If The Net Had A Saint

The Internet’s Own Boy, a documentary about Aaron Swartz, premiered at Sundance this week. Tim Wu reviews the film:

Swartz grew up in an age of total capture, meaning that there is video footage from most of his life—as a young boy climbing trees, as a precocious teen-ager sprouting facial hair, and as a scruffy young man speaking at political rallies. It is an intimate film, and by the end you feel that you know Swartz. The awareness that he will eventually take his own life makes it especially hard to watch him as a happy little boy, laughing and playing. The death is less a Hollywood drama than it is a slow-moving descent into despair, after Swartz is caught and charged, as Cory Doctorow puts it in the film, for “taking too many books out of the library.” A felony is a weighty thing for anyone, but Swartz, serious to a fault, saw conviction as a mark that would stain his life indelibly.

There is some commonality between Aaron Swartz and Christopher McCandless, who died in the Alaskan outback, the subject of Jon Krakauer’s book “Into the Wild.” Neither man could really accept the world, and both of them died young. But, unlike in McCandless’s case, the but-for cause of Swartz’s death was clear: a relentless federal prosecutor who piled on the felony charges and refused to drop them, despite the fact that the crime did no real damage, and that the database owner, JSTOR, had asked that the charges be dropped. Yes, Swartz took his own life, and he bears responsibility for that act. But, as the film shows, his prosecution was a cruel and unnecessary episode that is unworthy of a country that calls itself free.

DJ Pangburn interviewed filmmaker Brian Knappenberger about his movie:

I find it fascinating that a year after Aaron’s death, I’m still finding out about the various projects and endeavors in which he was involved. Was there one thing you learned about Aaron in the making of the film that blew you away?

There is one part in the film where we list the organizations of which he was founder or to which he contributed, and that list is crazy. It’s an enormous list. Last night at the screening, there was a woman in attendance named Taryn Simon—who I recognized from film footage—who’d done project with Aaron called Image Atlas. They decided to do key words in Google searches in countries all over the world in different languages all on one page.

You could type “beauty” and it would list all of the images that came up in Iran, China, or America, and compared the notion of beauty between different countries and cultures around the world. You can still use it by the way. There were a million things like that which Aaron was doing that pop up out of nowhere.