Aaron Swartz and Open Source Idealism

Aaron Swartz CC Event

“From the youngest age … his work was dedicated solely to making the world a better place for the ideas that he had … He was dedicating his life to building a world…that was as idealistic as he was. And he was impatient with us, and he was disappointed with us, with all of us.”  –Harvard Law School Professor Lawrence Lessig and a close friend of Aaron Swartz

By Yonatan Gordon

These words spoken about Aaron Swartz shortly after the tragedy suggest something far greater than one incredible person’s idealism. They speak to the idealist potential in each of us that motivates us to find answers to questions that perplex us daily. As we hope to explain, Aaron’s questions closely resemble those of the wise son in thePassover Haggadah.
The Wise Son

The Wise Son asks “What are these testimonies, law and regulations which Hashem, our God, has commanded you”? It doesn’t seem like he’s asking about Pesach at all, but rather a general question about the entire Torah. The answer given the wise son is the longest of all the answers. It begins with “You shall tell him that we were slaves in Egypt…” and it ends with, “and it shall be considered a tzedakah (charity) for us for keeping all of these commandments before Hashem our God, as we have been commanded.”

Why does the wise son say אתכם, “You?” which sounds a lot like how the wicked son distances and removes himself from the entire story of the Exodus from Egypt? As much as the wise son is part of the Jewish people, he wants to reach the point of inception (נקודת הראש’ת). While there are an infinite number of laws (הלכות), the wise son wants to know where they all come from. If he can grasp that first point from where everything emanates, he feels good.

It’s like a child who keeps asking their parent “why,” going further back until there is a certain place where there is no longer any answer. If we go back far enough, the wise son too senses that there is no real reason that can be given. The reason will only be revealed sometime in the future.

Actualizing Ideals

In some ways, the wise son is the furthest away from the Passover Seder. His focus is on ideals, on the point of inception as mentioned. For him there is one concept, one idea that encapsulates all the laws, etc… mentioned in the entire Torah. For the wise son, it’s all about the Exodus from Egypt.

The quote from Prof. Lessig that Aaron “was dedicated solely to making the world a better place for the ideas that he had” can be understand as similar to the question the wise son asks at the Seder. The question is not of particulars, but of how to make those particulars more closely match the ideal.

The wise son knows that the only way to move the world forward is by focusing on ideals. Eventually the particulars come into play (much like the wise son is eventually instructed about the commandments), but this comes only after some time. The initial motivation of the wise son is simply to identify ideals, then work to actualize them in present-day reality.

Open Source Ideas

In our previous article about Aaron, we suggested that it was never the intention that ideas be copyrighted to begin with. Now we are adding that the greatest reward for an idealist is a world that understands and appreciates their ideas. What is the motivation behind the open source movement? On the surface it seems to be about collaboration.  Like with Wikipedia, Linux and so forth, everyone should be able to have an equal say into the development of the platform.

What attracts the wise son most, however, is not the collaboration itself but the promise that it brings. While ideals begin as an initial point of inception, the realization of these dreams comes through collaboration and friendship. This is what the Arizal termed “camaraderie” (dibuk chaverim). During his lifetime, the Arizal said that insufficient dibuk chaverim among his students prevented the Redemption from occurring in his time. The promise though is that when human communication is unified, the Redemption will occur.

The motivation behind the “open source” movement is to free ideas from their bondage. Similar to the wise son who sees the Exodus from Egypt as the inception point of the entire Torah, an open source idealist sees collaboration as only a means to the end. The ultimate goal is to behold these ideals within the landscape of the entire Torah … with all its many particulars.

Open Idealism

One of the many activities that Aaron occupied himself with was as a volunteer editor on Wikipedia. As part of his bid to join the Board of Directors, he wrote an analysis of how Wikipedia articles are written. Aaron concluded that the bulk of the actual content comes from tens of thousands of occasional contributors, or “outsiders,” while a core group of 500 to 1,000 regular editors correct spelling and other formatting errors. According to Aaron, “The formatters aid the contributors, not the other way around.”

At first glance, we may think that the wise men should be the one most knowledgeable about the particulars; but as we saw, it’s the exact opposite. While the wise son is the most distant from the present discussion at the Seder, he is also the one leading the questioning in the most progressive way. Indeed, he is an “outsider” … but in lieu of being an outsider, he has a view on the story that no one else has. The wise son sees the entire Torah as included in the account of the Exodus from Egypt. Likewise, it’s the idealist that leads the exploration of ideas such as was evidenced on Wikipedia.

While collaboration is key to the development of the particulars, the idealist is the one that first makes the idea known. He is the furthest away, his “tomorrow” is the furthest in the future.

Many people are deliberating over the best things we can do now to remember Aaron. But as we quoted in the beginning from Prof. Lessig, “He was dedicating his life to building a world…that was as idealistic as he was. And he was impatient with us, and he was disappointed with us, with all of us…” The greatest gift we could give is the realization of a world that lives up to ideals. Where happy dreams seem the reality, and exile and bondage seem the dream.

Why does the wise son see the entire Torah as included in the Exodus from Egypt? Because it is by leaving our personal exile and bondage, that we start freeing our mind to think and serve God as it was originally intended. To leave our personal Egypts and enter the Land of Israel to receive the Torah anew.

Freely adapted from the 7 Shevat 5773 weekly shiur from Harav Yitzchak Ginsburgh.


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