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Aaron Swartz memorial evokes strong emotions and political urgency

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Aaron Swartz's family funeral was held this week in Chicago, but on Saturday, New York hosted a public memorial. Organizers reported an attendance of just under 900, filling Cooper Union's Great Hall to standing-room capacity, with many more watching the livestream at Democracy Now! Friends, family, and colleagues spoke of Swartz's personal stories and enormous ideals, and urged those in attendance to political action and self-reflection.

"We talk about how extraordinary he was, but actually, he wasn't," said friend and former partner Quinn Norton, rejecting the emerging portrait of Swartz as an "internet saint." "He was scared and self-conscious. He could be funny, and greedy, and petty, and loving, and curious, and hopeful, and strange," she said. "But in a culture that is ruled by fear, he learned and taught me that trying is more important than being afraid."

"Let's not pretend this wasn't political."

Many speakers noted the venue's historical association with social justice movements, from famous speeches by Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass to labor movements and the NAACP. Interspersed between stories of Aaron and expression of grief were denunciations of organizations opposed to his work.

"Aaron was targeted by the FBI," said ThoughtWorks chairman Roy Singham, Swartz's employer before his death. "After PACER, they targeted him. He was strip-searched. Let's not pretend this wasn't political," he argued before being interrupted by applause.

Swartz's partner Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman framed her call to action in terms of Swartz's beliefs: "Aaron believed there was no shame in failure. There is deep, deep shame in caring more about believing you're changing the world than actually changing the world."

"The revolution will be A/B tested."

Stinebrickner-Kauffman, also an activist, named five targets for action:

  • Hold the Massachusetts US Attorney's office accountable for its actions in prosecuting Aaron;
  • Press MIT to ensure that it would "never be complicit in an event like this again";
  • "All academic research for all time should be made free and open and available to anybody in the world";
  • Pass and strengthen "Aaron's Law," an amendment to the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act that would narrow prosecutorial discretion for computer crimes;
  • Advocate for fundamental reform of the criminal justice system.

"His last two years were not easy. His death was not easy," Stinebrickner-Kauffman said. Still, she urged the audience to "think big and think tiny… 'The revolution will be A/B tested,'" referencing three of Swartz's favorite maxims. "Look up and not down."

"Think big and think tiny."

Aaron's wide-ranging interests were reflected in the range of speakers, including Cluetrain Manifesto author Doc Searls, Glenn Otis Brown of Twitter and Creative Commons, and statistician Edward Tufte. The second half of the event included a David Foster Wallace reading by author Tom Chiarella and video clips from Swartz's "How We Stopped SOPA" speech from the 2012 Freedom to Connect conference. Swartz's colleagues near the end of his life offered their reflections, including Singham, Freedom to Connect's David Isenberg, David Segal of Demand Progress, and Holden Karnofsky of GiveWell, the philanthropy and "rational altruism" foundation named as the sole beneficiary in Swartz's will. Lawrence Lessig and musician Pete Seeger sent statements to be read on their behalf.

The event began and ended with playback of Pete Seeger folk and social protest songs: "Turn! Turn! Turn!" "Ain't Gonna Study War No More," "If I Had A Hammer," and "We Shall Overcome." The program contained a typo, listing Swartz's year of death as 2012; friend and political campaigner Ben Wikler, who emceed the memorial, chalked it up to Swartz's preferred method of "agile computing. Wikler and Glenn Otis Brown urged the assembled audience of long-bearded hippies, neck-bearded programmers, families with young children, and admirers of varied ages, races, and backgrounds to introduce themselves, and to maintain personal and professional connections with one another.

Each person there had a different but equally indelible connection to Swartz and his memory. "Aaron's unique quality was that he marvelously and vigorously different," said Tufte. "There is a scarcity of that. Perhaps we can all be a little more different too." Norton offered this poetic image: "He inspired me… I carry that little inspiration like a jewel pressed in the hand: beautiful, valuable, abrasive, and impossible to forget."

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