The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz
A gripping and revealing documentary that tells the heartbreaking story of an internet legend
As digital culture matures, stories about its innovators and pioneers proliferate, preparing to become its myths. What adds nuance is the fact that these entrepreneurs were not the thrusting alpha males who went into space, invented modern advertising, or fired up Wall Street; rather, they were awkward kids, possessed of limited social power, not particularly driven by money or sex, and anti-establishment by inclination.
Like The Social Network, Brian Knappenberger's documentary on the life of an internet legend emphasises the odd fit between class geek and business tycoon. Unlike that film, this one ends in the bitterest tragedy for its subject. What happened to Aaron Swartz, creator of Reddit and developer of, among countless innovations, RSS and Creative Commons? He helped to invent the communications culture in which much of the world now connects, socialises and does business; he campaigned for it to operate freely; he was pinned as a security threat by the Obama administration; he was hounded into the ultimate submission.
The story is heartbreaking, and horribly revealing in terms of the lengths the US government went to (long before Edward Snowden had blown his whistle) to make an example of a promoter of online free speech. Knappenberger takes a predominantly factual rather than emotional or psychological approach to his subject, and the film might therefore at points test those who aren’t well versed in legal or technical minutiae, or who would simply like more analysis of the human side of the story. But it grips harder as it goes on, thanks in no small part to penetrating contributions from extremely clever and articulate interviewees.
For balance, it could have done with more material from the people who put such extraordinary effort into prosecuting Swartz, but that isn’t for want of trying: many declined to contribute.
Limited release from Fri 29 Aug.