On 11 January 2013, Aaron Swartz, the former prodigy and a key figure behind RRS, Creative Commons and Reddit, committed suicide while under federal indictment for data theft. Brian Knappenberger’s documentary follows Swartz’s life from his uneasy school days through to his later political activism, examining the tech genius’s own character, as well as the digital ignorance of those in power, and the post-9/11 prosecutorial overreach that eventually brought about his death.
Knappenberger could have called this documentary “First of the Digital Natives”, because Swartz, born in 1986, was a part of the first generation that grew up with computers and the internet in their homes. Having contribtued to websites and software design since he was in high school, he was also the first millennial many in the industry took seriously (contributors to the documentary include Tim Berners-Lee).
The tension of that generational divide simmers below the surface of the film, summed up in Swartz’s own comment: “I hate it when you don’t take me seriously.” Though the man himself is sometimes painted as infuriating, patronising and egotistical (see also Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network”), it’s difficult not to be more frustrated by the myopic corporate mindest of the digital immigrants who would tell a developer – one whose website they’ve just bought for over a million dollars no less – that he cannot install new software on his work computer.
“The Internet’s Own Boy” makes clear the crushing level of ignorance about the internet among legislators. One fun fact thrown up is that, due to a 1986 law inspired by the film “WarGames”, US citizens are committing a felony if they lie about their job on eHarmony. That assumption that the internet is still just “a thing” only nerds know a lot about – that it is something that can be contained and effectively regulated – means laws are drafted and enforced in fearful ignorance, with a huge amount of redundancy that would allow prosecutors to build a case against anybody.
Swartz, the documentary convincingly contends, was a victim of that ignorance. In one small but telling moment, a commentator observes that, had Swartz done what he did for profit and 30 years earlier, he would have been praised for his entrepreneurial spirit. But things were very different in a post-9/11 world where cyber-terrorists were hard to catch and prosecutors wanted a head they could put on a spike.
“The Internet’s Own Boy” is an interesting and troubling portrait of a young man who thought he was smarter than everyone above him. The fact he was right might have been what killed him.
“The Internet’s Own Boy” is out on DVD now.