In the months after Aaron Swartz’s suicide in January 2013, members of the media spent hundreds of hours meditating on how a 26-year-old programmer, hacker, and political organizer could have accomplished so much so quickly, and then suddenly and unexpectedly taken his own life. Here at The Verge, Tim Carmody documented Swartz’s accomplishments, confronting myth with facts. Larissa MacFarquhar penned a devastating, complex, and beautiful 11,000-word profile of the young man for The New Yorker. The Atlantic, New York magazine, Slate, Rolling Stone and others weighed in, to various degrees of success.
Knappenberger approaches his subject as a true believer, beatifying and martyring Swartz instead of sitting with the contradictions of his life.
A year and a half later, Brian Knappenberger’s Kickstarter-funded The Internet’s Own Boy, joins the fray. Knappenberger directed 2012’s We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists, and it’s not hard to discern where his allegiance lies. For the director, as for many others in the hacker and digital rights community, Swartz is a hero: a precociously talented young man with a bullet-proof conscience who directed his talent toward tackling issues of social justice from an age when most kids couldn’t pack their own lunches. For that, he was crushed by a corrupt and unjust system.
By way of home videos, archived footage, and interviews with friends and family, the bulk of The Internet’s Own Boy chronicles Swartz’s marathon of accomplishments, leapfrogging from one feat to the next: crafting home-brewed video games as a young boy, developing a proto-Wikipedia called The Info Network at age 12, his work on Creative Commons, RSS, Reddit, public-document access, and advocacy against SOPA, all at a young age. It’s obvious Knappenberger shares Swartz’s passions, and the director offers insightful interviews that give meaningful context to the work the Swartz did. Watching Swartz’s family members, Tim Berners-Lee, Lawrence Lessig, and Swartz’s one-time partner Quinn Norton reflect on his passing in the last 20 minutes of the film is gut-wrenching. It’s hard not to come away from the film with a sense that as a society we failed Swartz. In turn, we lost a singularly talented individual.
But as a documentary of Swartz’s 26 years, The Internet’s Own Boy adds little to what already exists and wraps up Swartz’s life too cleanly. Knappenberger approaches his subject as a true believer, beatifying and martyring Swartz instead of sitting with the contradictions of his life. Swartz was obsequious to a fault, but as his brother puts it in the film, other times he acted like an "alpha nerd." He was cast as an adversary of government, but he also had ambitions to join the establishment. One of the reasons he didn’t want to go to prison was because he was concerned it would stifle his political ambitions. As MacFarquhar wrote in The New Yorker, "Since his death, his family and closest friends have tried to hone his story into a message, in order to direct the public sadness and anger aroused by his suicide to political purposes. They have done this because it is what he would have wanted, and because it is a way to extract some good from the event. ... But this claim is for public consumption, and the people closest to him do not really believe it."
In the first few minutes of Knappenberger’s film, Peter Eckersley of the Electronic Frontier Foundation says that Swartz was "totally unexcited by starting businesses and making money." But in McFarquhar’s piece, Quinn admits that, "this whole kind of, like, ‘He never did anything for the money’ — he loved making money! He didn’t get involved with Reddit and sell it to Conde Nast because he doesn’t give a shit about money." Swartz reflected critically about issues of copyright, writing on his blog that software developers have no "innate right to have people pay" for their software. But he also concluded that "stealing is wrong," and parsed the ethics of setting information free.
Observers largely agree that when Swartz was ultimately charged for downloading a trove of journals over the MIT network, the academic institution acted with cowardice by not standing up for him. The prosecutorial team was vicious, and unfairly — and admittedly — set out to make an example of Swartz in order to send a message to the hacker community. But the film’s conclusion that he was "killed by the government," a notion put forward by Swartz’s father at his son’s funeral and repeated in the film, is an overreach. Years before his legal troubles, Swartz suffered bouts of depression, and on his blog wrote that "I feel my existence is an imposition on the planet."
The Internet’s Own Boy is a valuable addition to the work done to document the life and times of Aaron Swartz — it’s undoubtedly a touching and personal eulogy to an icon of the internet. But it’s a missed opportunity, too: the story of Swartz — as evidenced elsewhere —is more complex than Knappenberger suggests. In the end, the film is too starkly angled, too politicized to paint a full portrait of the man. It brings us no closer to understanding the 26-year-old, or the reason for his death. As his brother says in the film when discussing Swartz’s suicide: "None of it made sense, and it still doesn’t."