The Boy Who Could Change the World

BOOK: The Boy Who Could Change the World

Aaron Swartz
(1986–2013) was an American computer programmer, a writer, a political organizer, and an Internet hacktivist. He was involved in the development of RSS, Creative Commons,, and Reddit. He helped launch the Progressive Change Campaign Committee in 2009 and founded the online group Demand Progress. He is survived by his parents and two brothers, who live in Chicago.

Lawrence Lessig
is Roy L. Furman Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. He was the director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University and a founding board member of Creative Commons. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

© 2015 by Sean B. Palmer

Introduction © 2015 by Lawrence Lessig

All other part introductions and postscript © the individual contributors

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, in any form, without written permission from the publisher.

Excerpt from
Aaron Swartz's A Programmable Web: An Unfinished Work
© 2013 Morgan & Claypool Publishers. Used with permission.

Requests for permission to reproduce selections from this book should be mailed to: Permissions Department, The New Press, 120 Wall Street, 31st floor, New York, NY 10005.

Published in the United States by The New Press, New York, 2015

Distributed by Perseus Distribution


Swartz, Aaron, 1986-2013.

The boy who could change the world : the writings of Aaron Swartz / Aaron Swartz ; with an introduction by Lawrence Lessig ; part introductions by Benjamin Mako Hill, Seth Schoen, David Auerbach, David Segal, Cory Doctorow, James Grimmelmann, and Astra Taylor ; postscript by Henry Farrell.

pages cm

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-1-62097-076-8 (e-book) 1.
Internet—Social aspects. 2.
Internet—Political aspects. 3.
Intellectual property. 4.
Copyright. 5.
Computers--Social aspects. 6.
Computer architecture. 7.
Swartz, Aaron, 1986-2013—Political and social views. 8.
Political culture--United States. 9.
Popular culture—United States.
I. Title.

HM851.S97 2015



The New Press publishes books that promote and enrich public discussion and understanding of the issues vital to our democracy and to a more equitable world. These books are made possible by the enthusiasm of our readers; the support of a committed group of donors, large and small; the collaboration of our many partners in the independent media and the not-for-profit sector; booksellers, who often hand-sell New Press books; librarians; and above all by our authors.

Book design and composition by Bookbright Media

This book was set in Aries and Gill Sans

Printed in the United States of America



Introduction by Lawrence Lessig

Free Culture

Introduction by Benjamin Mako Hill and Seth Schoen

Counterpoint: Downloading Isn't Stealing

UTI Interview with Aaron Swartz

Jefferson: Nature Wants to Be Free

Guerilla Open Access Manifesto

The Fruits of Mass Collaboration

The Techniques of Mass Collaboration: A Third Way Out

Wikimedia at the Crossroads

Who Writes Wikipedia?

Who Runs Wikipedia?

Making More Wikipedians

Making More Wikipedias

Code, and Other Laws of Wikipedia

False Outliers

(The Dandy Warhols) Come Down

Up with Facts: Finding the Truth in WikiCourt


A Database of Folly

When is Transparency Useful?

How We Stopped SOPA


Introduction by David Auerbach

Excerpt: A Programmable Web

Privacy, Accuracy, Security: Pick Two

Fixing Compulsory Licensing

Postel's Law Has No Exceptions

Squaring the Triangle: Secure, Decentralized, Human-Readable Names

Release Late, Release Rarely

Bake, Don't Fry

Building Baked Sites

A Brief History of Ajax


A Non-Programmer's Apology


Introduction by David Segal

How Congress Works

Keynes, Explained Briefly

Toward a Larger Left

Professional Politicians Beware!

The Attraction of the Center

The Conservative Nanny State

Political Entrepreneurs and Lunatics with Money

Postscript by Henry Farrell


Introduction by Cory Doctorow

The Book That Changed My Life

The Invention of Objectivity

Shifting the Terms of Debate: How Big Business Covered Up Global Warming

Making Noise: How Right-wing Think Tanks Get the Word Out

Endorsing Racism: The Story of
The Bell Curve

Spreading Lies: How Think Tanks Ignore the Facts

Saving Business: The Origins of Right-wing Think Tanks

Hurting Seniors: The Attack on Social Security

Fighting Back: Responses to the Mainstream Media

What Journalists Don't: Lessons from the

Rachel Carson: Mass Murderer?

Is Undercover Over? Disguise Seen as Deceit by Timid Journalists

Books and Culture

Introduction by James Grimmelmann

Recommended Books

Guest Review by Aaron Swartz: Chris Hayes'
The Twilight of the Elites


The Immorality of Freakonomics

In Offense of Classical Music

A Unified Theory of Magazines

On Intellectual Dishonesty

The Smalltalk Question


Introduction by Astra Taylor


Welcome to Unschooling

School Rules

The Writings of John Holt

Apprentice Education

Intellectual Diversity at Stanford

David Horowitz on Academic Freedom

What It Means to Be an Intellectual

Getting It Wrong



Contributor Bios


It is a fair question whether it's fair to any of us to gather in one place the writings of a person's life. Writing reflects thinking. Thinking evolves. Who we were at nineteen does not reflect who we were at twenty-five, or who we would have been at fifty. Learning looks like inconsistency. Changes seem unjustified, since they're rarely even acknowledged.

I'm sure Aaron Swartz in particular would have felt this as unfairness. When he was a student at Stanford, he attended a reception at the Stanford Law School, where I was then teaching. After introducing him to some friends, I recounted to them a recent post from his blog.

Afterward, Aaron was upset with me. “That was private,” he said.

“But you posted it on your blog,” I replied, a bit puzzled by the objection.

“Yes,” he responded, “on my blog, for the people who read my blog. Not for the random student at the Stanford Law School.”

But Aaron has left us no choice. We have a right to understand the extraordinary influence that this boy had, by understanding his words and thus his thought. And one way to do that is through his words. They are incomplete. They are sometimes inconsistent, as one essay struggles against another. But as I've read the collection gathered here, I recognize the soul who speaks through these writings. I remember these steps, and have learned more as I've walked through them again. There is a reason for us to reflect on these bits from an incomplete life. They teach us something. And they inspire.

From a very young age, Aaron felt a freedom that most of us never really know: the freedom to simply do what you believe is right.
That's not to say that most of us live life in the wrong. But most of us have a way of avoiding the confrontations between right and wrong. We learn early on how to fudge the facts, how to dodge the uncomfortable.

Aaron never quite learned that. Or if he did, he got rid of it when he was young. It isn't as though he was that guy preaching in the corner to the unwilling listener. He wasn't. He spoke through questions, not commands. He inspired by giving others a sense of the best they could be. And he often was super-quiet as he worked out what or whom to believe. A quiet kid among strangers. A deep blue pool, hiding a volcano.

But he was not quiet in his endless writings. And these writings capture well a mind in constant reflection: often aware of his advantage, always working through the politics of a society too mixed in its own advantages, and working endlessly to understand how best to understand and persuade.

In the essays collected here, you can watch a boy working on many problems at the same time. Like the CPU in a computer, different bits are in the foreground at different times. But every theme collected here was being worked on, if differently, at every point in the adult period (from about fourteen on) of this twenty-six-year-old's life.

He was constantly working on Aaron Swartz: on who that was, and how he was constrained. He was constantly working on technology: on how to make it work, and how to make it work better for people. He was constantly working on access: to culture, and particularly access to knowledge especially; to—the stuff that was supposed to be free. He was increasingly working in political philosophy: on how to know what was right, because he certainly had his views of right. He was especially working on progressive politics: the best ways to talk about issues from surveillance to Social Security, how to rally a public. And he read voraciously, fiction as well as nonfiction, reporting at the end of each year on the hundreds of books he had read that year, with a short review of each. And tragically, he was working on what he believed he had to do, the law notwithstanding. He rallied others to cross what he believed to be an unjust line. He crossed it himself.

No one should confuse these writings with revealed truth. Aaron had learned more than many ever will. He had worked out more than
most. But there's an incompleteness here, which I know he saw, but which he imagined in the years ahead he would fill out. His technical skills had tripped him into financial freedom; he loved the range to think and act that that freedom gave him, because it gave him the chance to dig deeper, over time. And if there is one thing that I think terrified him the most about the prosecution that brought about the end of his life, it was the slow recognition that even if he had won his case against the government (which his lawyers at the end believed he would), he would be left without that freedom anymore. His fortune wasted, he would have been forced back into a world where he could no longer afford to live a life devoted exclusively to what he believed was right.

In the end, a work like this can only ever be a picture of a life incomplete. Few of us will ever come close to the influence this boy had. That's a puzzle to many. He was never on
The Colbert Report
The Daily Show; NBC Nightly News
never once covered the thoughts of Aaron Swartz.

Yet his influence weaved itself through the lives of an incredible number of very different souls. He found us, and, wound us up, and set us on the path that he, and maybe we, thought best. There are scores still left in his command. There is an endless amount that we must finish. For this writer, and thinker, and activist, and hacker, and dear friend, we will.

—Lawrence Lessig

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