I’ve written before (and on several more occasions) about Aaron Swartz, a complicated and amazing person and digital activist who I followed and loosely orbited for many years. Aaron did incredible work for and on behalf of the Internet as a democratizing medium, and he caused me to frequently question my own life and career choices. He was targeted by an overreaching federal prosecution due to some of his activism work on the edges of the law, and after two years of pressure and abuse at the hands of the federal government, he tragically took his life in January 2013.
The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz is a documentary film by Brian Knappenberger that traces Aaron’s life, his successes and failures, his political action and digital activism, his run-ins with the law, and his too-soon death. Along the way several internet luminaries, journalists, activists, congresspeople, and other smart individuals weigh in and provide context. I knew much of what the film presented but I still found it compelling. While clearly opinionated, this film does a good job of portraying who Aaron was, what he believed in, and where things went so very wrong.
Many people feel that technology and politics together are too complicated, too confusing, and too inscrutable. Many in government dismiss technology experts and inventors of things that have fundamentally changed our lives as mere “nerds”. Aaron lived his whole life thoughtfully and fully, and his story is one that is approachable to anyone, technological or not. The things he fought for are important, and they are comprehensible, and they should not be dismissed. He showed how we can use technology and the internet to make this world a better one, and what we should do to stop others from using it to make the world worse.
The movie is imperfect, as was Aaron. And it does a few funny things with time and ordering that slightly distort some of the major events in Aaron’s saga. But on the whole it is thoughtful, and it is powerful, and it is worth watching.
You can view The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz in its entirety for free on the Internet Archive.