Asking better questions

I didn’t know Aaron Swartz. I met him very briefly in December but that was all. Nevertheless it’s been a realization this last week and a half hearing from those that did know him what an amazing human he was, and how much of a loss there is for the world in his passing away too soon.

I watched online some of the memorial for Aaron that took place in New York last Saturday. I was most impressed and moved by the last speech, from his partner Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman. There was much in what she said about the legal pressures surrounding Aaron’s last year, but what resonated most with me was this section:

Aaron didn’t believe he was smarter than anyone else, which is hard for — it was very hard for me to accept that he really believed that. He really, really believed that he was not smarter than anybody else. He just thought he asked better questions.

He believed that every single person in this room is capable of doing as much as he did, if you just ask the right questions.

Whatever you’re doing, are you confused? Is there anything that doesn’t quite make sense about what you’re doing? What is it? Never assume that someone else has noticed that niggling sense of doubt and already resolved the issue for themselves. They haven’t. The world does not make sense, and if you think it does it’s because you’re not asking hard enough questions.

If you’re in the tech sector, why are you there? What do you really believe in? If you believe that technology is making the world a better place, why do you believe that? Do you really understand what makes the world a bad place to begin with?

I’m serious. If you’re in this room and you work in the technology sector, I’m asking you that question. Do you understand what makes the world a bad place to begin with? Have you ever spent time with and listened to the people your technology is supposed to be helping? Or the people it might be hurting?

While I do believe that much needs to be done with regard to the unfairness of Aaron’s trial, there is little I can personally do about that. But the calling above is something that we all in the software development world can consider. If some of us act on this then Aaron’s passing will be a little less in vain.

The video of Aaron’s NY memorial is here. Taren’s speech is at about the 1:47 mark. Thanks to Chris Burkhardt for transcribing Taren’s speech – the full text is available here. My sympathies go out to all of Aaron’s family, friends and colleagues at this time.

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