I’m not really sure I’ve got any place to be writing this. I didn’t know Aaron very well at all—we’d met a couple times at the Berkman Center way back, and at Personal Democracy Forum last summer—so who am I to try and write some sort of remembrance?
So I’ll just say why his work inspires me: he was a participant. He’s most well-known for being a “hacker” whatever that means these days, but he wasn’t cynical like some on the techno-left are. He didn’t heckle from the sidelines, he put his money where his mouth was. And that didn’t just mean downloading content and making it freely available online. It also meant wanting to work for the Obama campaign even while he was under investigation by the Justice Department; to him, the system wasn’t beyond repair. It meant using his tech credentials and skills to raise awareness about issues beyond those that directly affected him. He’s exactly the opposite of the self-absorbed Silicon Valley technologists I described in a post a few weeks ago. As the kids would say, he was legit. He lived his beliefs and he was always trying to leave the world better than he found it.
In truth, I found Aaron difficult. I am probably one of those people who made him feel like banging his head against the wall when we talked. But his work is the most honest, and earnest, work anyone in this civic tech world ever did. When I heard the charges against him for breaking into that storage closet at MIT and downloading those journal articles, I rolled my eyes. Turns out it wasn’t a stunt, he was living his beliefs. So as people who know Aaron much better than I did reflect on his life, his passing has made me think about what it means to actually be who you say you want to be and have your life’s work reflect that. I hope I’ll be a little more honest in my work because of him.