Recently, during a heated discussion around the dinner table, a relative proclaimed that we need to stop using “that’s just the way things are” as an excuse. She was lamenting the fact that we as a society have become too complacent. We are letting corporations govern what is morally just and no longer questioning the institutions that hold all the power. I could not help but reflect on these points while watching Brian Knappenberger’s stirring film The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz.
The film details the rise and tragic demise of Aaron Swartz, the co-founder of the popular Reddit website. A brilliant mind from a very young age, Swartz used his inquisitive nature to dissect the world around him. This curiosity about how things worked, and how to make it better, manifested through Swartz’s love of computer programming. By his early teens he not only had created an information website years before Wikipedia existed, but he was also at the forefront of numerous things such as RSS Feeds. The creation of Reddit made him a millionaire before the age of twenty, but money and fame was the least of his interests.
The main thing that Swartz cared about was making the world a better place. While others were scratching and clawing their way up the corporate ladder, Swartz was repelling down. As one interviewee put it “he got the rose at the top of the pile of shit, but lost his sense of smell on the way up.” Social activism and politics was Swartz’s true calling. His eagerness and ability to expose flaws in institutions and systems, supposedly designed to help us, brought him both praise and unwanted legal attention. The latter of which resulted in a lawsuit that was clearly geared towards “making an example of Swartz” rather than the actual severity of his crime.
The act in question was using MIT servers to illegally download hundreds of journal articles stored on the JSTOR website. JSTOR is one of many websites that houses thousands of scientific journals throughout the ages. Despite the fact that many of the scientific research covered in these documents are publicly funded through tax payer dollars, sites like JSTOR still charge a hefty fee to access information that really should be public domain. Picture going to your local library, which some of your tax dollars pay for, and then being asked to pay for a particular book by the page. Does that seem logical to you?
Though Swartz’s main goal was to expose the fallacy in this practice, others did not see it that way. In an age where hackers are painted with the same brush as terrorists, Swartz was seen as a threat to many of the laws the government was desperately trying to uphold. Soon the government pressure and the threat of facing 35 years in jail was simply too heavy of a burden for Swartz to carry.
Knappnberger’s film does a good job of detailing why Swartz’s legacy should never be forgotten. Frankly the internet as we know it would look different today without Swartz’s innovations and his social activist causes such as the groundbreaking anti-SOPA movement. Though we may not realize it, his contributions are just as revolutionary to the way we interact and process information online as those of Tim Berners-Lee, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg. The one downside to the film is that, since it covers such a recent and highly publicized figure, it does not offer much in the way of new revelations.
The film is more concerned with honoring Swartz’s life than it is about evoking governmental change. In that regards it flourishes wonderfully. This is not to say that the film does not want the viewer to look closer at how governments and corporations are impeding on our freedoms. Knapperberger simply opts to plant the seeds in our mind and leaves it up to us to ensure that the movement is nourished and grows. Like Swartz himself, The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz wants us to walk away questioning everything instead of just settling for “that’s just the way things are”.