With The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story Of Aaron Swartz, director Brian Knappenberger seeks to immortalize a wunderkind computer programmer-turned-political activist without apology, and Aaron Swartz is, simply, a brilliant subject from birth to untimely death. Curious about the world and an avid student all his life, Swartz is seen in home video footage teaching his brothers how to tackle algebra when just a toddler. Questioning a rigid education system, Swartz, we’re told, quickly grew bored of school and instead sought information of his own free will at the local library.
It’s this passion for having access to a wealth of knowledge that ultimately led to his downfall. Swartz, who had co-founded and made a fortune from Reddit by the time he was only 19, was socially awkward and introverted, but ironically with such love for people that he wanted to improve the lives of everyone. And so Swartz’s battle to “make the public domain public,” exemplified by his secretly downloading a huge number of academic journals from MIT in 2010/2011, is what led to the threat of 35 years of possible jail-time from the courts, and his subsequent suicide.
Brian Knappenberger knows this story will anger and frustrate, and it should – what we have here is a look at a modern version of the counterculture, made up not of psychedelic protesters wearing peace symbols, but individuals in lonely rooms loosely connected via the web, with Aaron Swartz as one of the figureheads. Again the heroes are the passionate young activists with ideas of changing The Way Things Are, while the villains are the ignorant, fat (and without exception old, white and male) figures of state clinging onto outdated values for the benefit of their bank accounts.
In Knappenberger’s hands, there’s little objectivity, especially in the portrayal of the US government. The Internet’s Own Boy also amplifies the sense of Swartz’s martyrdom; though the facts presented make a compelling case for the ‘saintly’ selfless heroism of the main subject, a bigger picture is lacking. This is alternately unintentional (none of Swartz’s opponents are interviewed, as the ones approached all declined to take part) and deliberate – there are hints at a difficult character shift in Swartz’s youth, as he performed intellectual feats surprising for someone twice his age, while little is said of his apparently ugly departure from Wired.
A self-serious score also occasionally bumbles, attempting to wring emotion out of a scene that could play out in silence, on its own merits. Which is to say The Internet’s Own Boy works perfectly well as a powerful piece of factual filmmaking on its facts alone, even if certain areas could use a touch more balance.
When Swartz finally appears in high quality – as opposed to the grainy archive of previous footage – late in the film, the sudden clarity is disquieting. This is one of his last interviews; he’s a ghost brought back before us by the wonders of a medium for which he fought to keep free.
This is an enormously timely and important documentary, as it’s not just about internet culture, but freedom and equality in the corporate age, and the divide between denizens of an old, outdated world and those of a new, progressive one. Do not miss it.
It could use a touch more balance, but The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz is a passionate, angry piece of factual filmmaking about the fate of revolutionary thinking in the modern world.