Internet activist Aaron Swartz took his life last week. I never met him in person and was only vaguely aware of him prior to this.

The homepage of HackerNews has been flooded with examples of his work and while becoming more familiar with how he thought and acted one person kept coming back to my mind time and time again---Alan Turing.

Turing, like Swartz, was a genius who was driven to suicide by an outsider lifestyle ahead of the prevailing social mores of the day.


Though Turing wasn't considered a 'child prodigy' as Swartz was, both men accomplished industry changing work in their early years.

When Swartz was only 13 he created a site to “contain all human knowledge" winning the ArsDigita Prize. At 14 he co-authored the RSS 1.0 web syndication specification.

His work on RSS 1.0 led him to helping to architect the technical side of Creative Commons. From there he helped create Reddit and became independently wealthy from it's aquisition.

Building on his previous work as a kid Swartz then began to get involved in hacktivism which culminated in his arrest for downloading millions of documents from JSTOR.

Alan Turing basically invented the modern programmable computer and solved "the decision problem" with his work on the Turing Machine.

His body of work ultimately included breakthroughs in mathematics, biology, cryptology, computing and more. Some have said that his team which cracked the German Enigma Code helped end WWII.

So what do these two have in common? Both were seemingly endless wells of knowledge and creativity. While at the age when most of us are just getting a glimpse of who we want to be when we grow up these two gentlemen were rethinking and reconceptualizing the way things were in multiple fields of study while at the same time creating entirely new fields.


Turing was a pure mathmetician and cryptologist. He lived before modern computers (programmable computers are based on Universal Turing Machines after all) and most of the work he did is above the understanding of mere mortals. There are no websites with lolcatz that you can point to which helps you to instantly understand the magnitude of Turing's work.

Turing committed suicide after getting arrested for having a homosexual relationship. He was being forced to take estrogen treatments which had caused him to start growing breasts.

Also there has been outright allegations of foul play regarding Alan Turing's death when AFAIK noone is suggesting the same with regards to Aaron Swartz.

Swartz was a true child of the networked world. His early work involved coauthoring a techinical specification which allowed people to really easily syndicate their content across the network. He seemed to have internalized that once bits are online the genie is out of the bottle and they are easily copy/sharable.

The act which he was ultimately facing court for backed up his belief in information activism. He believed that this was a resource which was being wrongly held back from the rest of the world and he did what he had to do to attempt to change that. Confirming his networked pedigree part of what he got in trouble for was spoofing mac addresses on the MIT network.


At a certain level there is only so far that I can stretch this analogy. After all Alan Turing lived half a century before Aaron Swartz. One man's work remained largely top secret during his life while the other man's work made him a millionare many times over and brought him international notoriety.

On another level the comparison fits nearly perfectly. Both men were technical geniuses who were not only working ahead of their time but were in fact inventing tools and concepts that would be used by an entire generation of their peers.

The core problem that both men faced is that the way they thought and acted was just too progressive for their time. Turing for instance had a boyfriend. That's it. Yeah. Really. That's it. :(

Because he had such a high security clearance he was considered a great threat for blackmail by the British Intelligence Services and was under constant surveillance during the last days of his life.

Aaron Swartz was born and grew up in a time when the technology allowed information to flow like water to anyone who wanted to receive it. Like many of us he appeared to hope that the possibilities for change were only boxed in by the limits of the techonolgy. However the social mores and laws disagree and are attempting to create a real world/analog comparison for each new online threat.

SQLInjection? Oh that's like breaking and entering. DDoS? Oh that's like a Violent Protest.

The crime that Alan Turing was convicted of seems insane to us now. There will come a generation which will see the charges brought against Aaron Swartz as also insane. There will be a society that so greatly depends on the real freedom of information that they will potentially look back on Swartz as some type of folk hero. A Robin Hood of the early digital age.

The same way that we look back on Turing and speculate about what he could have created had he only lived another decade or two, Aaron Swartz joined the company of Turing the moment he passed away. He'll always be remembered as a child prodigy who took a real stand regarding information and personal liberty.

"When any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from witchcraft any sufficiently advanced technologist is indistinguishable from a witch." -#3 of updated Clark's 3 Laws of Techonolgy

"Turing believes machines think, Turing lies with men, Therefore machines do not think" -Alan Turing worryingly wrote this in a personal diary

More Info

Alan Turing

Aaron Swartz

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16 January 2013