"When there's a problem, you shouldn't get angry with the gears—you should fix the machine."
I met Aaron only once. It was in December, 2006, and it was after reading about his work and realizing that we had quite a bit in common. As I put it to him in an e-mail, we shared a first name, a general dislike for the American educational system, were both interested in databases, and had ended up in Cambridge at some point. We agreed to meet at "SuperHappyDevHouse14," a euphemisticaly-named hacker event held roughly every month at a different spot around Silicon Valley.
Aaron was late. He was so late I had to send him another e-mail asking him if he was coming at all. Eventually, after about an hour, he materialized—and he revealed that he had walked across a good portion of the peninsula to get to the event, from the CalTrain stop to Interstate 280. He hadn't realized how far away the event location was, and he didn't have a car.
I don't particularly remember much of what we discussed—something about people we both knew at Harvard interested in technology—only how we discussed it. I was likely excited about programming something of use to the business world, but Aaron's interest was piqued by other topics, which you could piece together if you strung together his quiet replies. I didn't know quite what to make of someone so brilliant, with so much to say, but so seemingly reserved. Nonetheless, I wouldn't let him walk back to the CalTrain (nor did he want to), and I drove him the three miles back.
It seems unlikely that our interaction was an aberration. Aaron was hyperarticulate when addressing large audiences, whether through talks or his writing on-line, but almost completely silent when addressing anyone individually that he did not deeply trust. I wish I had been able to gain his trust, because although we were also quite different in some important aspects, we really did have more in common than I think he knew, and perhaps that might have helped him.
At the time we met, I had just narrowly escaped being the subject of criminal charges filed by the United States Attorney's Office in Alexandria, Virginia. After I discovered and reported a disturbingly serious flaw in a computer system used by the General Services Administration (GSA) linked to the Department of Defense Central Contractor Registration (CCR) database in early 2006, I was summoned to Washington to be interviewed so that a federal prosecutor could determine whether or not to file criminal charges. The interview lasted several hours, with five GSA Inspector General agents and my lawyer also present. At the end, the U.S. Attorney decided to let me go. For that one interview, my legal fees were just over four thousand dollars.
That period of my life involved some of the most intense, prolonged stress that I have ever felt. Knowing that there is a realistic possibility that you could go to jail, knowing that your so-called crime was in fact borne of good intentions (and in my case, as the Ninth Circuit later clarified indirectly, did not even violate the law), knowing that it was incredibly unlikely that anyone would care enough to truly help (with legal arguments, legal fees, publicity, etc.), and knowing that you have caused your family the same stress, is crushing. The amount of cortisol in your blood is easily enough to cause unwelcome physical effects, some of which have followed me since, and will probably remain throughout the rest of my life.
For me, the nightmare basically ended with the U.S. Attorney's decision to drop the case. Obviously, for Aaron Swartz, it didn't, and it pains me to think of him going through roughly what I did, only for longer. I tried to talk to him about it, but for whatever reason, he wouldn't respond. He retained some of the best lawyers there are—among them, Andy Good (who was also my lawyer when Harvard began threatening me with disciplinary action for creating houseSYSTEM)—but that too wasn't enough. And it's never enough, because as Aaron was so well aware, the system is deeply—and as his mentor and friend Lawrence Lessig has recently pointed out, almost irreparably—broken.
This is what I take away from Aaron's suicide: that one can no longer claim that the politics of our day does not affect them. It affects us all so much. For every Aaron Swartz there are a thousand or ten thousand or a hundred thousand other cases where the flaws in our democracy led government to the wrong decision. And those flaws and cases are now visible on PlainSite because of Aaron's work.
Aaron is thus, in a tragically ironic way, a casualty of the very system he was trying to fix. Whether his suicide was triggered by the anniversary of his arrest, or JSTOR's validation of his point via its decision to make documents freely available two days before, or lifelong depression, or all of the above, is almost immaterial, at least according to Aaron. We can't do anything about those triggers, and there will always be depression. Life is not a supper happy dev house, or even close. What we can do is look at the machine that runs our lives. It is the machine that is broken, and it is the machine we must fix.
How to go about fixing the machine is where Aaron and I (and many others) seriously diverged. Aaron was, to be frank, an extremist: someone willing to go to relative extremes to defend a point. He demonstrated this at least twice, in the case of the PACER data download, and again when he attempted something similar with JSTOR. Extremists are always interesting and polarizing people, loved or hated depending on what side one happens to be on.
I cannot emphasize enough how thankful I am that Aaron had both the insight and the nerve to do what he did with regard to PACER, because it has made my current line of work (which I am only in, I should add, because of other parallel flaws in the legislative system) possible. I think it's unlikely that I would have done it on my own, but nonetheless, his work directly inspired me to start PlainSite, and was vital as I created it. And yet with JSTOR, he crossed the invisible and somewhat arbitrary line that gave his enemies all of the ammunition they needed to destroy him.
What's the point of calling Aaron an extremist? Well, here's the point: there's only a need to resort to extremes when society has failed to do something important. The cordoning-off of American caselaw is important, with a capital I. The fact that public information, from laws to federally-funded academic research, for all intents and purposes cannot be accessed by the public, is important, and Aaron realized this, because he was drawn to what he thought to be the most important problems. Yet simultaneously, these are abstract and complicated problems that most people, and especially people who are not academics or lawyers, feel incredibly distant from. At least, until they are themselves in court, but even then, they may still not understand them.
By not taking up the cause that Aaron (and others before him, such as Carl Malamud) spearheaded, and by even unintentionally portraying them as crusaders, and not leaders with legitimate and important messages, we left him the burden of changing society single-handedly. No one can do that. Not even someone as precocious, intelligent, and insightful as Aaron Swartz.
For my part, I will attempt to carry on Aaron's legacy through growing PlainSite. But PlainSite is a product that should never have needed to exist. It is the government's job to provide the services that PlainSite attempts to provide, and that Aaron wanted provided: easy access to public information. It is a band-aid on a gaping societal wound, and one that we all see now thanks to Aaron.
So we should fix the machine. More than punishing Aaron's bullying prosecutors, we should shine a light on all prosecutors, on all regulations, and all laws that lead to horrifically unjust outcomes in cases we don't hear about. So far as I can tell, that's what Aaron was going for. Now that he's gone, we have an even longer way to go.