The Boy Who Could Change the World review – the writings of Aaron Swartz, genius programmer and campaigner for internet freedom

Swartz shaped much of the internet, before turning to political activism and the cause of equal access to information. He was facing prosecution for data theft when he hanged himself aged 26

In his introduction to this anthology of blog posts and speeches by the late web pioneer Aaron Swartz, ethics professor Lawrence Lessig wrestles with the question of whether it’s fair to anthologise a lifetime’s worth of any person’s writing. He goes on to wonder whether Swartz would have approved of the publication of the volume he’s introducing, and tells a story about Swartz getting upset with him for describing one of his blog posts to some friends when he was a student at Stanford. The celebrated activist, who spent much of his short life promoting the theory that ideas should be freely available online to everyone, admonished Lessig for recapitulating his post to an audience of outsiders, telling Lessig: “That was private.”

What Swartz meant, Lessig goes on to say, was that the anecdote was intended for readers of his blog, not “random” people. It’s a justifiable concern. What happens to online writing when it leaves the internet, either by being described or, as in this case, by being enshrined within the bound pages of a book? What does it mean for blog posts written over the course of a prodigious adolescence and young adulthood to be stripped of their original context, then recontextualised as evidence of a young thinker’s quotidian brilliance and evolving ideas about politics, computers and media?

Swartz’s interests and accomplishments were wildly varied, but a rigorous commitment to justice and freedom undergirded them all. When he was 13 he became well known as a programmer; in the years that followed he was instrumental in shaping much that internet users take for granted, from the Markdown publishing format to Reddit, Wikipedia and Creative Commons. Later, he became passionate about political causes, pertaining both to the legal challenges thrown up by new media and the larger issue of unequal access to both money and information. At the time of his death in 2013 he was facing federal prosecution for data theft; he had systematically downloaded the archives of the digital library JSTOR, which he believed should be accessible by everyone, not just academic elites. Facing jail time and possible financial ruin, he hanged himself. After his death, the charges were dropped.

The collection divides Swartz’s writings into subcategories – “Free Culture,” “Computers,” “Politics,” “Media,” “Books and Culture,” “Unschool” – each with an introduction by a luminary in that field who was familiar with his work. Each section contains writing from different times in Swartz’s life, and each piece is prefaced by the web URL where it can be found, the date it was posted and Swartz’s age at the time. The earliest writing in this book dates from when Swartz was 14, around the time that he coauthored RSS, the software that allows websites to syndicate their feeds; the most recent dates to just months before his death.

Some of these pieces make the transition from screen to page with grace. It’s exciting to hear in Swartz’s own words what it was like to stop SOPA, the internet-censoring bill that came dangerously close to making it through Congress in 2010. That post stands well on its own because it provides an intimate look at a series of events most people witnessed at a remove; it’s funny and telling to hear how Swartz realised he was getting through to people about what was at stake if the bill was passed by hearing from a “cute girl” on the subay that “we really have to stop SOAP”.

But that post, like many of the strongest in the book, was written when Swartz was older. It dealt with past events, so he was able to use perspective to shape a narrative. Long stretches of the book are not so consciously crafted, and blog posts about, say, running for a seat on Wikimedia’s board as a teenager need a lot more editorial context to seem interesting to a general audience. Likewise, while posts about the philosophical concerns that ruled Swartz’s programming might still be relevant and comprehensible to fellow programmers today, footnotes or post-by-post introductions would be helpful to general readers.

Swartz habitually used a casual shorthand for complex ideas because he was writing for an audience that he had every right to assume was already familiar with the whole history of his thinking – after all, they were reading his blog. Online writing is living writing, emphatically both of and for the moment of its creation. Reading these once-living posts long after they first appeared can feel like trying to figure out what a ruined structure looked like while it was still standing. It’s hard to decipher the logic this book’s editors used in deciding to include time-sensitive posts, as well as posts that might best be classified as juvenilia. Perhaps they were striving to make this collection as complete as possible for future historians who might not have access to online archives. But it can be rough going for readers who simply hoped it would give them a clear, cohesive idea of Swartz’s impact and legacy.

What’s never in question, though, is his commitment to thinking through difficult concepts in pursuit of more freedom and more access to knowledge for everyone, not just for a privileged few. In the book’s final section, “Unschool”, his capacity for compassion – here, for the plight of students in schools that he felt were created more with the aim of indoctrinating placid workers than producing free, informed thinkers – comes to seem the most defining characteristic of his writing. “The world around us is an enormous classroom and we merely need the time to explore it, and the drive to ask questions and try to answer them,” he wrote in a blog post at the age of 14. One thing the writings collected here do makes clear is that he lived that ethos as completely as anyone possibly could, in exploring the world for as much time as he was allowed.

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Contributor

Emily Gould

The GuardianTramp

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