Neil Kandalgaonkar

hacker, maker of things

Super Sad Hacker House in memory of Aaron Swartz

(Writing this after several months since I realized there is no good writeup of the event elsewhere).

When the news about Aaron Swartz broke, I was deeply distressed and felt like I wanted to do something. I knew him mostly through his blog and occasional email correspondence over the years, and we had lots of friends in common. He attended an event I helped organize in the wake of the Occupy and Internet blackout events, but I got tied up in other conversations and never met him in person. I’m still sad about that. My friend and ex-boss Andy Baio once asked me why I kept defending Aaron in certain forums. I think he touched me because he retained a core of pure innocence all the way through his life. Maybe he reminded me of myself at an earlier age, although his mistakes were, due to the times we live in, public and permanently archived. And most people, as they age, realize how entrenched the world’s problems are and if only for mental self-preservation, scale back their ambitions accordingly. Not Aaron.

On hearing about Aaron’s death I felt isolated from a community I think of as my own, in the Bay Area, and in Vancouver people mostly knew him only by reputation. I was worried no one would show up to a special event here, so I asked if Vancouver Hack Space would mind if I added it onto one of their upcoming regular events. They enthusiastically agreed and the regular “Super Happy Hacker House” was rechristened the Super Sad Hacker House.

I made and mounted a memorial picture of Aaron Swartz that was displayed in the space for several months. I spoke at the beginning of SSHH, and got lots of compliments but I have no recollection of what I said. :)

Speakers also get laser-etched tokens at this event, and this time they added a portrait of Aaron.

I should add that David Ascher also offered to host an entire event in Aaron’s honor at Mozilla Vancouver. I eventually decided to do it at VHS, thinking it wouldn’t be a big thing in this city, and it would be better to have a small intimate thing rather than a big empty space with only a few people.

But that was days before Aaron was canonized as an internet saint and held up as the example of the prototypical hacker. I’m unhappy about how he’s starting to become a sort of legend.

Aaron was a remarkable person, but he was a person, not a saint. There are numerous attempts to turn him into something he wasn’t. Whether well-intentioned or not, I know that this hurts his friends and family. And it’s irresponsible to hold up his example for young hackers to uncritically emulate.