Too Early - monday 2013-01-14 0106 last modified 2013-01-14 0106
Categories: Daily Grind
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Most news outlets are noting why you should care that Aaron Swartz committed suicide - because he was the co-founder of Reddit. It would be correct to attribute its success to his involvement, but it would be tragic to reduce his contributions to the world to just one very popular gathering point on the web that hasn't even been associated with him for several years. Off the top of my head, he won the ArsDigita Prize before he was a teenager, an award given back then off the profits of an open source-drive consultancy whose brain trust picked him out of hundreds of applicants (NB: I worked there). Something about that contest attracted stars; those of Aaron's co-applicants I chanced to meet are successes in their own right. But he won.

Aaron was active as a young teen in discussions of formulating a general metadata framework viable for the web at the center of web standards development at the time, the W3C, also lending his voice to formulating one of the forerunners to today's web feeds (NB: I worked there). He was also, if I understand correctly, involved with both the technical and policy sides of Creative Commons, the people's license for artistic works placed on the web, and his association there with Larry Lessig seems to have helped move him to broader philosophical and political spheres. Much as Lessig shifted from the somewhat specialized concentration on intellectual property into battling political corruption, Aaron's interests also seemed to shift towards fighting for progressive political causes, trying to revolutionize libraries along the way.

I won't guarantee that's all factually precise, and you can find a more accurate narrative on Wikipedia, I'm sure, but Aaron's trail crosses all manner of domains. That kind of agile mind and thinking leave a distinct impression of brilliance. It would have been fascinating to follow where his philosophy and ideas carried him in the six decades or so of life that should have been left to him. But the world has instead lost one of its brightest and most innovative minds, and we are poorer for it.

Lessig has taken to the net to echo Aaron's family's sentiments, that the impending federal case against Aaron was a primary motivating factor for his final slide into the darkness of depression. His post on the matter outlines it clearly, but in summary there are two parties he picks out for special blame: the United States government and its prosecutor, and MIT (NB: I worked there).

I wish I'd used my position as an alumnus of the Institute to voice displeasure with their treatment of Aaron. No doubt he broke the law; but a school at the intersection of technology and effective technical policy should have a far better grasp of how to treat the criminal misbehavior of the young and bright. That is perhaps the soul of its educational being, to guide the rough edged brilliance of youth towards great things. It is an absolute shame that the Institute might become the sort of place where those who don't hew strictly to the rules are persecuted instead of admonished and gently redirected.

I am angry, but it is not to assuage a temporary feeling that I say this: I'm never donating a penny to the Institute again. I admittedly gave little and rarely before. Now I will give no more. Perhaps I'll reconsider if MIT can figure out a way to make this right. I am biased against that outcome.

Finally, a word to the young people who are considering MIT for their undergraduate education. Don't buy into college rankings. MIT might have that number one next to its name this year. But an absolutely brilliant young man is now dead in part because of a mistake he made while on its premises. Weigh that out in your decision making.

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