A memorial was held for Aaron Swartz on the sixth floor of the Media Lab Tuesday evening. The event, hosted by Media Lab director Joi Ito, included speakers like Swartz’ colleagues, friends, and family.
Swartz committed suicide in January after being prosecuted by the federal government for downloading 4.8 million JSTOR documents over the MIT network. Swartz co-authored the specification for RSS 1.0 at age 14, was involved in Creative Commons, and pushed for open access to information.
The first few speakers focused on Swartz’s life and ways they keep his memories alive. Swartz’ friend Alec M. Resnick ’08, director of sprout and co., said that “maybe the best way to remember Aaron is to pretend that he’s not dead.” Another friend Benjamin Mako Hill G shared stories of when Swartz thought outside of the box, thought about the greater good, and was overall a “recklessly creative individual.”
The mood changed later in the memorial when speakers began criticizing MIT’s involvement in the Swartz case. Swartz’ partner, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, asked MIT to consider whether it considered itself a “scientist” or “bureaucracy” and expressed skepticism about the Abelson report. She criticized MIT for not joining JSTOR when they declined to pursue civil charges and making it difficult for Swartz’ lawyers to interview MIT staff. She said that she expects the Abelson report to report in timely fashion, ask serious questions, hold people to their mistakes, and propose actionable changes. She also said that Abelson has not reached out to Swartz’ father or lawyer yet. Stinebrickner-Kauffman said that Swartz’s lawyers are asking to lift the protective order on his files so that evidence in the case can be public — she said that if MIT’s investigation is not in “good faith” if it opposes the lifting of this order. Stinebrickner-Kauffman received the longest applause of all the speakers after her tribute.
Swartz’ father, Robert Swartz, drew parallels between his son’s actions and the risks and actions of technology celebrities such as Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Wozniak, and Steve Jobs. He said the difference was that Aaron wasn’t interested in making money. “MIT wants to eliminate risk and risk takers,” Swartz said.
Director of the MIT Center for Civic Media Ethan Zuckerman gave the last tribute — the takeaway is not sadness or anger, he said, but the “communal realization of hope.” He also challenged the audience to think outside of the box and to encourage those around us who do.
“We have to move forward and amplify as if he were still here leading us forward,” Ito said to wrap up the event.
After the memorial, attendees were encouraged to fill a whiteboard wall with their memories of Swartz, messages to his family, and commitments that have resulted.
Other speakers included Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig and Harvard researcher David Weinberger.
Video of some of the speeches is available at http://tarensk.tumblr.com/post/45281114505/mit-memorial-service.