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Why We Should Remember Aaron Swartz

The Internet pioneer fought to create important Web standards and wide access
Aaron Swartz, 1986-2013
Aaron Swartz, 1986-2013Photograph by Sage Ross/DPA/Corbis

The Internet is just an agreement, several languages we’ve all decided to have in common. The volunteer engineers who write these languages follow a principle they call “rough consensus running code.” There is no hierarchy, no owner, just consensus—smart and often cranky people eventually, reluctantly agreeing. When he was 14, Aaron Swartz convinced engineers decades older than himself that he could build rough consensus around a new standard called RSS. Then he did.

Before RSS, the Web was static, a place of bookmarks. Now headlines and podcasts move among sites on the back of an RSS feed. Swartz could write code but spent more time on rough consensus. And he refused to give up. “A lot of people will do a hackathon for a day or a weekend,” says Carl Malamud, a friend, “but to build these big applications … you have to be obsessive for months on end. A lot of it is brute force.” Swartz, whose paired gifts were brute force and consensus, committed suicide on Jan. 11 at the age of 26.