By Max Winter | Press Play July 2, 2014 at 4:39AM
The Internet’s Own Boy, a recent documentary about the short life and subsequent suicide of Aaron Swartz, raises a lot of questions, and it moves forward very swiftly, efficiently, and with a fair amount of heartbreak—but some of the questions it raises are not the ones you might think it would raise. The story, oft-told, runs as follows: after helping to develop RSS, after creating the information-sharing website Reddit, and after hacking into JSTOR and downloading many rights-bound academic documents, Swartz was ambushed by the federal government and handed an extremely strict jail sentence, at which point he hung himself at age 26, in January 2013. The questions you would think one might come away with are: how could the government do this? What was wrong with Swartz’s hacking activity? How can we change society to loosen corporate control over data? And yet, because the film provides ready answers to these questions—the government treats citizens unfairly, there was nothing really wrong with Swartz’s activity, and we must protest individually, each day, respectively—the questions one is left with, and which the film does not answer to, are slightly more pedestrian, more likely to come from a kindly grandparent than a curious absorber of information in the 21st century. They run something like this: Was he depressed, even if the film says he wasn’t, really? Did he not think he would be punished? And what’s the cumulative effect of spending your life on the Web? Un-sexy questions, all. But necessary, and ultimately valid, given that the filmmakers seem to have resolved more thorny debates before the film has even begun. In glazing over these issues, the director only makes them stand out more boldly.
It should be said, at this juncture, that Swartz is a fascinating, brilliant figure. The footage director Brian Knappenberger displays here reveals a person with a relentlessly inquisitive mind, inquisitive almost to excess. Swartz made his first accomplishments at age 14, developing the mechanism of the RSS feed with programming experts far his senior; even as a teenager, speaking on a stage as part of a professional panel, he has tremendous charisma. The film shows extensive interview footage of Swartz, and as with other similarly driven, impish figures (the Bob Dylan of Don’t Look Back comes to mind), the young man is interesting to watch. At one moment he smirks; at another he seems wide-eyed; at still another, he seems a million miles away. He seems as if he might be the sort of person—they’re fairly common—who talks to you without really talking to you, radiating a certain blankness that is nevertheless animated enough to be watchable. As he speaks about his goals, and about the “realization” that the power structures surrounding the protection of information (on the Web in particular) are flawed and unethical, one has the strong sense that Swartz is not really “in” the conversation, that the conversation he, Swartz, is having, is an entirely different one from the exchange he is having with his interviewers, that the sights Swartz has his eyes on are too large to be contained, really, within the confines of a documentary. This is as it should be, given that he had a tremendous, expansive mind, and it's unlikely that any simple question from an interviewer would get a simple answer from him. The director supplies quite a bit of information about Swartz and his life’s work through his interviewees, including Cory Doctorow, Lawrence Lessig, Swartz’s two partners near the end of his life, and others. These individuals are quite voluble about a couple of things: their intense involvement with Swartz, which has lasted beyond the grave, and the rightness of all that he was doing, whether that meant making it more possible for more people to have more access to information, or, as it happened, getting that information for himself, without asking or obtaining permission—permission, in this case, being a funny word, implying that those who “owned” the JSTOR documents Swartz downloaded could legitimately claim the authority to guard it from the public. The film indicates, with the moral equivalent of a sledgehammer, that such authority could not be legitimately claimed by anyone.
Framing Swartz’s moral unimpeachability—as well as that of hacker groups like Anonymous or Wikileaks—as a certainty causes the mind, ultimately, to wander to other questions about this hero. These are bad questions to hear one’s self asking. If someone risks their life, essentially, to make information more broadly available and loosen the chokehold of corporations over data, should the first question be, But why did he kill himself? Well, possibly it should. From the very start of the film, Swartz appears a very headstrong, some would say beautifully obstinate child. He reads at age 3. He doesn’t like school because he learns better by reading by himself. In his early teen years, he only eats white food, which is, by and large, an unhealthy diet. What he really wants to do is work on his computer, a machine which will never talk back to him, which he can control, and which is, essentially, the site of a bottomless project for his young mind. We’re given no clear indications, in the film, that Swartz was an unhappy child—and yet we’re also not given any indication that he had any other interests besides the electronic coursings inside his computer after a certain age (we see he has a large book collection, but his primary allegiances seem to lie elsewhere, at least as the film portrays it)—and beyond that, an interest in making things right, as a sibling expresses it, a sense that he had a firm idea of justice and injustice, which he would spend his life trying to execute, by the use of the Internet. And what of the Internet here? Swartz, and his colleagues interviewed in the film, seem very much under the sway of its importance and strength, as evidenced by their vocal inflections and their firm belief in Swartz’s work—and yet this tool for gaining information cannot be seen as fallible. When one is searching the web for data, one is not engaging with others; one is completely alone. Regardless of Swartz’s sociability—he seems to have been quite attractive to women, at least in his twenties; the film shows him drifting from one relationship to another fairly fluidly, even at a time when he was being questioned by the Feds—he projects a personal shield in the film, a certain recessiveness which speaks more loudly, in some ways, than his accomplishments (even including the legions of Internet publications he helped to begin) or than his justification for committing the acts which ultimately caused his legal troubles. Nihilistic is not possibly the word for someone with such a strong moral sense, and yet one might possibly say he cloaked a certain nihilism, paradoxically enough, in what he saw as concern for the common good. A concern, indeed, so strong, that he was shocked when the authorities (the Feds) did not recognize his activities as harmless. Which raises another bad question: didn’t he see it coming? Could he have honestly been surprised that the hungry lion of the federal government, when he presented himself as a piece of red meat, opened its jaws? It's terrible to ask this question, possibly stupid, beside the point, wrong-headed, but the film’s one-sidedness doesn’t leave any choice. The question rises, and we don't get an answer.
Watching The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz reminded me of something that happened to me recently. I had just finished reading a fairly long novel, and, as is my habit, I had chosen another one to begin; I brought the book with me to read during lunch. I also brought my iPhone. In an idle moment, I checked my Twitter feed and noticed quite a bit of chatter surrounding one person, or rather two: a book critic prone to engaging with others in protracted, occasionally vulgar Internet spats and a newly debuted novelist whose previous stints included an editorial position at an Internet gossip site. The critic, after publishing an 11,000 word blog post rant on the novelist’s hypocrisy and wrong-doing, announced via Twitter that he would be committing suicide shortly, even Tweeting a picture of the bridge he planned to jump off of. I was quite fascinated, reading the rant that preceded the threat, reading other Tweets about the critic, the threat, the novelist, the 11,000-word blog post itself, and anything else I could find about the event. By the time I had sufficiently immersed myself in this data, my lunch was done, I had to leave, and I hadn’t cracked the new novel. Walking out of the sandwich shop into the rather brisk afternoon, I had to wonder a couple of things: would the same events have transpired (the critic retracted his threat, but still) without the Internet’s facility of communication and articulation? Had the two individuals only interacted in person, would the exchange have headed in the same direction? I also wondered: why didn’t I just read the novel? Why read about all of this, in tiny lettering, on my phone? My feeling after absorbing all of this information was sadness, of course, and emptiness, and exhaustedness, but I can’t be sure if these feelings were due to the information itself or due to the obsessive, stoplessly gluttonous way in which I absorbed it, staring fixedly at a small screen which reflected, however dully, my own face, my own fixed stare.
Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.