Despite some shortcomings, it remains a deeply compelling documentary about some of the most important issues of the Information Age.
The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz
Documentarian Brian Knappenberger chronologizes the tragic story of Aaron Swartz, one of the Internet’s most important figures, who spent his life fighting to make information publicly accessible. Instead of using his prodigy computer programming talents for monetary gain, Swartz put them towards political activism in the name of social justice. Which makes it all the more heartbreaking when ridiculous criminal charges pushed him into taking his own life at the age of 26. I couldn’t have asked for a better audience to see The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz with than the one at SXSW, since the film festival runs parallel with a technology conference (member of the audience gave a standing ovation). Though the documentary may seem like it only appeals to technology enthusiasts, the story is universally shocking and the message it delivers should inspire us all.
Aaron Swartz began to show signs of an extraordinary ability to learn at a very early age. Old home videos prove he was able to read at a young age as well as document his boundless enthusiasm to share what he learned with his younger brothers. His instinctive mission statement to share knowledge with others continued to grow when his family introduced him to computers around the age of 3 or 4. Swartz became obsessed with computers, teaching himself how to write different programming languages. By the time he finished high school, Swartz built an open-access online encyclopedia that allowed anyone to add and edit articles. And this was before Wikipedia even existed.
It wasn’t until after Swartz had helped develop the Rich Site Summary (RSS) protocol, launch Creative Commons, and co-founded the popular website Reddit, that he really began to infuse political activism into his repertoire. As a research fellow at Harvard University, Swartz wrote a script that could automatically download the entire catalog of academic journal articles from JSTOR he had access to. However, campus security caught him in the act of saving these articles to a hard drive plugged into their network. Everything spiraled out of control when federal prosecutors tried to make an example out of Swartz by charging him with 13 outrageous felony counts and up to $1 million in fines. Just two days after receiving a second denial for a plea bargain, Swartz tragically took his own life presumably from the built up pressure by the government.
While the story of Aaron Swartz is unquestionably tragic, The Internet’s Own Boy is surprisingly inspirational, focusing on what Swartz was fighting for and not dwelling on the details of his death. The documentary reflects Swartz’s lofty ambitions to protect our freedom of information. After all, limiting our access to information ultimately limits our ability to learn, evolve, and create. However, the documentary is not without its flaws. The Internet’s Own Boy idealizes its own subject and therefore introduces obvious bias towards its topics, essentially resulting in a tribute documentary. The duration is felt a couple of times when the documentary meanders a bit, like when it dedicates a chapter on explaining the SOPA bill. Despite some of its shortcomings, The Internet’s Own Boy remains a deeply compelling documentary about some of the most important issues of the Information Age.