“HTML”: THE ORIGIN STORY
It’s strange to mourn someone you’ve never met. The story isn’t about him, but the story exists because of him, because he died, because the circumstances of his death were so preposterous, and so in that sense you could say that “html” is an elegy for Aaron Swartz. I’d been planning to write an English/HTML hybrid for years, but the project kept getting postponed in favor of other stories, it was always next up, it was never the priority. And then Aaron died. I honestly don’t know how to describe the effect his death had on me. I’d never met him, not in reality, but in the age of the internet, when so much of a person is accessible online, his thoughts and his memories and his feelings and his jokes, do you even have to? I identified with him, I’d learned from him, and none of what had happened—the arrest, the prosecution, the suicide—had made any sense at all. His death hit me hard. It upended my priorities. Suddenly writing that English/HTML hybrid felt urgent, I needed to write the story and needed write the story now, and so I put aside everything I’d been working on, and I did, that’s why I finally wrote “html.” I was living in Ireland, renting a studio in a townhouse that was so drafty the wind would audibly whistle through. I had to wear a wool hat and fingerless gloves indoors. The story took me a month to complete. I wrote full-time, overtime technically, eleven hours a day, seven days a week. At night, I’d stand in the shower until the hot water went cold. I didn’t do anything else that month and didn’t want to. I left my studio exactly once, to buy more food. At the grocery store, nobody bumped into me, nobody even brushed up against me in passing, and I didn’t speak to the cashier. I walked back to my studio with a sack of groceries and didn’t leave again. I went a month without being touched by or talking to another human, and if you have read the story and are curious about the story, that’s really what I’m trying to capture for you, is what being in my head that month was like. Luckily, replicating that actually will be pretty easy. Play the six videos below simultaneously. Simultaneously, that’s important. Aside from Aaron, here’s everything that was in my head back then, here’s what being conscious was like for me:
I had a certain vision for the story. I was trying to articulate something about myself, capture something specific through the narrative, some unnameable, unseeable thing, the type that only a story could have given form to. And ultimately, I failed. I caught glimpses, but the thing never took form. I revised the story a number of times over the following year, I struggled with it, I brooded over it, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t figure it out. To this day, even now that it’s published, I consider the story a failure. I am glad I wrote it, though. Roger Ebert remarked once about the director Werner Herzog: “He has never created a single film that is compromised, shameful, made for pragmatic reasons or uninteresting. Even his failures are spectacular.” That’s my hope for this story. That, even if it’s a failure, Aaron might have considered it spectacular somehow. To be honest, I don’t care what the rest of you think about it. This one was for him.