Today, and as I write this, friends and family of Aaron Swartz are gathering to pay their last respects to a son, friend, and colleague. Our Mozilla Foundation software team call, which normally happens at this time, was rescheduled in order to allow a number of the engineers to attend the service in Chicago, and for others to mourn and reflect privately.
I have been reading and pondering the many tributes, interviews, and articles about Aaron, his case, and death. I didn’t know him personally, but I am familiar with his work and place within our community. I am also deeply aware that Aaron was an archetypal figure, the 26 year old genius hacker–I’ve taught and worked with literally hundreds and hundreds of people like him in the open source world. He has come to represent our community, which is, I think, why his death has affected so many, including myself.
The post that has stuck with me, and the reason why I write today, was Lessig’s. In it, he writes:
Aaron had literally done nothing in his life “to make money.” He was fortunate Reddit turned out as it did, but from his work building the RSS standard, to his work architecting Creative Commons, to his work liberating public records, to his work building a free public library, to his work supporting Change Congress/FixCongressFirst/Rootstrikers, and then Demand Progress, Aaron was always and only working for (at least his conception of) the public good. He was brilliant, and funny. A kid genius. A soul, a conscience, the source of a question I have asked myself a million times: What would Aaron think? That person is gone today, driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying. I get wrong. But I also get proportionality. And if you don’t get both, you don’t deserve to have the power of the United States government behind you.
Proportionality–that word has not left my mind since first reading this post on Saturday. I’ve since read the outcry and petitions against the government prosecutor. I don’t know the law, and won’t comment on a case I can’t really understand.
And yet I am moved by Lessig’s call, first for Aaron, but applicable far beyond his case, to practice proportionality, restraint, good judgement, and to examine the power one has, to consider its effects. I could examine and criticize the power of this prosecutor, but I am much more able to examine the powers granted to me in my own life as a father, professor, project leader, etc. The call for proportionality is an important one, and the lesson laid bare by Aaron’s case and subsequent death, is one I can and should apply to myself.
We need to be aware of the effects of our actions, and how our will goes out into the world. Whether it be in grading, discipline, reviewing, judging–we are not free from the impact of our actions, and are never wholly in control of their outcomes. We need, I need, to always be aware of the humanity at the receiving end of power.
I pray that I would be slow to exercise power, and that love and forgiveness guide my hand.
Rest in peace, Aaron.