Aaron Swartz: Ten Years On


Today, January 11th 2023, will mark ten years since the passing of Aaron Swartz. Despite him moving on at just the age of 26, during his life time he made a lasting change across the internet, politics, and society in general. His achievements would have been considered remarkable even across a typical life-span; and yet to have done such by 26 truly speaks to his unparalleled gifts.

By 13, he’d been awarded the ArsDigita prize, given to those who build “useful, educational, and collaborative” websites - given for his work creating The Info Network, a predecessor to Wikipedia. By 14, he helped design the RSS format for syndicating web content far and wide. By 15, he helped establish Creative Commons as a means of making content easily distributable without cumbersome legal agreements. Around 17, he helped John Gruber design Markdown, an easy and accessible plain text file format that powers thousands of blogs. At 19 he founded Infogami, a service which would eventually merge with Reddit; still one of the most popular community news aggregation sites out there. And from 20 onwards, he turned to more societal and political efforts such as the Open Library project, Public.Resource.Org, Change Congress, and Demand Progress. Dozens of projects all with the central goal of tackling corruption and developing systems that work to empower people.

The highlights presented here do not even begin to cover the vast number of fields he contributed to. To have completed even just one of the projects detailed under the ‘works’ section on his Wikipedia page would have been considered a significant contribution and yet Aaron has dozens such projects.

In an early draft of this post, I toyed with the idea of simply reposting Aaron’s article on D. J. Bernstein, an article that opens: “I think it’s time to remind people that D. J. Bernstein is the greatest programmer in the history of the world” but swapping Bernstein’s name for Aarons. However in the end I decided against it; Aaron deserves more than that.

Throughout his life, Aaron was persistent in not just advocating, but enacting, greater transparency, seamless interoperability, and actionable impact in the technology and systems that govern our lives. He persistently pushed to make the rushing waves of data we find ourselves drowning in not just understandable, but able to be acted upon. From an early age he seemed to vividly understand that meaningful change and engagement is not derived by just making information available, but by presenting it in such a way that anyone can understand ‘what does this mean for me?’

But with Aaron’s passing there came a freeze. Without a clear leader to pick up the baton, who was to continue his work? Despite this the tide appears to have changed in recent years. Spending more of our time online than ever as a result of the pandemic has forced online platforms to make their services more easily accessible. Pairing this with the broader questions that have arisen over just what social media sites are doing with our data has renewed calls for more open alternatives - most notably in the form of Mastodon. Machine learning has also played a rule in advancing Aaron’s vision. An insatiable thirst for more data has prompted many organisations and governments across the board to make (at least some) datasets publicly available to explore and build upon. The kind of thing Aaron would have thrived upon.

There’s a quote from Patricia Lockwoods’s ‘No One is Talking About This’:

Certain people were born with the internet inside them and suffered greatly from it.

I think Aaron was one such individual. Someone determined to make the power of the internet as accessible, understandable, and actionable in each and everyone’s lives as possible - no matter the cost. A decade may have passed but his work and impact lives on.