If the name Aaron Swartz doesn’t mean much to you, watch The Internet’s Own Boy. Brian Knappenberger’s intense, through-provoking documentary might make your brain melt with its subject matter, but you’ll be grateful nevertheless. Assange, Snowdon and Manning have taken all the headlines recently, but The Internet’s Own Boy suggests Swartz’s legacy could well be more powerful.
Like all good documentaries, Knappenberger’s film tells a compelling yet tragic story well. Fitting into the political tech-thriller niche made popular by Hollywood releases The Social Network and The Fifth Estate, The Internet’s Own Boy traces the life of Swartz from precocious toddler and schoolboy computer whizz to rebellious hacktivist. Of We Are Legion and Not Your Average Travel Guide fame, Knappenberger successfully mixes slick graphics, candid interviews and poignant archive footage in order to tell Swartz’s tale. It’s easy to watch films like this and get carried away with the impassioned pronouncements made, not to mention the stirring soundtrack and haunting home video clips. Yet The Internet’s Own Boy reminds you of what Swartz himself would have said – always question, always think, always ask why.
That this film is a documentary is revealing; Swartz’s life lends itself to a Hollywood retelling as much as Assange’s or Zuckerberg’s. The difference, perhaps, is that not only do Swartz’s loved ones and associates (including the likes of Tim Berners-Lee) feel the need to have their say on his achievements and death, exactly what this young boy from Chicago achieved during his short time on Earth is complicated. Everything about Swartz’s story is prodigious and intense, and The Internet’s Own Boy reflects this in its often visceral interviews, and John Dragonetti’s emotional, computer-inspired music. Having interviewees take on the majority of the narration is a masterstroke from Knappenberger, offering an authentic take on the tragic brilliance of Swartz’s life.
Well-known amongst the internet community since childhood, Swartz properly came to the wider world’s attention with his opposition to SOPA, or the Stop Online Piracy Act, which had the propensity to make it very easy to shut down websites which ‘infringed’ copyright. We probably won’t ever know how crucial it was that this law was stopped, but The Internet’s Own Boy suggests that we should feel very grateful it was, whilst also reminding us that we’re indebted to Swartz in all manner of ways. If you’ve ever downloaded an RSS feed, posted an image on Flickr, kept up to date with Reddit or used web.py, Swartz has influenced your life, simple as. That there was still so much more to come from Swartz is obvious. Whereas Knappenberger has the chance to grow, develop and expand his talents as a filmmaker even further, Swartz’s future is now lost to us all.
The Internet’s Own Boy makes it clear that most of Swartz’s friends and family regard his suicide in January 2013 as a result of the two year long legal battle he was embroiled in, a battle which began after Swartz wrote a programme to mass-download millions of JSTOR academic articles. The film obviously has a bias, and presents Swartz’s political stance as well as the bald facts of the case. In Swartz’s mind, knowledge is meant to be shared by everybody. Whilst the internet is much more democratic than other forms of media, access to information and news can still be controlled, either through hit-rates (you see the most popular articles after a search first), ‘gate-keepers’ (hello Google) or pay-walls (newspapers such as The Times, or the whole academic journal industry). It is this way of thinking that resonates most. As the film itself states, the world is full of very clever people who use their talents to make themselves money. Swartz wasn’t bothered about that; he wanted to make the world a better place, and in his mind that meant ensuring information on the internet was open and free to all. Those unfamiliar with Swartz’s story will benefit from a second viewing, but even the techno-illiterate will come away from The Internet’s Own Boy astounded at what one person can achieve, and contemplative about what freedom and power really mean in the digital age.