At the heart of each of Aaron Swartz’s projects was a compulsion to form new systems for the flow of information in the digital era, and challenge those which had emerged already as inadequate. From his hand in developing the technological standards that underpin the internet, to work on news, reference material and copyright online, Swartz was a vocal advocate of the free flow of information and the dangers of allowing traditional corporations to play a disproportionate role in forming the information systems of the 21st century.
Aged just 14 he assisted Tim Berners-Lee in founding RSS, one of the earliest ways that data on the internet was freed from the websites that provide it. Criticizing the mainstream news media for being a “closed system” of PR, politics and journalists, he took it on himself to open that system up, cofounding the social news website Reddit which has subsequently grown to be one of the largest news websites in the world. In his support for the SOPA movement in the US and other digital activism he helped shape the battleground on the politics of the internet for an ideological contest that will likely continue for many years to come.
Discussion of his life’s work has understandably focused on the last great debate in which he was involved – the freedom of academic information on the internet. Perhaps a victory in the trial he faced would have been his greatest achievement, and an opportunity to reexamine the draconian rules around academic publishing. As it is, the death of one of the internet’s great young pioneers is all the more tragic given the remarkable accomplishments made in those first 26 years of his life.
Jack Riley is The Independent’s Head of Digital Audience & Content DevelopmentReuse content