of spirit; How at the age of 14, he’d helped build technology underlying RSS feeds and collaborated to found the Creative Commons; How he’d bypassed the road to fame and fortune to devote himself to causes like defeating the Stop Online Piracy Act.

And so it seemed no accident that the photographs projected on the walls of Cooper Union’s Great Hall showed Mr. Swartz in a saintly light, a young man perpetually on the brink of discovery; not a tortured soul who’d taken his own life, but a martyr who’d been driven to his death by the powerful entities that he had challenged.

Saturday’s memorial service, then, was not just a moment for sadness: It was permeated with anger, driven by a community determined to not let their loss be in vain, to apply lessons from Mr. Swartz’s life and death to their own lives.

“This was not suicide,” said Thoughtworks founder Roy Singham told the audience. “This was murder by intimidation, bullying and torment.”

Anyone who has read about Mr. Swartz in the aftermath of his death will be familiar with the legal troubles widely believed to have led him to take his own life. In the summer of 2011, Mr. Swartz was indicted by federal prosecutors for illegally downloading more than 4 million academic papers from the JSTOR database, an alleged crime that Mr. Swartz’s supporters saw as a victimless bit of mischief, but which the Department of Justice deemed deserving of as much as 35 years in prison.

As the crowd had filed into the auditorium, and organizers played Pete Seeger playing protest songs, it was not lost Betabeat that Mr. Swartz’s death has extended the reach of his cause; Mr. Seeger himself couldn’t attend the memorial, but sent his grandson to deliver a brief message. Mr. Swartz loved the writer Tom Chiarella, so Mr. Chiarella turned up to perform a reading. In Washington, legislators on either side of the aisle promised action in the wake of Mr. Swartz’s passing.

Mr. Swartz was many things to many people. In the words of the friends who addressed the crowd at Cooper Union, he was a communitarian and an internationalist, a rhetorician, a philosopher, an amateur historian and sociologist. He was a person not in the habit of doing things he didn’t want to, whether that meant eating adventurously or reading poetry or doing the dishes.

He was the epitome of curiosity—“He didn’t believe he was smarter than anyone else, he just thought he asked better questions,” his partner, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman said—equipped with the kind of flexible mind that might begin a conversation on the will power of Victorian Britons and end it on the question of whether GDP statistics are robust enough to tell us whether technological progress is slowing.

“Aaron’s unique quality was that he was marvelously and vigorously different,” said Edward Tufte, a Yale professor and statistician who had mentored Mr. Swartz.

He was committed to using his prodigious talent to make the world a better place.

“Aaron’s dream of a world was nothing less than a world without suffering or injustice of any kind,” said Holden Karnofsky, cofounder of GiveWell, a friend of Mr. Swartz.

In the closing remarks to the memorial, Ms. Stinebrickner-Kauffman took aim at the prosecutors with “no sense of proportion or justice,” who was “hellbent on destroying” Mr. Swartz’s life. But Ms. Stinebrickner-Kauffman didn’t end on a note of anger or grief. Instead, she exhorted the audience to use Mr. Swartz’s death as an opportunity to examine their own lives.

“If you’re in the tech sector, why are you there?” she asked. “Do you believe that technology is making the world a better place, why do you believe that?”

“The best possible legacy for him,” she said, “is for all of us to go out today and do everything we can to make the world a better place.”

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