In 2009, Aaron Swartz came to Brazil and stayed in my place in Rio de Janeiro. He is one of the brightest people I’ve ever met. He was kind enough to grant me an interview by email before he arrived. I’m publishing it below. Long live his legacy.
Could you tell me a little bit about your background, how you got interested in computers, and how you ended-up working on RSS?
I grew up the oldest of three boys in a small suburb in the middle of the US. My grandfather ran a small sign-making company, which my father took over and turned into a small software company, so there were always computers at home. There wasn’t much to do in our town, so I spent a lot of time playing with those computers. We got the Internet very early on (1992 or so) and ever since I’ve spent a large part of my life online — reading email, joining discussion groups, surfing the Web. The school I went to was 6 miles away, so I didn’t live near many of my friends. Instead, I made friends through the Internet. When I was 12 or so my Dad went on a business trip to MIT and took me along. I spent a day in a class by an MIT professor, Philip Greenspun, who tried to explain all the principles of building web applications. I was so excited by the class that I immediately went home and tried to make something. The first thing I made was an online encyclopedia that anyone could edit, but in practice only my mom and friends from school ever did. But the second thing I made was a program to grab news stories from all sorts of different news sites and combine them into one page. At the time, this was pretty difficult — each news site had its own format and you had to write software to read each one individually — but there were some people talking about making a standard, so that there was just one format you needed to read. Naturally, I began hanging out with them. Of course, as a kid, I had a lot of free time, so I ended up picking up more and more of the work, and ended up being one of the editors of the spec which became RSS 1.0.
You did a lot of important things at a very young age, could you describe a few of them? And how do you see and would explain that? Talent, inspiration, curiosity, hard work? Is there something that you would think that other kids who would like to follow your steps should know?
When I was a kid, I thought a lot about what made me different from the other kids. I don’t think I was smarter than them and I certainly wasn’t more talented. And I definitely can’t claim I was a harder worker — I’ve never worked particularly hard, I’ve always just tried doing things I find fun. Instead, what I concluded was that I was more curious — but not because I had been born that way. If you watch little kids, they are intensely curious, always exploring and trying to figure out how things work. The problem is that school drives all that curiosity out. Instead of letting you explore things for yourself, it tells you that you have to read these particular books and answer these particular questions. And if you try to do something else instead, you’ll get in trouble. Very few people’s curiosity can survive that. But, due to some accident, mine did. I kept being curious and just followed my curiosity. First I got interested in computers, which led me to get interested in the Internet, which led me to get interested in building online news sites, which led me to get interested in standards (like RSS), which led me to get interested in copyright reform (since Creative Commons wanted to use similar standards). And on and on. Curiosity builds on itself — each new thing you learn about has all sorts of different parts and connections, which you then want to learn more about. Pretty soon you’re interested in more and more and more, until almost everything seems interesting. And when that’s the case, learning becomes really easy — you want to learn about almost everything, since it all seems really interesting. I’m convinced that the people we call smart are just people who somehow got a head start on this process. I fell like the only thing I’ve really done is followed my curiosity wherever it led, even if that meant crazy things like leaving school or not taking a “real” job. This isn’t easy — my parents are still upset with me that I dropped out of school — but it’s always worked for me.
What are you doing right now and what are your plans for the future?
Right now I am working on fixing US politics. This has three parts. The first is working for Prof. Lawrence Lessig’s group Change Congress, which is trying to get the US Congress to pass a bill so that every major political candidate has the same amount of money to run their campaign with. The second is a site I started called watchdog.net, which let’s you look through all sorts of different kinds of political data (what representatives voted on, who they got money from, who is lobbying them, and so on) to try to find patterns and corruption. The third is a group called the PCCC. It tries to make it easier for good people to run for Congress in the US. Right now, if you wanted to run for Congress, you really wouldn’t know where to start. Nobody in politics will talk to you unless you’ve raised a lot of money, and once you have raised a lot of money then they take most of it and give you really bad advice. So we try to seek out really good candidates, help them raise money over the Internet, and show them how to run a campaign powered by volunteers instead of television ads and expensive consultants. As for the future, I’m not sure. I want to do more writing, so I’m thinking of taking some time off and writing a book. Lawrence Lessig is taking of the Harvard Center on Ethics and I think it would be fun to do some writing there.
A lot of young people are excited in Brazil about Obama, how do you see his election and what to expect from him in your view?
A lot of people in the US are excited about Obama as well! And I think it is very exciting, for all sorts of reasons. Most obviously, he is the first black president. He’s also unusual in that an enormous number of volunteers and donors worked together to get him elected. But the thing I think I personally find most amazing about him, is that unlike other presidents we’ve had, he’s not just a figurehead — Obama isn’t just an actor who says lines for the TV cameras, he’s a real person who genuinely thinks about the issues and even writes some of his own speeches. All that said, I think the important question now is not who Obama is, but what he’ll do. And each day the news gets worse on that front. He started by appointing a lot of people from previous governments, saying that although he wanted to do new things he needed experienced people to do them. Unfortunately, those “experienced” people seem to be repeating their same old mistakes. In order to get conservatives to vote for his economic recovery bill, he took out a number of key provisions. And then no conservatives voted for it anyway. His economic team has brought back the Bush administration’s proposal of helping banks by giving them lots of free money with no restrictions on how it can be used. Now conservatives are demanding even more cuts in his recovery plan, the leader of his health care reform effort has resigned, and liberal economists are being forced out of his administration. Obviously it’s still very early, but it’s clear that we can’t depend on Obama to do the right thing by himself. We need to push him to do better.
Ronaldo Lemos is Project Lead of the Creative Commons Brazil, and a fellow at the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton. He is founder and director of the Center for Technology & Society at the Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV) Law School in Rio de Janeiro, where he is also head professor of intellectual property law. He holds a J.D. from the University of Sao Paulo Law School, a Master of Laws degree from Harvard Law School and a Doctor of Law from University of Sao Paulo.
[Ed. note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Lemos’s status as a fellow at the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton.]