Aaron Swartz, the humanist hacker

Aaron Swartz’s death has left me, and many others, with a deep sense of loss. He’s been described variously as a hacker, a web activist, and an Internet folk hero.

In his Twitter bio, he described himself as an “applied sociologist,” which perhaps better captures his interests, which ran unusually wide and deep.

His last Tweet was a jokey retort listing his favorite five directors of the U.S. Mint.

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David Weinberger at Harvard’s Berkman Center writes that Aaron wasn’t a “hacker” in the “black hat,” media-hysteric sense of the word, and outlines his many, many accomplishments.

But to forget the hacker aspects of Aaron is to forget a lot of what makes his legacy special.

We met for the fist time over lunch at Café Pamplona three years ago to discuss our mutual interest in public records. He off-handedly told me his apartment had been raided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation after he had downloaded about 20 percent of the PACER court records database, and that he thought there was an opportunity to get the Feds to do some work for him.

A lot of his equipment had been confiscated, including boxes of tape backups that he had received in response to an unrelated Freedom of Information Act request, but which he’d been unable to read himself since he didn’t have the proper equipment.

He told me about how he had filed a new FOIA request with the FBI for the records they’d seized from him, in the hopes that, in their effort to build a case against him, they’d decoded the cumbersome tapes — which they would then need to turn over to him.

Aaron, who would gleefully use the cumbersome bureaucracy of government to decode itself, was truly a hacker. His most important genius had nothing to do with computer systems, and everything to do a passionate curiosity and a playful spirit, tempered by a deep humanity.

It wasn’t his code that left us richer, but his ongoing quest to use technology, politics, and society to “life a little less unfair” for everyone, as Matt Stoller beautifully noted.

Although he was not an MIT alum, it was this hacker spirit that endeared him to that community, and it’s this spirit that I will miss the most.

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