Home Video Hovel: The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, by Craig Schroeder
Ava Duvarney’s Selma may be, at least to everyone who isn’t a member of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, 2014’s most prominent and powerful film about civil disobedience and injustice. But perhaps not its most vital. Unlike Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis and the other civil rights pioneers featured in Selma, the life and work of Aaron Swartz, the subject of Brian Knappenberger’s The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz , hasn’t secured a just place in the annals of history. And if the federal government has any say, it never will.
The fact that anyone can read or listen to Battleship Pretension can be attributed, in large part, to Aaron Swartz. Podcasts and the internet at large would look entirely different if not for Swartz’s creation of RSS feeds. Battleship Pretension exists unencumbered by SOPA and PIPA–congressional acts which would have given large corporations a stranglehold on the internet–because of Swartz’s activism. The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz is a documentary focusing on Swartz’s unimpeachable genius and his tragic death.
There’s a lot packed into the film’s one hour and forty five minutes, from Swartz’s childhood–a childhood with more accomplishments (he created a precursor to Wikipedia before puberty and helped launch the nonprofit Creative Commons at fifteen) than a tenured professor–to his tragic death, the film manages to perfectly capture an astounding life that could have easily been a PBS miniseries. And it turns a complicated life’s work into a relatable story, without ever being condescending or undermining Swartz’s accomplishments. If I’m being modest, my understanding of technology rests somewhere between that of an early nineteenth century luddite and knowing that you should blow into the game cartridge if a Nintendo isn’t working properly. But The Internet’s Own Boy does an incredible job of taking immensely complicated technical jargon and breaking it down into digestible morsels. Without a bit of working knowledge of computer servers or programming, I never found myself lost when the film chronicles Swartz’s forays into the depths of coding. The intricacies and implications of SOPA and PIPA, two hideous laws that were almost passed precisely because they’re difficult to understand, are expertly navigated by Knappenberger. It’s an achievement in and of itself that a life like Swartz’s can be understood, but the fact that it can be adequately translated makes The Internet’s Own Boy especially remarkable.
The film’s thesis centers around Swartz’s role as an activist and eventually a martyr. Despite Swartz’s technological savvy, most of his activism was aimed at those attempting to monetize information. After learning of JSTOR, a digital library that commercialized academia, Swartz hacked into a server and stole all of the information behind the JSTOR paywall. Not for profit. Simply as an act of defiance. And for this act of defiance, the federal government, using antiquated computer crime laws, set out to make an example of Swartz. Unable to face a life in prison, Swartz committed suicide. I’ve seen The Internet’s Own Boy twice in the last six months; moved by Swartz’s life on both viewings, I was, admittedly, a little cold to the film on the first go-around. I felt the film wasn’t necessarily an objective look at Swartz’s life. But on the second viewing, I realized: sometimes objectivity isn’t necessary. Especially when examining beauty and wonder. Criticizing The Internet’s Own Boy for not taking the “warts and all” approach to Swartz’s life and work would be like criticizing a photo of the Grand Canyon for failing to capture it from every angle. Aaron Swartz was a good person. Perhaps one of the best. And it’s hard not to have a bias towards good.
As you can tell, after seeing The Internet’s Own Boy, it’s hard not to advocate on behalf of Swartz and his work. Not only was Swartz’s death–which the film details in its opening minutes, lest you think I’m spoiling a reveal–tragic to him and his family, the film makes it clear that Swartz’s death was a devastating loss to everyone. In just twenty-six years, and in the infancy of the technological age, Swartz was able to accomplish things that have or will effect every person on the planet. And the film is at its best when showing just how much worse the world is without Aaron Swartz. And what’s most unsettling is that if the federal government were to have its way, Swartz will be forgotten. But The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz is a good first step in cementing Swartz’s (hopeful) legacy as a champion of the world and a man who died, not of suicide, but as a martyr of civil disobedience.