The understated genius of Aaron Swartz

Before this weekend, I’d never heard of hacker, programmer, writer and activist Aaron Swartz, but his work changed the way I use the Internet.

At the age of 14 he co-wrote the Really Simple Syndication (RSS) standard, the news publishing protocol which allowed information to be shared and consumed across websites and newsreader software, fundamentally changing the way people access information. It powers so many websites I’ve worked on over the years.

By the age of 19, Aaron had revolutionised the news again. He become co-owner of Reddit – a social news website that has changed the way many people find the best online content, can make a website famous and has been known to crash web servers under the sheer volume of traffic it can send to a website. This has been called The Reddit Effect.

As well as having a brilliant, curious mind, Aaron Swartz believed that the Web should be a force for good and wanted to make information available to all. As technology policy reporter Timothy Lee pointed out in the Washington Post. “Internet freedom and public access to information were two recurring themes in his life and work.” He set up Open Library, with a goal of putting one page online for every book ever published

He developed the architecture for the Creative Commons licensing system, which allows me to attach his photo, taken at a Wiki meetup in Boston in 2009 and uploaded to Flickr by rageoss, so other people can freely use and share those photos.

Aaron was also an activist, campaigning for internet freedom. He founded Demand Progress, which was instrumental in campaigns to keep the internet open and free, and helped defeat the Stop Online Piracy Act last year.

Aaron Swartz was being prosecuted for pursuing his vision of an internet free for all. In July 2011, he was charged with computer fraud and other charges that carried a potential sentence of 35 years in jail and $1 million in fines. His crime was to use an automated program to download millions of freely available documents from JSTOR. JSTOR later dropped its charges against Swartz and said it “regretted being drawn into” the case. Despite JSTOR choosing not to pursue the case, U.S. attorney Carmen M. Ortiz decided to go ahead with the trial, which was expected to begin later in 2013.

Aaron was found dead at his apartment on Friday, 11th January 2013. He had taken his own life.

He was 26 years old.

In an official statement, Aaron’s family have blamed his suicide in part on “a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach” and on the U.S. Attorney’s office’s decision to pursue “an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims.”

One thing is clear, that despite having a brilliant, creative and inquisitive mind, Aaron Swartz also had a troubled mind. In 2007, he wrote about depression in a blog post called “Sick.”

“Go outside and get some fresh air or cuddle with a loved one and you don’t feel any better, only more upset at being unable to feel the joy that everyone else seems to feel. Everything gets colored by the sadness.”

One of the key contributing factors in Aaron’s death was depression – a condition that’s still very much misunderstood. Again, in Aaron’s own words:

The economist Richard Layard, after advocating that the goal of public policy should be to maximize happiness, set out to learn what the greatest impediment to happiness was today. His conclusion: depression. Depression causes nearly half of all disability, it affects one in six, and explains more current unhappiness than poverty. And (important for public policy) Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy has a short-term success rate of 50%. Sadly, depression (like other mental illnesses, especially addiction) is not seen as “real” enough to deserve the investment and awareness of conditions like breast cancer (1 in 8) or AIDS (1 in 150). And there is, of course, the shame.

We’ve lost a great talent and we’ll never know what else Aaron Swartz could have achieved.

As MSNBC correspondent Chris Hayes so eloquently put it: “We’re going to miss your brilliant mind, your righteous heart and your sensitive soul.”

Read some other tributes to Aaron: