Remembering Aaron Swartz: Some inspiring quotes from his writings
Three years ago, Aaron Swartz died. He was an extremely bright and good guy, and he is still a great inspiration to me.
If you want to know more about his life, you should see The Internet’s Own Boy, a movie freely available online about his life.
To remember him and continue his legacy, I’d like to share with you some quotes I took from his writings.
Life is short (or so I’m told) so why waste it doing something dumb? It’s easy to start working on something because it’s convenient, but you should always be questioning yourself about it. Is there something more important you can work on? Why don’t you do that instead?
All the intellectuals that come to mind write, not because they have to or get paid to, but simply for its own sake. What good is thinking if you can’t share?
I want to feel nostalgic, I want to feel like there’s this place, just a couple subway stops away, where everything will be alright. A better place, a place I should be in, a place I can go back to. But even just visiting it, the facts are plain. It doesn’t exist, it never has. I’m nostalgic for a place that never existed.
A lot of people don’t realize the importance of friendship networks. They think the world largely works the way it’s ostensibly supposed to. You do good work, you follow the rules, you get noticed, you get the benefits. And when they fail to succeed or comprehend, it’s probably because they’re stupid or somebody isn’t following the system. But it’s neither of those, it’s the system that’s stupid — you don’t succeed through hard work, you succeed through friendship networks.
The first step is to recognize your place in things. If you study beetle mating habits, look at the larger mating patterns your studies fall into, look at the big picture of animal behavior, ask where you fit in the bigger question of what it means for an animal to behave. This is what I mean by “Look up more.”
But if you do this — and I believe you will — then you’ll find it hard to stay satisfied with your dung beetle project. You’ll start wondering if you could move on to bigger things. Perhaps just a little bit bigger at first — analyzing a few more types, discussing a few more implications — but soon you’ll notice that others have left the field wide open for the truly big picture stuff and you’ll start wondering why it’s not there that you should stake your claim. This is what I mean by “Think bigger.”
Let’s say you want to make a difference in the world. You can learn a skill and go into a profession, where you get bossed around and told exactly what to do by people more powerful than you. (Obeying them is called “professionalism”.) It’s completely futile; had you not gone into the professional (or if you decide to disobey orders) they would have found someone else to do the exact same thing.
Want to actually make a difference? You’ll have to buck the system instead of joining it.
Technology was supposed to let us solve these problems. But technology never solves things by itself. At bottom, it requires people to sit down and build tools that solve them. Which, as long as programmers are all competing to create the world’s most popular timewaster, it doesn’t seem like anyone is going to do.
Remember that money is just a kind of illusion. In reality, there are just people who want things and people who make things. But we’re stuck in a completely ridiculous situation: there are lots of people who desperately want jobs making things — they’re literally not doing anything else — while at the same time there are lots of people who desperately want things made. It seems ridiculous not to do something about this just because some people have all the little green sheets of paper!
Well-to-do professionals, who seem so much better off than the poor, may not actually be doing that much better. To continue to live in the style to which they’ve become accustomed, they must work long hours at a job they dislike. Because of the endowment effect, getting off this treadmill would cause them even more pain. A few lucky people earn money at tasks they find fulfilling, but perhaps not many more than are happy being poor.