I woke up Saturday morning full of plans for the trek to Charlottesville. It was the day we’d take our beloved Jenny back to school at the University of Virginia.
I checked my New York Times feed on my phone and learned that Aaron Swartz was dead. The headline identified him as one of the key developers of RSS, the web info-feed architecture that has been, literally and metaphorically, both the glue and the fuel for most of my professional and intellectual development over the last decade.
I hadn’t heard of Aaron Swartz. And now, many of the RSS feeds I read at breakfast were lighting up with news of his death, with grief, with information, with analysis. I felt three essentially conflicted emotions. One was grief and sympathy for those who had lost a friend and loved one. One, strangely, was the intellectual rush I always feel when I find a new thinker whom I suspect, deep within my soul, I will learn a great deal from. And one was the deep, deep sorrow that I had not found him before, and now I would never meet him and be able to say “thank you” for what would clearly be the gifts that would enrich me immeasurably.
Since Saturday morning, I have been reading the memorials written by those who knew Aaron. They are emotionally and intellectually complex. Rather than describe them here, I’ll simply link to a few I found particularly resonant:
Dave Winer’s “Online Grieving,” the first memorial post I read, a wise and troubled meditation on the strange and shocking complexities of grief.
Cory Doctorow’s memorial on BoingBoing, an insightful and moving account of the extraordinary (and difficult) man Cory knew as a friend and fellow activist.
Larry Lessig’s passionate, precise denunciation of the shameful prosecutorial bullying that Aaron was trying to live through.
Quinn Norton’s deeply moving post on the love she shared with Aaron, and her publication of the post in which Aaron described his love for her. Love: made of hunger for conversation and delight in finding a partner whose stride matches yours. The fourth and fifth paragraphs of Aaron’s description of their meeting match my own experience of love so intensely and perfectly that I cannot stop thinking about them.
Matt Stoller’s post over on Naked Capitalism, one that makes me grieve even more for the deep, sophisticated faith Aaron retained in the power of organizations and “social institutions” to do good, even the world’s mightiest government was bearing down on him. (When I read the stories last Saturday, I realized I had heard of Aaron after all, though I didn’t remember his name, for of course I’d read about the JSTOR downloads at MIT. Odd that the story didn’t lead me farther, then. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.)
An elegy for Aaron, and a lament for those who left behind, from the man who invented the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee:
John Naughton’s initial post on Aaron’s death linked to the memorial that moved me the most: Aaron’s own words in a talk he called “How To Get A Job Like Mine.”
It’s an extraordinary document in every way. I’ve read it over and over in the last 48 hours, thinking hard about the five stages he outlines:
1. Learn. 2. Try. 3. Gab. 4. Build. 5. Freedom.
This is a story of education. This is a curriculum. This should be the foundation of all curricula. Anything that interferes with any of these stages, or with their fruitful combination, should be abandoned, destroyed. And because these stages will look different for every learning, should look different for every learner, we must learn how to embed these practices within every course of study in a way that responds to, and nurtures, those differences.
His meditation on freedom also makes it clear that Aaron had learned Pete Townshend’s lesson: “no easy way to be free.” That one of the projects Aaron once considered was reforming higher education deepens my grief, and our loss. His single paragraph about his time at Stanford echoes in my mind over and over, in a shattering kind of mental/emotional feedback loop:
And then I left it all and went to college for a year. I attended Stanford University, an idyllic little school in California where the sun is always shining and the grass is always green and the kids are always out getting a tan. It’s got some great professors and I certainly learned a bunch, but I didn’t find it a very intellectual atmosphere, since most of the other kids seemed profoundly unconcerned with their studies.
That last sentence has sparked some intense meditation in me, especially the last phrase. More on that another time.
Aaron closes his talk with three rules:
- Be curious. Read widely. Try new things. I think a lot of what people call intelligence just boils down to curiosity.
- Say yes to everything. I have a lot of trouble saying no, to an pathological degree — whether to projects or to interviews or to friends. As a result, I attempt a lot and even if most of it fails, I’ve still done something.
- Assume nobody else has any idea what they’re doing either. A lot of people refuse to try something because they feel they don’t know enough about it or they assume other people must have already tried everything they could have thought of. Well, few people really have any idea how to do things right and even fewer are to try new things, so usually if you give your best shot at something you’ll do pretty well.
At this too-late date, then, I find another kindred spirit, a person to admire and emulate. An unmet friend. A teacher. They say that when the student is ready, the teacher appears. That’s often true, and a greatly hopeful thing, one that encourages readiness above all. Today, though, it feels like the student was ready and the teacher disappeared.
I know there’s still a world of Aaron online to explore and learn from. I echo Dave Winer’s hope that the web Aaron created, the words and images and links, the look of the sites themselves, will persist: “maybe we can do something to make sure that his blog remains online as long as there is a web, which hopefully is quite a long time.” I am very glad to see a memorial archive is already underway. The archive is within the Internet Archive itself, where on the front page of the Aaron Swartz Collection we read these small, poignant words: “This is a new thing for the Internet Archive: a memorial archive collection.” The location is just and right. Like Christopher Wren, whose tomb lies in the crypt of the St. Paul’s Cathedral he designed, Aaron Swartz can receive this epitaph within the awe-inspiring home for spirit he helped to build, a World Wide Web: Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice.
As I thought about what I wanted to say here, I thought about George Steiner’s haunting words in Lessons Of The Masters, words I blogged about many years ago that express my grief today:
We have seen that Mastery is fallible, that jealousy, vanity, falsehood, and betrayal intrude almost unavoidably. But its ever renewed hopes, the imperfect marvel of the thing, direct us to the dignitas in the human person, to its homecoming to its better self. No mechanical means, however expeditious, no materialism, however triumphant, can eradicate the daybreak we experience when we have understood a Master. That joy does nothing to alleviate death. But it makes one rage at its waste. Is there no time for another lesson?