The Internet’s Own Boy was a film that sadly had to happen. From the moment programmer and hacktivist Aaron Swartz died in early 2013, the online community he fought so hard to connect and protect rallied behind him and his legacy. The passionate, bright young man – just 26 when he was found hung by his own belt – had already built Reddit, helped create RSS and and become a leader in the burgeoning online free-speech movement by leading the fight to kill the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA).
As Rolling Stone reported last February, Swartz has become a heroic, martyr-like figure in the fight to democratize digital access to information. He was tormented by an ongoing battle with the federal government, which had aggressively prosecuted him for copying some 4.8 million academic articles from the JSTOR database at MIT. The case had expanded to include a total of 13 felonies, mostly under the anachronistic Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986. Robert Swartz, at his son’s funeral, said that “Aaron did not commit suicide, but was killed by the government.” Many have argued that MIT, as a bastion of hacker culture, should have done more than merely remain neutral.
Aaron’s father, mother, brothers and two girlfriends all cooperated with director Brian Knappenberger, who also filmed 2012’s We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists. The film gathers all the talking heads and former associates – from Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, to Swartz’s mentor, the Harvard free-speech activist Lawrence Lessig – but it’s the family’s participation that gives this cerebral documentary a different sort of intimacy. It’s packed with vintage home movies of Aaron, reading books at the age of three, precociously practicing math and wrestling with his brothers, one of whom marvels at how Aaron “learned to learn at a very young age.” There’s also footage of a Star Wars trivia game that Swartz programmed as a child – with questions about the diameter of the Death Star and name of the Mos Eisley Cantina – and film of the goofy ATM machine he programmed as a middle-school science project. (Later, there’s surveillance footage of Swartz hooking up external hard-drives to MIT servers.)
The Swartz family’s participation is the film’s great strength, though it tends to feel like an authorized biography. Compared to much of the reporting on Swartz’s life, The Internet’s Own Boy de-emphasizes Swartz’s mood swings. It doesn’t mention, for instance, the blog posts that worried one friend so much that he had Swartz’s door broken down, or explain very much about the suicide itself. On the other hand, a long interview with Swartz’s controversial ex-girlfriend, Quinn Norton, is riveting, especially when she tearfully explains her fraught decision to submit to an interview with the feds who were investigating Aaron.
Yet the film gets so much right: The origin story of a digital hero like Swartz is a dangerous thing – prone to super-nerd stereotypes and tech titan mythologizing. Knappenberger’s relatively conventional film – composed of voiceover narration, talking heads, a portentous score and vintage footage – isn’t formally innovative in any way, but once it settles into its rhythm, it evolves into a fascinating study of how this smart young kid grew up into such a passionate thinker. It’s the most persuasive film yet about how the mindset of a brilliant programmer develops.
The film does an extraordinary job of detailing Swartz’s evolution as a thinker. It’s not the story of how a prodigy inevitably became an famous hacktivist – it’s the story of how a bright young kid’s stubborn commitment to logic inspired a lifetime of unpredictable and very specific choices. There wasn’t a “red pill or blue pill” moment for Swartz, no one day when the shackles fell from his eyes and he suddenly saw the world for what it was. It was harder than that, and therefore more impressive. The film will play slowly for some, but by deliberately moving through his intellectual evolution, the documentary explains how Swartz matures from prodigy to innovator to prominent political activist.
In a sense, you see Swartz’s life evolving like the digital code he programmed: each step led to the next, and when the next step didn’t logically compute, he would set about debugging his own world-view, aiming for greater efficiency and impact. As Swartz once wrote, “Everything is provisional.” You see this virtuoso programmer realizing that the world is much larger, throwing out the old code of his life, writing new lines and testing his approaches on the wider world. Initially disinterested in politics, he very quickly became one of the driving forces behind the defeat of SOPA. Yet the ghost in the machine seemed to be all that unruly frustration (“I hadn’t done anything wrong but everything had gone wrong,” Swartz says); the illness and the depression; and that federal case (addled by the “millions of dollars” of legal fees) that his father says left his son broke and embarrassed to ask for charity.
At one point, Swartz’s ex-girlfriend Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman says that Aaron “confessed that his theme song was Fiona Apple’s ‘Extraordinary Machine.'” And in this doc he appears to be a most extraordinary machine, both in the literal sense of the term and in the fickle, stubborn sense of Fiona Apple’s syncopated ballad. Nobody really knows why Swartz killed himself on January 12th last year, and this film doesn’t come closer to answering that question. In the end, it’s an activist film, determined to make Swartz’s death mean something to the burgeoning digital access movement.
After the Sundance premiere, Swartz’s father was asked what it was like to work on the film while grieving his lost son. “It was unbelievably hard for us,” he said simply. “Aaron is dead. We can’t do anything about that. We can try to make the world a better place.”