Aaron Swartz
© wikimedia commons
Aaron Swartz at Wikimedia Meetup in Boston
On Monday, documentary filmmaker Brian Knappenberger premiered his documentary on Aaron Swartz, The Internet's Own Boy, at the Sundance Film Festival. With Aaron's family in attendance, and buoyed by two standing ovations, it was an emotional moment.

Knappenberger is no stranger to films that straddle the fine line between objective observer and "angsty activist." His last film, We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists, carved out similar territory, blunting government and corporate talking points by giving Anonymous hacktivists a direct voice in their own story. In truth, Anonymous is quite good at this on its own, but We Are Legion brought a lot of the loose hacker collective's voices together in a single vehicle.

With The Internet's Own Boy, however, Knappenberger shows the yin to Anonymous's yang. Where Anonymous participants largely checked out of the political game, choosing instead to disrupt the status quo at all costs, Aaron Swartz essentially tried to hack government - to force wired masses to digitally move a calcified, old boy's government, where rich men move back and forth between big business and political office. Knappenberger's film attempts to dig into this special quality, which made Swartz a guiding light to the digital-native generation.

When I spoke to Knappenberger, he was in a car heading to a hackspace in Salt Lake City to screen We Are Legion. He told me it was part of an effort to raise money for the Anonymous Paypal 14. En route, we talked about The Internet's Own Boy's Sundance reception and the moment he knew he'd make the film. The filmmaker also explained why it was significant that Aaron turned his back on the tech world's bullshit build-to-flip cycle, and empty "we want to make the world better" sloganeering, to create real, quantifiable change.

Motherboard: Was the Sundance screening the first time your film had an audience?

Brian Knappenberger: Yeah, Monday was our premiere and it was huge. It was packed and sold out. We got two standing ovations. Aaron's father, Robert, and two brothers, Ben and Noah, were there and they came up and talked about the film. We were all choked up, to be honest. It was crazy.

Did you ever meet Aaron?

No, but I was certainly aware of him. I was really good friends with Quinn Norton, who was his ex-girlfriend, and knew a lot of people who knew him. I was made keenly aware of his career after his arrest, which was two years before he took his own life. At the time, I was wondering why more people weren't paying attention to his case. And I think it was because he actively tried to keep it quiet.


He released that press release through Demand Progress at one point, and even Stephen Heymann, the prosecutor that was going after Aaron, said that was the moment where it went from a human one-on-one level to an institutional level. Heymann really got angry about it, amped it up, and called Aaron's basic press release a wild internet campaign. So, Aaron made a conscious decision to keep quiet and not get press, which is tragic, because I think it increased his isolation.

When did the film really start to take shape?

When I talked to Aaron's father. That's when I kind of realized that it needed to be a feature-length film and that, frankly, I was the one to do it.

What happened in that conversation with Aaron's father that proved critical in the decision to make the film?

You know, I have 'documentary-filmmaker reasons' for making the film, and 'activist anger reasons' for making the film, but the conversation with him was a personal kind of thing. I'd actually lost a friend about four months before Aaron's death - somebody who was a documentary producer and a very good friend. I had no clue why, and I still don't get it. I was reeling from that, and I'd become a father myself. Robert had just lost a son, so there was something emotional there that hit me. There was this profound sense of loss in him, and it made me want to make this film.

What I think was really incredible about Aaron was his ability to reach people even if they weren't in close proximity to him.

Absolutely. Actually, I think one of his talents was that he was able to explain complex issues to people so that they could understand and connect to them. I saw this in all of the available film footage of him. Aaron led people in the SOPA fight to become the hero of their own story, and he felt that made the movement successful.

There is a tendency to think of the internet as this far off realm of geeks, hackers, and coders. As much of a prodigy of that world as Aaron was, I think he thought that this was a space where we could and should all be active. That we don't have to fear hackers and coders, or be hackers and coders, because this is the world we all live in.

That's interesting because I feel that there is this increasing sense that the tech world has bought into its own bullshit. They've set themselves up as elite, but Aaron behaved in the exact opposite way.

I'm 100 percent with you on that. I completely agree. We lionize these people, right? One of the things you can take away from Aaron's story is that he turned his back on startup culture. He thought the cycle of build-to-flip and make a lot of money was bullshit. All startups say they want to make the world a better place. [laughs] It's kind of a startup slogan. Aaron rather decisively turned his back on that culture, and was clear-eyed about questions like, 'Are we making the world a better place? Did you know what made the world a bad place to begin with? And how do you quantify the change that you're trying to make?'

His vision kind of speaks to what you're saying - the cutting through that bullshit. I think we're intimidated sometimes by tech folks, or certainly intimidated by the internet. But, we shouldn't be - this is where we live. Everybody has a right to say how the internet operates. It's a machine, right? It's determined by code and laws, and people should be empowered to take part in it. You shouldn't have to be a coder, a hacker, or a startup CEO in order to have a vision of how the internet should be. People at Google don't have the right to determine how our massively networked lives are lived.

As you said, Aaron turned his back on startup culture. In a way, he became a representative for egalitarian internet; whereas if you're a startup or tech giant, you're sort of off in your very own private kingdom looking at balance sheets. Does the title The Internet's Own Boy represent Aaron's egalitarian internet ideal in a way?

That's essentially it, but Quinn Norton actually coined the phrase at a hacker conference when she said, "He was the internet's own boy, and the old world killed him." That's literally where I got it, but I stuck with it because it seems to suggest that he was born out of this free culture movement. He was so young when he was embraced by these icons of the internet like Tim Berners-Lee, Lawrence Lessig, and those people. He was a child of that new world.

Were you able to talk to MIT for the documentary?

They never talked to me. I went back and forth with Hal Abelson, who is the author of the MIT report on Aaron Swartz. He's an interesting person for them to pick because he is a well-known and well-respected figure in the tech world, and a founding director of Creative Commons. I talked to him directly in person, and he said he would sit down for an interview after the report was out, which MIT then declined after it was published. It's been this dance back and forth. MIT doesn't want to talk to me, but I want to hear their side of the story. I would love to have their perspective, and would certainly take it seriously.

Lots of people from MIT have reached out and said they want to do screenings at MIT. I said, "Absolutely, as long as we can do some sort of real and honest discussion about it afterward, maybe like a panel or something." Government, of course, has just been silent.


I've wondered if there were some MIT administrators or bureaucrats who were truly aloof about Aaron Swartz's role in free culture. Could they have been totally ignorant of Aaron's resume, seeing him instead as some common cyber-criminal?

I think there was a little bureaucratic ignorance, or a sense that they didn't want to be bothered about it, as opposed to direct maliciousness. Obviously, there is a big split between MIT's administration and legal counsel and then the students and faculty. I think MIT was driven by general counsel, and felt that they had motivation to do just what the government wanted them to do. MIT is an enormous defense contractor, and I think that they have lots of incentives to just cooperate with the government.

But, you expect more than that from MIT. They should look at these situations and take them seriously. They should be leaders. I mean, they encourage experimentation and pranks. Breaking into closets and into services is part of their initiation. They have the MIT Scavenger Hunt, for Christ's sake. What was Aaron doing that deserved 35 years in prison?

Right, and MIT students came up with the very idea of hacking, which seems to have been lost in the public debate about Aaron's prosecution.

Yeah, hacking came from the MIT Tech Model Railroad Club in the 50s. It basically described creative, technical solutions to what they were doing. It's technical virtuosity. It's all about identifying a problem and then finding a really creative, interesting, and scrappy way to get around that problem. That is what hacking is in the best sense. That is something we've got to continue support. Hacking is problem-solving, but it's become this word that is demonized.

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.