In January 2013 the internet mourned. One of the most creative minds of our generation had died. At just 26, Aaron Swartz, the inventor of some of the most iconic internet applications committed suicide. The bigger shock was that he was killed by the government of a nation that was scared of his ideas.
Like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates most visionaries started off going against the natural order of things, and in turn, the law. You cannot be a pioneer or make a difference in the world unless you think outside the established set of rules. The young Aaron Swartz dwelled outside the paraphernalia of the ‘establishment’. He was the inventor of RSS feeds, Creative Commons and Reddit, three of the most significant inventions in the modern era. He also created a free information collating website when he was 12 years old, much before the advent of Wikipedia. He created internet’s backbone. He became the internet’s own boy. Brian Knappenberger’s moving documentary chronicles Aaron’s extraordinary rise to fame, and his tragic death.
Knappenberger is the filmmaker behind the terrific We are Legion: The Story of Hacktivists that shed a spotlight on the Anonymous hacker group. In The Internet’s Own Boy Knappenberger uses many of the elements that made his earlier film great, including creating empathy for the central character without resorting to propaganda or mawkish sentimentality. The film immediately establishes Aaron’s genius. He was a child prodigy who was able to read sentences by the time he was three years old, and always found himself among a bunch of older and dumber kids through school and college. He was the modern Mozart, and just like that guy Aaron died because someone didn’t want him to live.
Swartz's norm was ‘everything you learn is provisional’. He was sick of the system of college education that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. He wanted the world to gain knowledge for free. Unlike folks like Jobs and Gates who intended to become rich with their genius, he had no monetary ambitions. He just wanted to make the world a better place, and believed that the internet is a reservoir of knowledge. The film is an onslaught of the hypocrisy of privacy laws in the US, where you’re forced to pay for content that is created by tax money. You realize that a nation with a corporate bent and capitalist agenda, coupled with sheer lack of insight neither want to make the world a better place, nor will it tolerate anyone standing up for the people and giving them knowledge for free. Some of the footage is plain disturbing, like the courtroom scene where a senator condemns Swartz’s actions by saying ‘nerds’ know nothing.
As the film goes through the various stages of Aaron’s life, you’ll vacillate between fury, depression and ultimately a faint sense of hope. You’ll be furious about the fact that Aaron died because he wanted the world to gain knowledge for free. You’ll be depressed to know that the US government, despite its forward thinking veil is falling over its own weight of greed and negligence. The Internet’s Own Boy offers little closure to those who have followed Aaron’s work, but to know that this film would be watched by many people gives you some faint hope. Chances are, you’re reading this on the internet, so spread the word because every single person on the internet needs to watch this film. Like last year’s TPB-AFK, The Internet’s Own Boy is the most important and significant story of 2014.
(First published in DNA)