A few weeks ago, a free documentary about him was released online. Titled ”The Internet’s Own Boy” and directed and produced by Brian Knappenberger, the film chronicles Swartz’ remarkable life. At age 14, he was working on RSS; at 15, W3C and Creative Commons. When he was 22, he decided to tackle the PACER (the Public Access to Court Electronic Records) database. Swartz was offended that PACER documents, which are federal and public and carry no copyright, cost 8 cents a page to access. So he wrote a PERL script to access them through a library running a free trial of the system; he downloaded 2.7 million documents and made them accessible via Public.Resource.Org. The FBI investigated what he had done -- his first encounter with them -- but they weren’t able to find anything to charge him with.
Aaron’s story is compelling, tender, powerful and emotional, as is the documentary itself. His work was impactful and -- I don’t think this is hyperbolic -- world-changing. But that’s not why you need to watch the movie. You need to watch it -- everyone does -- because we as a society have so much to learn from his philosophy, from what motivated him, from how he chose to interact with the incredible power of these technological tools we are fortunate enough to be surrounded by:
“The way Aaron always saw it, is that programming is magic. You can accomplish these things that normal humans can’t. So if you had magical powers, would you use them for good, or to make you mountains of cash?”
“Except for education and entertainment, I'm not going to waste my time on things that won’t have an impact… I want to make the world a better place.”
“I feel very strongly that it's not enough to just live in the world as it is, to just kind of take what you're given, and you know, follow the things that adults told you to do, and that your parents told you to do, and that society tells you to do. I think you should always be questioning… Once I realized that there were real serious problems -- fundamental problems -- that I could do something to address, I didn't see a way to forget that. I didn't see a way not to.”
“Aaron believed that you literally ought to be asking yourself all of the time: ‘What is the most important thing I could be working on in the world right now?’ And if you’re not working on that, why aren’t you?”
I was ashamed through most of the film. Ashamed that this kid had embarked on a life of meaning right from the start, that he had known immediately what it took me decades to figure out: that life is more interesting when it is imbued with meaning, that seeking to make a contribution can be more exciting and more gratifying than seeking to make a buck, and that we are but the tiniest fragment of life on a speck of dust in a shaft of light, so we might as well have a go at creating the biggest and best possible impact we can have on our fellow space travelers.
The most important thing you can do is watch this movie. And then ask yourself, “What is the next most important thing I can do?”
And if you’re not working on that, why aren’t you?