Uncommon Creative, by Matt Warren
The Internet’s Own Boy is an illuminating documentary about the life and tragic death of web activist Aaron Swartz—who, facing lengthy jail time for his hacktivist activities, committed suicide in January of 2013 at age 26.
And unsurprisingly, director Brian Knappenberger’s film is one of the festival’s most buzzed-about nonfiction films. This kind of slick, outrage-stoking social issues movie usually goes over pretty big here at SFF, especially when the built-in narrative is as cinematic as Swartz’s short, sad, immensely influential rise-and-fall.
An early co-founder of Reddit, Creative Commons, and numerous other web projects, Swartz initially made a name for himself as a pioneering tech prodigy very much in the Mark Zuckerberg mold. But rather than pursue a life of wealth and fame as a tech entrepreneur, Swartz turned his focus towards politics and social justice, his chief hobbyhorse being the liberation of academic journals and legal records from behind the pay walls of for-profit gatekeepers—a cause that eventually landed him in big, big trouble with law enforcement agencies looking to assert their authority against perceived hacker threats.
Overzealous prosecution is believed to be the chief motivation behind Swartz’s suicide, and The Internet’s Own Boy does an excellent job of lucidly explaining to dum-dums like myself exactly what Swartz was doing, why it was—and is—important, and just how things went so badly off the rails. Don’t ask me to explain it to you now, but it made complete sense in the moment while watching the film.
Biased but not hysterical, The Internet’s Own Boy makes a convincing case for Swartz as a tragic figure who could and should have gone on to much bigger things, and succeeds in making the felt as deeply as it deserves. Boy is a must-watch for anyone interested in the future of information.