It's hard not to imagine all the possibilities of what could have been had Aaron Swartz not tragically ended his own life at 26.
Swartz, a lead developer of the web feed format RSS and social news site Reddit, was well on his way towards the type of accolades reserved only for the most influential in history when he decided to abandon the start-up world and instead dedicate his skills to online activism.
Unfortunately, we know from the start of The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, director Brian Knappenberger's soulful new documentary, that this tale doesn't end with its title character immortalized on a postage stamp. Instead it outlines how Swartz went from computer prodigy with a higher calling to public enemy number one facing 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine. However, at its core, The Internet's Own Boy is a moving portrait of reinvention and self-discovery.
SF Weekly caught up with up director Brian Knappenberger to discuss activism, hacktivism and the legacy of Aaron Swartz.
At first glance, movies like The Internet's Own Boy or The Social Network might not sound like compelling films, however, they often turn out to be these incredibly moving portraits. What makes hackers and programmers compelling characters?
I'm accused of making films about hackers all the time. My previous film is We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists and so I've been making films in that space for a while. Part of it is, I don't necessarily feel I'm making a film about hackers. We all live these massively networked lives in which all of our lives have this online component to it. The Internet is not necessarily some kind of distant realm of geeks and hackers anymore, right? It's just a place where we live. I just think that these people are compelling individuals.
What makes Aaron Swartz a compelling individual?
Aaron certainly fought for open access issues, freedom of information and freedom of expressions involving the Internet but to some degree he's just fighting for basic, constitutional human rights and civil liberties. I think that what makes him so compelling is that you immediately recognize that. It's not technical really. It's just a story about a person who exists in this landscape of technology.
What does the term "hacker" mean in terms of the work Aaron Swartz did?
The broadness of that term is misleading because credit card hacking is very different from this traditional notion of hacking. The word is just meant to signify feats of technological virtuosity but now it's being used for everything. It is a broad term that needs a more sophisticated approach.
I think he wanted to "hack" social systems in the best possible sense of making them work better. That's the traditional sense of hacking.
What misconceptions do everyday people have about coders and programmers?
Since most people don't understand how the Internet works, there is this sense that coders and programmers are magicians. Even in the film we say, "Look, if you had magical powers what would you do with them? Would you use them to make tons of money or would you genuinely try to make the world a better place?" That's an interesting question.
We look at hackers now as though they're these sorcerers. What do we do traditionally to sorcerers? We demonize them, we glorify them and sometimes we burn them at the stake. We're scared of their powers. At this point, we need to understand that this online landscape is built by coders and programmers. They can use their skills in the service of the public good and we don't have to be separate from this. We have a say in the kind of Internet we want. The Internet ultimately is just a machine made of code and laws. We get to decide what it is and what kind of Internet we want moving forward.
What role do coders and programmers play in society?
If you could think of a cause that you care about you're going to protest about it online. Coders play a role in virtually every part of society. We want to carve out in this online world a place for political protest, creative expression and a place where we're not monitored by government. It's a place we can use to crawl ourselves back from oppressive regimes. The role that coders play is in facilitating that and building tools with that kind of motive in mind.
How will history remember Aaron Swartz?
It's hard to look at this guy and not think he could've been an important figure. Considering the path that he took and how good he was at it he certainly could have made a difference in a whole range of issues politically. I think of him as somebody that was dealing with issues of the Internet and freedom of expression and civil liberties in ways that was a little ahead of where the rest of society is but where society is going. Unfortunately, that place of being on that edge is just not a comfortable place to be. There are entrenched forces with entrenched interests that are very powerful and make it very difficult. I think he was on that cutting edge and just a little ahead of everybody else.
The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz is playing at the Roxie Theatre and available on video-on-demand and iTunes.