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Media Lab hosts memorial for Aaron Swartz

Two months after computer activist Aaron Swartz’s suicide, the Media Lab hosted a memorial for Swartz on Tuesday afternoon.

At the time of his suicide, Swartz was facing 13 felony charges for illegally downloading documents from JSTOR from a data closet on the MIT campus.

Hosted by Media Lab Director Joi Ito, the memorial included tributes from Ethan Zuckerman; David Weinberger; Swartz’s partner, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman; and Aaron’s father, Robert Swartz. Harvard Law School Professor Lawrence Lessig read remarks from Tim Berners-Lee, who was unable to attend.

In his remembrance Berners-Lee wrote, “Aaron went through appalling things during the last years of his life as a result of the prosecution, and so did those closest to him. I think we have to recognize the damage that has been done to the world … But that isn't the main thing I want to say. Now, at this memorial, I want to get back to who Aaron was and the wonderfulness of him as a person. I want to do this because, just as we do indeed need to learn from his death, we also need to learn from his life…”

Weinberger and fellow activist Alec Resnick spoke of Swartz’s extraordinary intellect, his need to make sense of the world, and his strong desire to make an impact. Media Lab alumnus and PhD candidate Benjamin Mako Hill, who participated through a video sent from Germany, commented on Swartz’s rare ability not “only to work within a system, but also with a system."

Both Robert Swartz and Stinebrickner-Kauffman called on MIT to provide a full explanation of its role in the court case, and to examine this in the context of MIT’s tradition of scientific inquiry. Stinebrickner-Kauffman commented, “I was hopeful that it could learn from mistakes made and make sure this injustice and tragedy is not repeated.” She also commented, “Nerd does not equal criminal.” 

In concluding, Ethan Zuckerman acknowledged the impact Swartz had well beyond the people who knew him. “He helped give people another version of a hacker, not that of a criminal, but as an activist who wants to change the world.” He challenged MIT to continue a difficult conversation around the Swartz case, and expressed a desire that the takeaway “isn’t about sadness and anger, but rather about a communal realization of hope.”

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