Filmmaker Brian Knappenberger recently spoke to chief arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown about his new film, “The Internet’s Own Boy.”
For Aaron Swartz, the teen tech prodigy who became a leader in the fight against regulation and privatization of information on the internet, social activism wasn’t a choice, but a calling.
Filmmaker Brian Knappenberger characterizes Swartz’s mission this way: “If you can do something good in the world, what’s your argument for not doing that? … That’s something that seems clear through most of his life and its something he asked himself a lot.”
Knappenberger’s latest documentary, “The Internet’s Own Boy,” tells the story of Swartz, his contributions to web technology, his activism and his eventual suicide in January 2013.
Swartz was a leading figure in the creation of technologies, including the RSS system, a web feed that aggregates content, and in building companies, including Reddit.
According to Knappenberger, Swartz was a major contributing to early RSS working groups online. These groups were largely compromised of tech people in their thirties, forties, and fifties, but that didn’t prevent the teenage Swartz from participating.
“They listen to him and they treat him like a serious colleague because he holds his own. At one point, they say, ‘we’d really like you to come out to one of this face-to-face meetings’ and he says ‘I’d love to. I’m not sure my mom would let me though, I’m only 13.’”
Swartz’s story represents many of the questions raised by our modern age — philosophical questions about information, who controls it and the freedom of the web.
Swartz was being targeted by the federal government for downloaded massive amounts of documents, without paying for them, from online digital storehouses, including J-Stor, a digital library of academic journals. The charges against him carried a potential sentence of 35 years.
In 2013, Swartz was found dead by suicide at the age of 26.
“His story, I found, was this incredibly moving, compelling, inspiring, infuriating,” said Knappenberger. “But also the sheer volume of things that he was involved in was so relevant.”