Noah J Nelson on Friday, Jun. 27th
In 2013 a young activist who had dedicated his life to making the Internet a most just place committed suicide, and his death was felt around the world.
The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz the latest documentary by Brian Knappenberger (We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists), tells the story of that young man’s life and the infuriating circumstances that contributed to his death. In crafting the tale Knappenberger comes just shy of mythologizing Swartz as a martyr for the Open Internet.
Knappenberger avoids the trappings of myth by grounding the film in Swartz’s own almost ridiculously well documented life story. Copious amounts of home video— Swartz was born in 1986, when VHS cameras well in the process of being adopted— and footage of Swartz’s early public life as a precocious teen who helped shape the Internet standard known as RSS make up a large component of the early part of the film.
In an earlier era, audiences would have been left to reconstruct Swartz’s personality through interviews with his family, friends and colleagues, plenty of which we get here. In the context of someone who lived so much of their life online, and in the service of our collective online rights, there is a kind of poetic justice to having our view of Swartz largely informed by the digital trail he’s left behind. The interviews we do get become commentary on the footage, be it of an elementary school-aged Swartz or in his role as one of the co-founders of Reddit.
The personality that emerges is of a young man who saw knowledge as a tool that had the power to right wrongs, and who believed that the best way to achieve that aim was by sharing that tool. Early successes with computer programming lead Swartz to view coding as a kind of magic: the world can be reshaped if you have the right tools, know the right spells.
It was in his ambitions to make the world more just that Swartz ran afoul of law enforcement. Beginning in late 2010, Swartz gained access to the servers of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and downloaded large sections of the database of academic papers known as JSTOR. Whether Swartz was intending to perform a meta-analysis of the data or planned to release the papers into the wild is a question that goes unanswered.
Security camera footage of Swartz swapping out hard-drives in a MIT closet suggests that he either didn’t know or care that he was under surveillance as he harvested the files. That footage, however, became the trap from which Swartz would not escape as federal prosecutors doggedly went after him on hacking charges.
The ends to which the U.S. Attorney’s office in Boston went to make an example out of Swartz comes across most effectively in the interviews Knappenberger has with Swartz’s then-partner Quinn Norton. Norton, a tech writer known for her work with Wired, becomes visibly shaken as she recounts how she cracked under pressure while being interrogated by federal investigators. In the end Norton gives up nothing more than a blog post, but that act is enough to drive a wedge between her and Swartz as it feeds the prosecution’s need to paint Swartz as a remorseless radical. Knappenberger frames this part of the story with a pall of regret that underscores not only Norton’s testimony but that of Swartz’s family as well.
The film feels less focused than Knappenberger’s previous effort We Are Legion, a function—ironically—of being dedicated to telling one man’s life story. While it is possible to reduce the hacktivists of Anonymous down to a common essence, The Internet’s Own Boy is set with the burden of capturing the soul of an individual in the wake of their death. The truth is that Swartz’s legacy is not yet set: the lasting impact of his work as the founder of Demand Progress, a co-founder of Reddit, and a model of Internet activism may take decades to see in full.
For now we are left with the powerful sense of a life that was interrupted, one that is still playing out even as the individual at the center of it is gone.
The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz began its theatrical run this week and is available on all major video on demand services for rental, as well as Vimeo on Demand for purchase.
Disclosure: I was a Kickstarter backer of this film, something I happened to forget about until a download code for the documentary showed up in my inbox this week. This review is based on the press screening I attended at the beginning of June, long before the code appeared.
Photo Credit: Noah Berger