“The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz”
Portrait of a Brilliant Mind
Aaron Swartz was a brilliant guy—a programming prodigy and an information activist. He helped to develop the basic Internet protocol RSS and he was a co-founder of Reddit. He was all over the Internet but it was Swartz’s groundbreaking work in social justice and political organizing combined with his aggressive approach to information access that found him involved in a two-year legal nightmare. It was a battle that ended with the taking of his own life at the age of 26. His story touched a nerve with people far beyond the online communities in which he was a celebrity. This documentary is a personal story about what we lose when we are tone deaf about technology and its relationship to our civil liberties.
He helped shape the digital landscape we all use today. Chronicling his pioneering efforts crusading for open access and free speech and the resulting legal nightmare and tragedy that ensued, “The Internet’s Own Boy” is a dynamic and moving portrait of a brilliant tech millionaire who renounced the values of Silicon Valley startup culture and used technology to tirelessly fight for social justice, no matter what the cost.
Gabriella Coleman, a cultural anthropologist, tells us that, “He contributed through his technical abilities, and yet it was not simply a technical matter to him.”
Technically Brian Knappenberger’s film is nothing special—he relies on a wide range of talking heads and Swartz’s old interviews via TV and web chats meshed with vintage photographs and archival footage, and its central character’s brief, turbulent, and radical existence is charted in concise chronological order. However, the film is far from a technical matter, fiercely promoting Swartz’s legacy and challenging us with the same questions its central subject was compelled to ask.
Knappenberger follows Swartz”s from an inquisitive childhood to a technologically cognizant adolescence that remarkably found him helping to create RSS feeds and Creative Commons, two web-based conceptions specifically focusing on the Internet for its reservoir of knowledge. It was his quest for knowledge is that fuels the opinion that the World Wide Web should be a repository of information freely open to everyone. Yet, this also triggers his abruptly tragic downfall, prompting him to pirate research documents kept secured from ordinary citizens behind pay walls that would seem to violate privacy law. And while the illegality of his actions is made clear, the film also harshly critiques the punitive government investigation as merely making an “example” of him.
We are well aware of Knappenberger’s sympathy toward Swartz so consequently, the film has no interest in offering counterpoints to its own argument, though, to be fair, we’re told that most Swartz dissenters declined to be interviewed. And for all the justifiable anger his plight engenders, the primary combatant still comes through at a remove, less a fully formed person than a pariah, seeing him more for what he did than who he was, unable to discern the precise emotional entanglements that might have brought about his death. Knappenberger is less interested in what precisely led to his death than what his death meant. This isn’t investigative journalism, but urgent advocacy filmmaking. Swartz’s mantra declared that “everything you learn is provisional,” suggesting one’s belief system can be remodeled with new information. The film commiserates a loss, but also effectively appeals for enlightenment, asking us to hear and consider what Swartz championed, which is a worthy testament to this young man’s legacy.
Swartz was a charming and selfless information prodigy that strived to use his talent to make this a freer and better world for which he ended up paying for with his life. Aaron Swartz was born in Chicago, the middle son, of successful middle-class Jewish parents. Inquisitive from birth, he taught himself to read by the age of three and by the time he reached high school he had trouble with his teachers because he felt that they taught him less than what he could learn from a book in “about an hour”. At 13 he won a competition for young people who created non-commercial websites for which the prize included a trip to M.I.T. From then on, there was no looking back for him.
He then played a major part in the development of the basic Internet protocol RSS and also co-founded Reddit which became the most popular social news website in the world. His work brought fame in the online communities and also wealth (when Reddit was sold) but this affable young man couldn’t have been less interested in either. What did excite him was social justice and political organizing that focused on working to free up inaccessible information online that he believed belonged in the public domain and should be available to all without charge. It was what would prove to be his undoing in time.
Without Swartz’s involvement it is most unlikely that the Stop Online Piracy Act would have been defeated in Congress, but when he set about copying almost 5 million academic articles from JSTOR (Journal Storage) Database at M.I.T. and it was here that events did not go his way. Swartz maintained that since these articles had been financed from public funds they should be freely available. When he was caught, JSTOR chose not press any charges but the Federal Government did and very aggressively pursued Swartz and indicted him with a total of 13 felonies. To its shame, M.I.T. just stood on sidelines and did nothing.
The beauty of this wonderful documentary of this extraordinary young man is that the director makes a concerted effort to show not only why the online community was in awe of his seemingly unlimited talent, but by including his very supportive and proud family and friends. In this way, he showed what an exceptionally nice person Swartz was too. This very unassuming man was magnanimous and both reserved and quiet but he seemed to blossom as more people called on him to help. He was a passionate thinker who used the same logical approach he employed when programming also in how tackled any social injustice he came across.
Why he took his own life is never really explained in the movie, but what is very clear from listening to all the evidence is that was a wasted life cut short. However his memory just doesn’t live on with his loved ones, and with the online community who are in awe of all his inventions and achievements, but also last year in Congress a Bill was introduced to finally reform the ambiguous and outdated Anti-Hacking Law that the Government used so mercilessly against him. The Bill is called Aaron’s Law, as well it should be.
Even if hackers like Swartz are still a problem for us to reconcile in real life, “maybe it is in the movies, with their capacity to empathize with the outré, their ability to present difficult, morally prismatic antiheroes, that we can properly come to terms with them”. Today’s world has been shaped by complex agents of change like Assange and Snowden and we may need movies to help us comprehend our shades of gray.