Today was the funeral for Wikipedian and information activist Aaron Swartz. Rest in peace, Aaron.
Aaron made substantial contributions to how the Internet functions as a young teenager, and continued his efforts to build the kind of world he wanted to live in until his untimely death at 26. Along the way, it appears that some of his choices caused harm to some people, and the causes he was seeking to advance. There has been, and will be, a lot of discussion about that, but I think it’s best understood as merely one facet of a complex and passionate person’s evolution and growth. (See his Wikipedia user page for a list of articles he worked on, to get a sense of the scope of his work and interests.)
Aaron’s story has thrust the word “hacker” into the public discourse in the last few days. It’s an important word, one that carries several meanings. The Wikipedia article “Hacker (programmer subculture)” captures its divergent meanings well:
The Jargon File…defines hacker as “A person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and stretching their capabilities, as opposed to most users, who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary.” The…Internet Users’ Glossary amplifies this meaning as “A person who delights in having an intimate understanding of the internal workings of a system, computers and computer networks in particular.”… these hackers are disappointed by the mass media and general public’s usage of the word hacker to refer to security breakers, calling them “crackers” instead.… The programmer subculture of hackers, in contrast to the cracker community, generally sees computer security related activities as contrary to the ideals of the original and true meaning of the hacker term that instead related to playful cleverness.
Aaron was a hacker, without question. A common thread in this week’s coverage seems to attribute his hackerdom to his now well-publicized efforts to circumvent security systems.
But this association obscures a much more basic and important point. Aaron was a hacker, first and foremost, because he openly challenged himself to use tools to their best potential, to build a better world. In just one example, in a 2004 blog post he stated: “I want to stop repeating falsehoods. I believe the truth is more important than particular political goals, so I want to build a system I can trust. I want to know that when I make claims, I’m not speaking out of political distortion but out of honest truth. And I want to be able to evaluate the claims of other too.”
(Looking for a little inspiration? Search his blog for the word “build.”)
By pursuing his vision in an open, authentic, and articulate way, he “inspired a generation to share online, to move to [San Francisco], to not be afraid to start things, and to break down barriers,” in the words of WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg.
In a small tribute to Aaron Swartz and multitudes of others from whom I have drawn inspiration, today I would like to declare: I am a hacker. I have always been a hacker, and will always be a hacker. I do not aim to be deceptive or opportunistic; I aim to use the tools available to me to make the world a better place. To me, that is the hacker ethic. To me, that is a source of pride, and a humbling commitment. To me, Aaron Swartz was a source of inspiration.
Are you a hacker? If you’ve read this far, I bet you are. I invite you to wave the hacker flag with me, in memory of an inspiring member of our global community.