Brian Knappenberger's documentary The Internet's Own Boy is an incisive portrait of a brilliant life cut short. Aaron Swartz, a programming prodigy, became a pioneering hactivist in the crusade against web censorship after serving as an early developer on Reddit and RSS formats. His work nonetheless landed him behind bars with a hefty sentence, and led to his suicide at age 26. Read on for our extensive conversation with Knappenberger about the film's sentimental edge and increasing topicality.
It may surprise some that Aaron’s former mentor and Harvard professor, Lawrence Lessig, is responsible for some of film’s most poignant moments. How were you able to balance the minutia of Aaron’s case with the underlying emotional arc of his story?
It’s something I always think about when I make films. We premiered at Sundance a year after Aaron’s death, and with that in mind, we made the film fairly quickly. I was interviewing people very close to a time that they lost somebody that they loved. But, there was a sense that I was asking them about happier times. People were in that kind of mindset throughout.
Considering everything in the news today from WikiLeaks to whistleblowers like Edward Snowden, do you think the NFF audience will be more sympathetic to Aaron’s crusade against the so-called private theft of public culture?
I hope so. He exists in this larger world. He was arrested in the height of this activity. We live in a world where there are all kinds of things happening online. And we’re struggling for our laws to catch up to all that. I mean, there are mercenary gangs stealing credit card information, and here’s this kid downloading academic journals for the sake of access to public knowledge.
What distinguishes Aaron Swartz from the rest of these politically-minded programmers?
There are similarities and there are differences. He was a part of that community. This community of people in relentless pursuit of the truth. They have no patience for nonsense. It’s about understanding what makes our world better and our governments function better. Aaron certainly wanted to work within the system. “Hack them in the best possible sense,” he would say. He wanted to learn how Congress worked. SOPA [Stop Online Piracy Act] was an attempt to use the Internet to overturn a bill that he felt was wrong and too restrictive. And the way he did that was by using the tools available to him — like Facebook and Twitter — to mobilize people. He did it with the “Blackout,” leading people to phone lines to connect them directly with Congress to say they didn’t like the bill. This was all wildly effective and legal. Direct participation in the government. Lots of people overturning an unpopular law. It’s the way we all think our system should work, but we never do it.
You choose not delve too deeply into Aaron’s psychological state leading up to his suicide and instead focus on the larger injustices at play. What was your intention behind that?
Taren [Aaron’s ex-girlfriend] believed he had some form of clinical depression in his twenties but not during their time together. It may have been a problem earlier on, but not something she noticed. So, you’re left wondering what role that played if any. He also had ulcerative colitis when he was younger, which certainly wasn’t easy for him. But, there’s a sense that people have gone through far tougher things and didn’t end up committing suicide. I think, really, he was involved with this two year legal battle that just exhausted him emotionally and financially.
At one point, Aaron’s brother Noah describes Aaron as an “alpha nerd,” who could use his sense of self-importance, charm, and charisma to tell others exactly what to do. This is suggestive of other programming geniuses from Steve Jobs to Mark Zuckerberg. Would you say Aaron fits into that Silicon Valley archetype?
Certainly earlier in his life. He seemed to moderate that a lot. There’s an impatience with school and existing systems. And a recognition that things could be done differently. The big difference is that Aaron wanted to dedicate his services to the public good. Silicon Valley, he realized, was an empty pursuit. He didn’t like San Francisco. He felt they were using all that “change the world stuff” as a slogan — a face behind which they were making a lot of money. In that sense, I see a pretty compelling departure — a turning his back on traditional startup culture. He wanted to put his skills toward the public good. Aaron really believed you don’t have to be a genius hacker — whatever your skills are — some of them can be used to make a difference. What would be your rationale for not doing that?
Carmen Ortiz’s belief that “stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar” would seem shortsighted. How far off are we from taking a more nuanced look at these issues?
I hope we’re part of the stepping stones of getting closer to figuring out how to be more nuanced about those issues. The Internet’s not some community of geeks and hackers, it’s where we all live and exist. It encompasses all the thing we’ve grown up with — civil rights, privacy. I think Snowden helps. Hopefully Aaron’s story helps too.