Aaron Swartz was an internet leader and free-speech advocate. He helped organize the worldwide movement to keep the internet free from censorship and corporate control. After Aaron downloaded a large number of scholarly articles from the JSTOR website without JSTOR’s permission, he was indicted for violating JSTOR’s terms of service. Facing long years in prison, Aaron committed suicide last month, at the age of 26. At a recent memorial service for Aaron in Washington, DC, Congressman Alan Grayson was invited to speak. Here is what he said:
CONGRESSMAN GRAYSON: Aaron worked in my office as an intern. He had a quality that I found unnerving. He could come up with better things for him to do than I could come up with for him to do. Time and time again, I would give him something to do, and he’d say, “Is it okay if I also work on this other thing?” And “this other thing” turned out to be much more important than anything that I could come up with.
I learned to live with that. I learned to live with that shortcoming, which I took to be a shortcoming of my own, not one of his.
The other unnerving quality that I found in him was the fact that when he would conjure these assignments, they actually came to fruition — an unusual phenomenon here on Capitol Hill. [Laughter.] He’d give himself something to do, I would recognize that it was very worthwhile, I let him do it, and it got done! He was a remarkable human being.
Another thing that I found unnerving — but also very endearing — about Aaron was that Aaron wanted to rock the boat. Now, we all hear from a very, very young age, “Don’t rock the boat.” I would venture to say that of the 2000 languages spoken on this planet, probably every single one of them has an idiom in that language for that term: “Don’t rock the boat.” And yet Aaron wanted to rock the boat. Not just for the sake of boat-rocking, but for the sake of improving the lives of ordinary people. And that’s a beautiful, a wonderful quality.
We’re talking about somebody here who helped to create Reddit, an important world-wide service, at the age of nineteen. Honestly, somebody who probably could have spent the rest of his life in bed, ordering pizzas, and left it at that. And yet he didn’t. He continued to strive to do good — good as he saw it. And that’s a rare quality in people. Many of us, we just have to do our best to get through the day. That’s the way it is. Many of us struggle to do just that. Very few of us actually can think big thoughts, and make them happen. But Aaron was one of those rare people.
And he was willing to take the heat for rocking the boat. Now, you know, sometimes when you rock the boat, the boat tries to rock you. That is exactly what he encountered, right up until the end.
And it’s a sad thing, that that’s the price you have to pay. For some of us who rock the boat, we end up losing our property. For some of us who rock the boat, we end up losing our freedom. For some of us who rock the boat, we end up losing our families. And in Aaron’s case, his life.
And yet, he was willing to face the facts, and to let that happen. To keep striving, to keep struggling, to keep trying to shake things up.
Aaron’s life reminded me about a different life that came to the same end. It’s the life of Alan Turing, a brilliant mathematician. He lived in England, and was born one hundred years ago. Alan Turing was the greatest mathematician of the 20th Century. He not only invented the Turing Machine, which is the basis for all modern computing, but Alan Turing also broke the Nazi codes during World War II, and allowed the English and the Americans to defeat the Nazis.
You would think that someone like that would be cherished. Someone like that who, if he had managed to have a full life, might have won one, or two, or even three, Nobel Prizes. But in fact he was vilified, because he was a homosexual, which, at that point in England, in those days, was illegal. And I’m sure that at that point in England, in those days, there were people who said, “Well, the law is the law. And if you disobey the law, then you should go to prison.” Because of that, because his boyfriend turned him in, Alan Turing was convicted of perversity, and sentenced to prison.
Given the choice between spending hard time — years and years of his life — instead of doing the mathematics that he loved, or alternatively, to accept estrogen injections, well, Turing took the estrogen injection choice. And that broke not only his body, but his mind. He found that he could not do the thing he loved the most, mathematics, any longer. So after two years of this, Alan Turing committed suicide.
And who lost, out of that? Well, Alan Turing lost. But so did all of we. We lost as well. All of us who would have benefitted from that first, and second, and the third Nobel Prizes that Alan Turing had in him. And that Aaron Swartz had in him.
We’re the ones who lose.
If we let our prejudices, our desires to restrain those with creativity — if we let that lead us to the point where that creativity is restrained, then going back all the way to the time of Socrates, what we engage in is human sacrifice. We sacrifice their lives, out of the misguided sense that we need to protect ourselves from them, when in fact it’s the opposite.
Our lives have meaning, our lives have greater meaning, from the things that they create. So we’re here today to remember Aaron — and also to try to learn from the experience. To understand that prosecution should not be persecution.
This morning I reached into the closet, randomly took out this tie [showing necktie], and wore it. And I have a sense that sometimes, things are connected in ways that are not exactly obvious. It happens that this tie is a painting of “Starry Night” by Vincent Van Gogh, someone else whose life ended all too soon.
In a Don McLean song about Vincent Van Gogh, it ends this way: “They would not listen. They’re not listening still. Perhaps they never will.”
It’s time to listen.
“And when no hope was left in sight,
On that starry, starry night,
You took your life, as lovers often do.
But I could have told you, Vincent,
This world was never meant for one
As beautiful as you.”
-Don McLean, “Starry, Starry Night” (1971).