Imagine that it’s 1968; you’re being told that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. got shot, and your first question is: “Dr. Martin who?”
Most people did not know of Aaron Swartz, not until after he died. I did not know Aaron Swartz, but I knew of him, and of his work. Aaron Swartz was something of a modern-day hero, but like most modern-day heroes, be they large or small, he was not celebrated nearly as much as he deserved to be. Unlike in the ’60s, when the eye of the world turned only to people few and far between, today’s heroes have to compete for the world’s attention with celebrities and movie stars, reality TV shows filled with ordinary people, and a never-ending compendium of interesting, funny, or aggravating distractions on the Internet. The stories of today’s heroes are still being told, only heard by far smaller audiences.
But that’s not the whole picture. There seems to be a sense among many people in the Western world that our society is done evolving, done growing up. That things are all good and sorted, and that the only major, all of mankind-sized challenges we face are those far from home: the hunger and poverty in Africa; the conflicts in the Middle East; overpopulation in India and China. That the only scientific and technological advances we are making are for curing diseases and making our work and play lives a little easier and better.
Panem et circenses. Bread and circuses. The pinnacle of a society, the lie that obfuscates the pivotal moment for its history yet to come.
Oh, we know that there are problems here at home as well. Western politics are more polarized than ever, a fact that only few would deny. But those problems aren’t challenges we deem it worth uniting for. We all too often forego overcoming our differences, and end up failing to work together effectively towards a better future for all of us. We fail to empathize with the needs and concerns of others, the very people with whom we form our society.
I did not know Aaron Swartz, but from what I knew of him, and from the many more things I have learned about him since his death, it would seem that Aaron was not like this. On the contrary, Aaron was someone who always found ways to be productive, working towards making ours a better society. In the words of Tim Berners-Lee, Aaron was an activist and an elder. He saw the great problems facing us and tackled them head first.
Aaron was, of course, far from the only one to do so. But he had a way of seeing the interconnected nature of things, so clearly and vividly that he could bring people together and find creative solutions, in ways that amazed and inspired many of our industry’s luminaries. Millions of people around the world have benefitted tremendously from Aaron’s contributions, yet most will never know his name.
I did not know Aaron Swartz, but I know that he was smarter than me. He understood at a very young age that meaningful thoughts and understanding come from asking the right questions. At age 21 he had already figured out deeply complex, highly interconnected problems facing our industry and society—problems which I’ve only just started to get a decent understanding about in my late 20s, with the help and education of many friends.
I say this not to diminish myself, or to idolize Aaron. We all have our demons that keep us from being the person we could truly be; what matters is what we do when we suppress those demons. By all accounts, Aaron wasted not a second of his time on frivolities, understanding in a profound way the importance of the things he worked and fought for. I will remember Aaron, if only to remind myself of how important these issues are and how little time we can waste to fix them.
Be better, do more
But I want to do more. Aaron would do more. So I’m looking to his efforts and contributions as a source of inspiration to learn from, and become better and more effective as someone who shared his beliefs and idealism, and is willing—or feels it their moral obligation—to work hard for those beliefs.
One way is by being more curious and asking better questions. I plan to give myself a new rule, and I share it here for those who may wish to do the same:
When you find yourself debating with someone, stop and do something more productive; like learning all about where the person you’re debating with might be coming from.
There is much we can learn from conflict and debate, but the onus is on ourselves to do so. The onus is not on the other to find some magical combination of words that will bring about a revelation in our thinking, an enlightenment of our understanding, and make us see the world differently. Chances are, we are too stubborn for any such combination of words to exist.
I have learned many things from debates, but most of them not directly from my “opponents.” More often than not it is in the post-debate contemplations and analysis, the meta-discussions of the debates. Things about society, about politics, about law and justice, and above all, things about how differently other people think and rationalize.
I learned that justice as a concept is highly malleable. That it’s easy to find justice when you can get consensus of a large enough group of people, but that justice is legislated by only a small minority, much more susceptible to corrupting influences from the rich and powerful people and organizations. But corruption has a shorter lifespan than justice; our challenge is to make sure that its lifespan does not exceed our own.
Aaron strongly believed in justice, real justice; something that sometimes differs from what is legislated. There are things I strongly believe in, too, including real justice. I will remember Aaron Swartz, and to honor his legacy I will strive to ask better questions, always stay curious, and work hard to make a better world.