Aaron Swartz was arrested in 2011 after he was discovered to have downloaded millions of JSTOR’s academic articles using his MIT guest account. Though he didn’t execute his plan, it was set in place 3 years earlier, when he published a document titled ‘The Guerilla Open Access Manifesto’, in which he stated “Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves … We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access.” Swartz’s actions were not driven from a place of selfishness or greed, but rather trying to combat this.
In Brian Knappenberger’s 2014 documentary, The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, the director delves into the life of the man who tried to change the world – the man who then took his life upon being faced with decades of jailtime in 2013. The film is expository but also deeply personal, being narrated by Swartz’s mother, brothers and girlfriends. It also uses archival footage of Swartz as a child at the beginning of the film, and footage of him at various points in his life throughout the documentary – establishing Swartz as an empathetic, and sympathetic, figure. While Poitras’ documentary Citizenfour was an exploration of the concepts of privacy, while also looking at Snowden – this documentary is a celebration of Swartz, while also looking at what he believed in and sought to accomplish.
Swartz held a belief that education was a right that all people had, and something that should never be commercialised or used for profit. The documentary compliments footage of his family discussing this with talks and presentations Swartz did on the subject, where he specifically slates companies who try to make profit on academic journals. In this way, the film is inherently political; even more than my previously covered Knappenberger film, We Are Legion. That film delved into Anonymous’ various actions, but Internet’s Own Boy feels like a film keen to make a statement through Swartz, showing that the treatment on him was unnecessarily harsh and highlighted the greed and avaricious nature of a capitalist society. Zizi Papacharissi begged the question that “even if online information is available to all, how easy is it to access?”, which echoes the sentiment of Swartz’s quest – the information is available, but due to its pay to read nature, it is not easy to access and, therefore, closes off a large amount of people from the possibility of gaining an education.
An effective method Knappenberger uses is layering the political messages and undertones within the ways the various interviewees speak of Aaron. Never do they condemn his actions or suggest he should have even considered the legal ramifications of them, but rather say it was always in his nature to want to teach and to want to let other people learn; his brothers told stories about Aaron coming home from school and trying to teach them complex calculus and algebra despite them being much younger. These types of monologues and stories help make the film more emotional, but also make its political message more sympathetic and easier to support. The film’s broad concerns about education and everyone’s right to schooling in some capacity is one that is consistently echoed through the questions Knappenberger asks his subjects, and the stories he encourages them to tell – in this way, the director makes Swartz, an established figure of empathy and sympathy within the documentary, the face of his political message, making it easier to win over the audience.
- Papacharissi, Zizi. “The Virtual Sphere: The Internet as a Public Sphere”. New Media & Society, 4:1 (2002)
- Swartz, Aaron. “Guerilla Open Access” (2008) https://archive.org/stream/GuerillaOpenAccessManifesto/Goamjuly2008_djvu.txt
- Knappenberger, Brian. The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz. US, 2014.