PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Film

AFI Docs 2014: 'The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz'

The case against Reddit's Aaron Swartz, as upsetting and disproportionate as it was, was also part of a longstanding and ongoing pattern.


The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz

Director: Brian Knappenberger
Cast: Robert Swartz, Ben Swartz, Noah Swartz, Susan Swartz, Quinn Norton, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, Cory Doctorow, Lawrence Lessig, Tim Berners-Lee
Rated: NR
Studio: FilmBuff and Participant
Year: 2013
US date: 2014-06-19 (AFI Docs Documentary Festival)
Website
Trailer

"We were not the best behaved children. We were always running around causing trouble." As Noah Swartz recalls growing up in Highland Park with his brothers Ben and Aaron, you see home movie footage of the three boys looking like a lot of other boys, tumbling over each other inside a large cardboard box, running and bumping, awkward and adorable, turning to the camera to shrug and smile. Like a lot of trouble caused by five- and six-year-olds, this trouble is carefree and charming, recorded by an off-screen parent and played back years later, when the context might have turned nostalgic.

This particular trouble has another context too. As Noah shares this memory, early in Brian Knappenberger's documentary The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, he is, of course, remembering his brother, who famously killed himself in 2013, during an ongoing prosecution by the US Justice Department. That makes the video not only Noah's personal recollection, but also a bit of public record, evidence that the child Aaron was happy and innocent, a boy like a lot of other boys.

That's not to say that Aaron was ordinary: his was a special genius and moral intelligence. As a child programming prodigy and internet activist, he sought to make information open and accessible. For Aaron, his brother Ben observes, "Programming was magic," a way for someone with exceptional skills to "accomplish what normal people can't." His work toward that end was tireless, from his contributions to the developments of RSS and Creative Commons (when he was 13 and 14), to Reddit and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, as well as his stunningly successful campaign against SOPA in 2012.

The Internet's Own Boy, which screened at AFI Docs on 21 June, makes the case that as Aaron determined to use his magic not to make "mountains of money", but instead to do good in the world, his work became unfathomable and also threatening to assorted institutions.

As a child, Aaron resisted the indoctrinations of thought imposed by traditional education; as he "started questioning things" he started also to imagine alternatives, other ways to learn, to conceive communities, and to improve conditions for those communities. When he decided against working for a corporation and instead to seek out hacktivist enterprises, he made trouble for a range of institutions, academic, corporate, and, at last, the Obama Administration, during its continuing assault on whistleblowers.

While The Internet's Own Boy uses a conventional talking heads structure to tell Aarons story -- his precociousness, his celebrity, his frustrations, and his increasingly vocal politics -- that story is increasingly alarming. His relatives and friends, including Cory Doctorow, Lawrence Lessig, Gabriella Coleman, and also Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, intercut with archival footage (family photos and videos, internet interviews, amateur footage of Swartz's galvanizing presentations on auditorium stages), recount his innovations and his vision, as well as the costs he paid.

When Aaron was initially arrested by MIT police on Massachusetts breaking-and-entering charges, the legal focus was on his downloading academic journal articles from JSTOR. Federal prosecutors later charged him with felonies, including 11 violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA).

These charges and the prosecution, however much they might have had a context in post-9/11 anxieties and the Patriot Act's excesses, took tolls on Aaron. Even as he expanded his public endeavors (like the fight against SOPA). They also took tolls on the people around him, including Quinn Norton, a writer for Wired and Aaron's former girlfriend. For all the appreciations of Aaron and condemnations of the overreaching prosecution, Norton's critique is the most wide-ranging and the most devastating.

Gradually more visibly unnerved in each segment of the interview, she recounts her fears of the FBI during its pursuit of Aaron (and, as agents threatened, her too), her horror at its systemic "gaming", and her enduring distress. "I hadn’t done anything wrong and everything had gone wrong," she frets. "I'm still angry, I'm still angry that you can try your best with these people to do the right thing and they will turn it against you… I'm angrier that this is what we as a people think is okay."

This point, especially, resonates. Certainly, the movie underlines the lasting effects of Aaron's work and ideals, perhaps especially the efforts by US Representatives Zoe Lofgren and Ron Wyden to fix the legal structures that allowed the Justice Department to pursue Aaron so relentlessly, that is, the out-of-date CFAA. But it also suggests that the case against Aaron, as upsetting and disproportionate as it might have been, was also not extraordinary, but rather, part of a longstanding and ongoing pattern.

David Sirota submits that the Administration, in the midst of Wikileaks and before the NSA revelations, was "sending a particular laser-like message to a group of people the Obama Administration sees as particularly threatening, hackers." Knowing that this group has "the ability to make trouble for the establishment," that establishment means to "scare as many of you as possible into not making that trouble."

Sirota notes too that this is a particular kind of trouble, not the sort of trouble that banks or corporations might make, not the sort of trouble expected by adherents to systems premised on making profits rather than doing good. In this context, the case against Aaron Swartz serves as another sort of example, one that "we as a people think is okay."

8

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.

Music

20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.

Film

Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.

Film

The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.

Television

Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).

Music

Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.

Music

Aalok Bala Revels in Nature and Contradiction on EP 'Sacred Mirror'

Electronic musician Aalok Bala knows the night is not a simple mirror, "silver and exact"; it phases and echoes back, alive, sacred.

Music

Clipping Take a Stab at Horrorcore with the Fiery 'Visions of Bodies Being Burned'

Clipping's latest album, Visions of Bodies Being Burned, is a terrifying, razor-sharp sequel to their previous ode to the horror film genre.

Music

Call Super's New LP Is a Digital Biosphere of Insectoid and Otherworldly Sounds

Call Super's Every Mouth Teeth Missing is like its own digital biosphere, rife with the sounds of the forest and the sounds of the studio alike.

Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.