Aaron is dead. Wanderers in this crazy world, we have lost a mentor, a wise elder. Hackers for right, we are one down, we have lost one of our own. Nurturers, carers, listeners, feeders, parents all, we have lost a child. Let us all weep.
Sir Tim Berners-Lee, January 11, 2013
I remember telling my friend Lauren, years ago, sometime in February 2013, “I just went through his whole Twitter profile. I can’t believe he’s gone. I think I’m becoming a little obsessive.” She agreed with me. A few weeks later, crying to my brother—newly married the day you died—as I dropped him off at the airport. Through the tears, I somehow got out that quotation of yours about doing the important things, and I asked my brother about you—how were you supposed to work on the important things now? How were you going to do all these things now that you were gone? Campaign finance reform, open access, digital law, on and on. All these things only you could do. And my brother looked at me and said, “We have to follow in his footsteps. You have to take up the mantle.”
In a lot of ways that moment, your legacy, that statement helped me establish many of the goals I carry today, my mountains. Everything’s been a question, as Neil Gaiman once put it, of whether I was “walking toward the mountain” or not. I think I’m still walking toward the mountains. And, though in some ways I’ve strayed a little from your footsteps, I’ve learned to mold the mountains to my own experiences and struggles and perceptions of the world and my place in it (to paraphrase Malcolm’s prayer). Still, I think we’d be fighting beside one another, a solidarity held close to the heart.1
Now I find myself a few years older, still pained, physically pained, at the memory of your death. I haven’t fought as gracefully as you, but I’m still learning. And maybe this attempt to hold onto you isn’t obsessive, as I’d thought aloud to Lauren, maybe this is grief continuing to change me, make me a better person, more open, hopeful. As Gramsci says, a pessimist because of intelligence, but (and, I interject, fiercely, unapologetically, escalating) an optimist because of will. But you taught me this first, well before Said and Gramsci gave me words to describe it.
Judith Butler mentions in Precarious Lives how grief unbinds us:
If I lose you, under these conditions, then I not only mourn the loss, but I become inscrutable to myself. Who ‘am’ I, without you? When we lose some of these ties by which we are constituted, we do not know who we are or what to do. On one level, I think I have lost ‘you’ only to discover that ‘I’ have gone missing as well. At another level, perhaps what I have lost ‘in’ you, that for which I have no ready vocabulary, is a relationality that is composed neither exclusively of myself nor you, but is to be conceived as the tie by which those terms are differentiated and related.
I think more on how my, our, loss of you unbinds me, us—as well as what grew from that loss. Grief unbinds and binds. I still don’t have the words for it all—even my pronouns remain obscured, confused—but I’ll attempt some meager ones here:
I never met you. How could I know you for you to become part of “I”? Yet you taught me so much. I knew you as a person whose every action, from beginning to end, reflected the thing inside myself that was constantly struggling with the world, that not only wanted more for it, better for it, but wanted to actively work toward that better. I’d followed you online for years, reading your posts, musing, hopeful, anxious to follow in your steps, perhaps even one day meet you. Raw Thought inspired this nascent space. And your life showed me it was possible—not only to be a lefty in the rigidly libertarian space that’s the tech industry (for another post), but also one of the few technologists (keeping your non-programmer’s apology in mind) who saw the world beyond the strict terms of technology. You saw people beyond the pale of capitalism, and that was and is rare; and it will always be beautiful.
As Jeremy Hammond wrote from solitary confinement:
Aaron is a hero because he refused to play along with the government’s agenda, instead he used his brilliance and passion to create a more transparent society. Through the free software movement, open publishing and file sharing, and development of cryptography and anonymity technology, digital activists have revealed the poverty of neo-liberalism and intellectual property. Aaron opposed reducing everything to a commodity to be bought or sold for a profit.
Your life showed me the vast potentials, and your words made me believe I could too.
Even now, writing this, I weep at our collective loss, at your absence.
But why am I writing this? Why now? I can’t be sure, but I think the answer has two parts. First, to understand our grief is to understand the things that inextricably bind us to each other, and I want to begin understanding the ways I grieve. But I also think I write in a hope that this space—composed in the Markdown you helped create—is another positive step in my attempts to trace your footsteps, Said’s footsteps, and mark my own.
Thank you for everything, Aaron. Godspeed and rest well, forever in power. I, we, will carry the dust from your footsteps a little further yet, inshaAllah.
I’ve already found traces of my politics in the remaining traces of your presence online. Each find is another gem, another moment of prayer and love for you. ↩