Noah Swartz: My Brother Aaron Changed the Internet Forever

An intimate tribute to perhaps the most influential Internet activist of all time.

“Aaron was.” It still feels weird to say that. The effect he had on my life, and on the lives of countless others he both knew and didn’t know, will never fade—but Aaron himself is gone.

Hardly a day passes when I don’t think about Aaron in some way. For example, as I write this I’m listening to They Might Be Giants, who I first heard of when Aaron snagged a copy of Flood at the Stanford campus bookstore on some family vacation ages ago.

As far as I could tell, Aaron was always ahead of the curve, whether it was new programming languages like Python, big Internet advances like RSS, sci-fi books like those written by Cory Doctorow and Neal Stephenson, or just simple things like new bands, movies, or television shows. Aaron was always hungry for the new, the interesting, because he was interested in everything. And my entire life I’ve been able to nod sagely in social situations and say “Oh, I’ve heard of that,” thanks in large part to Aaron’s infectious sharing of these interests.

We didn’t always see eye to eye, but there was never a time when Aaron wouldn’t stop what he was doing to have a conversation with me, whether it was arguing about music or to gush about his favorite David Foster Wallace or Robert Caro book or to give me a rundown of how some part of Python worked. I’ve now seen They Might Be Giants in concert 10 times, I spent four days at the Harry Ransom Center reading David Foster Wallace first drafts, and I used web.py to run one of my projects when I was doing postgrad research. Aaron is a part of everything I do.

It’s not hard to look out into the world and see where he’s missing. You’ll hear everyone talk about Aaron’s thirst for knowledge, how he read prolifically and wanted to understand everything around him. It was clear that he did this not for personal gain but rather so that he could know how to make things better. In one of Peter Eckersley’s interviews in The Internet’s Own Boy, he says, “Aaron seemed to seriously believe that he could change the world just by explaining it clearly to people.” Quinn Norton, an ex-girlfriend of Aaron’s who is also featured in the film, has often talked about how he would constantly ask himself, “What is the most important thing I can be doing right now?” to make the world better.

So when mere months after his death Edward Snowden released his cache of internal NSA files, and we the public and the media all struggled to understand it and figure out what to do, it was hard not to miss Aaron immensely. It was a surprise of sorts seeing that I wasn’t the only one who looked to Aaron for guidance, and that I wasn’t the only one having a hard time without him. Remember when Wikipedia blacked out to protest SOPA/PIPA? A lot of people wondered why something similar didn’t happen in protest of the NSA, why something similar didn’t happen more recently in the fight for net neutrality. The answer, in large part, is because Aaron isn’t around anymore to do these things. To motivate and guide us.

In a deeply personal way Aaron lives on in me, but similarly his ideals live on in a whole crowd of organizations and people he collaborated with. Demand Progress is still running strong, with David Segal at its helm. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is still fighting for tech law reform, with Cindy Cohn as legal director and Peter Eckersley and Seth Schoen advising it on tech. The Freedom of the Press Foundation is supporting projects like SecureDrop, a tool Aaron helped develop to protect the anonymity of journalistic sources, and Fight for the Future is educating people about net neutrality.

Through our shared grief after Aaron’s passing, I’ve gotten to know a lot of these people and their colleagues at their respective organizations. Now, although I can’t just call up Aaron when I want to know about a new tech bill or the like, I have a large network of impassioned individuals who will happily take time out of their days to explain to me what’s important and what’s the best thing I can be doing right now. Tim Berners-Lee and the rest of the Internet mourned back in January of last year, but I hope the Internet’s collective grief can bring them, as it did me, closer to the people out there who are as passionate as Aaron was about making the Web, and the world, a better place.

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