Tim Wu on the Aaron Swartz documentary
In the New Yorker, Tim Wu reviews The Internet's Own Boy, a documentary about the life and death of Aaron Swartz. Wu, the scholar and lawyer who coined the term "Net Neutrality," does a good job of framing Aaron's life in the context of his activism. The film has just premiered to good reviews at Sundance.
Mixing coding with a sense of public purpose, Swartz spent his short life launching one project after another—little code bombs designed, in ways large and small, to change the way the world is. He had the quintessential programmer’s instinct: If you notice something lousy or absurd, instead of just complaining, why not fix it? That instinct has catalyzed tech projects from the personal computer to the search engine; in Swartz’s case, the projects were political and social instead of technical. Among other things, he wanted to liberate information that he thought was wrongly imprisoned, make life safer for whistle-blowers, and fight political corruption. Some of his code bombs were duds, but others made a big difference. And, of course, one blew up in his face.
The footage of Swartz growing older and more handsome anchors the film, his stridency belied by his large, needy eyes. 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.
Here's an interview that Aaron's family and the filmmaker who produced Internet's Own Boy did with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now.