Autobiography of Aaron Swartz

Bonus chapter for The Boy Who Could Change the World


The story of Aaron’s life is, undeniably, extraordinary. He was a teenager who worked on a series of Internet technologies used by millions of people today, who then went on to found a web startup and become a millionaire before the age of 20. But that, while remarkable, could be the story of any successful young computer entrepreneur. What makes Aaron’s story the more remarkable (and, to me, more inspiring) is that it does not end there. Aaron achieved much after selling his company which is often glossed over or ignored, despite being both more important and more representative of his lifelong interests and passions: making politics more open, more accessible, and less corrupt.

Though he sometimes occupied it, Aaron did not care much for the limelight. Personal fame had no interest for him: it was a mere side-effect of his real goal of changing the world for the public good. Though in many ways he lead the campaign against the SOPA bill, he never made himself a figurehead of it; though he coördinated the crowd, he never pushed himself in front of it.

If he had, perhaps there would have been more public outcry about his arrest. Perhaps the position of the government prosecutors who hounded him to his death would have become untenable in the face of public backlash, as it should have done. But throughout his life, Aaron was selfless in his dedication to creating a better world for everyone, and to spend any time self-aggrandizing or self-promoting would have distracted from that dedication.

These few diary entries tell some of Aaron’s story, from his early technology work and political activism as a teenager, through his time at Stanford and at Reddit, ending with the beginning of his return to activism. Apart from telling the story of his life, they show how he saw the world around him day-to-day, and how the people around him saw him. Unfortunately Aaron did not write many diary entries in the last five years of his life, so what happened after 2008 is a story that must be told by those who knew him then.

What is most striking about his diary entries is how clear it is that Aaron was just a normal person. He was shy, introverted, studious, and if he had one exceptional quality it was perhaps his curiosity. But in general he was an ordinary guy, who used his time wisely and dedicated himself to a cause he cared about.

And for those left in his wake, that should inspire us. We are worse off for his loss, but if we follow in his footsteps we can achieve great things for the world even without him, as he would have wanted.


  1. How to Get a Job Like Mine, talk delivered to the Tathva conference in 2007
  2. Mr Swartz Goes to Washington, 10 October 2002
  3. Stanford: Day 4, 24 September 2004
  4. My Life with Tim, Summer 2005
  5. SFP: Come See Us, 16 April 2005
  6. Eat and Code, 2 August 2005
  7. The Early Days of a Better Website, 7 November 2006
  8. The Aftermath, 1 November 2006
  9. The Afterparty, 2 November 2006
  10. Office Space, 15 November 2006
  11. The Existential Terror of San Francisco, 14 November 2006
  12. Last Day of Summer Camp, 22 January 2007
  13. Average People, 14 February 2007
  14. November 4, 7 November 2008