Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Internet's Own Boy (2014): Aaron Swartz, Internet icon

The Internet's Own Boy (2014)
dir: Brian Knappenberger

SIFF 2014 Film #16

Aaron Swartz, one of the rebel heroes of the internet. He's probably best known for being a co-founder of Reddit, and walking away from his job after Conde-Nast purchased it. But, he's so much more than just a co-founder of a very popular populist-seeming website.

The Internet's Own Boy, a new profile crossed with agitprop documentary, documents Swartz's life from his prodigy youth beginnings to his online blossoming to his later activism and the trial, ending with notes of hope about the influence that Swartz had on the internet and internet rebellion. Knappenberger, who previously directed We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists, created a vast documentary gaining the participation of Swartz's family, his friends, lovers, and collaborators. Being constructed in a year following Swartz's death, The Internet's Own Boy is surprisingly thorough and enjoyable.

Swartz started as a child prodigy in Highland Park, and worked on developing the base RSS code as a teenager. By 15 he had also found his way into the W3C and working on the Creative Commons programs. After working on Reddit, he would found Watchdog.net and then Demand Progress. Swartz also got in trouble for downloading a lot of JStor's academic journals from MIT, and was going to be the "example" by the US government who were throwing the book at him with 35 years in jail plus millions of dollars in fines. Swartz died by hanging in an apparent suicide in January 2013.

The interviews with Swartz's peers and family are enlightening, and knowing that Swartz will be dead by the end of the movie really brings out the suddenness of the death as he was still ongoing with some of his projects. The urgency of The Internet's Own Boy is told in the dates. Swartz died less than 18 months ago. As the dates start to come up 2007, 2010, 2011, 2012, and the names Daniel Issa and Elisabeth Warren pop up, and then SOPA comes through...the knowing audience begins to realize that this isn't a movie in the past. This is NOW. All this happened in the past decade and a half, essentially. This is, frankly, amazing.

Knappenberger isn't out to make a new form of documentary. But, using the traditional form of documentary, he really straightens out a lot of story lines into a straight-forward non-confusing narrative that keeps the praise focused on Swartz's accomplishments and the rage focused on the injustices he was fighting and faced with. There are many story lines that Knappenberger has to weave together while some of them were already ongoing before Swartz entered into their subsequent story, and he does it well.

It's worth seeing this film if only just to learn about the stuff that the internet is doing and why it is important and how it affects you. Swartz was an icon to a lot of people, being a figurehead to many people along the way. He's influential and possibly a bit polarizing. But, to ignore him would be stupid. He was a key person of the underground, and he will be sorely sorely missed.

No comments:

Post a Comment