“The Internet’s Own Boy”: How the Government Destroyed Aaron Swartz
Photo Credit: Fred Benenson / www.fredbenenson.com
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Brian Knappenberger’s Kickstarter-funded documentary “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz,” which premiered at Sundance barely a year after the legendary hacker, programmer and information activist took his own life in January 2013, feels like the beginning of a conversation about Swartz and his legacy rather than the final word. This week it will be released in theaters, arriving in the middle of an evolving debate about what the Internet is, whose interests it serves and how best to manage it, now that the techno-utopian dreams that sounded so great in Wired magazine circa 1996 have begun to ring distinctly hollow.
What surprised me when I wrote about “The Internet’s Own Boy” from Sundance was the snarky, dismissive and downright hostile tone struck by at least a few commenters. There was a certain dark symmetry to it, I thought at the time: A tragic story about the downfall, destruction and death of an Internet idealist calls up all of the medium’s most distasteful qualities, including its unique ability to transform all discourse into binary and ill-considered nastiness, and its empowerment of the chorus of belittlers and begrudgers collectively known as trolls. In retrospect, I think the symbolism ran even deeper. Aaron Swartz’s life and career exemplified a central conflict within Internet culture, and one whose ramifications make many denizens of the Web highly uncomfortable.
For many of its pioneers, loyalists and self-professed deep thinkers, the Internet was conceived as a digital demi-paradise, a zone of total freedom and democracy. But when it comes to specifics things get a bit dicey. Paradise for whom, exactly, and what do we mean by democracy? In one enduringly popular version of this fantasy, the Internet is the ultimate libertarian free market, a zone of perfect entrepreneurial capitalism untrammeled by any government, any regulation or any taxation. As a teenage programming prodigy with an unusually deep understanding of the Internet’s underlying architecture, Swartz certainly participated in the private-sector, junior-millionaire version of the Internet. He founded his first software company following his freshman year at Stanford, and became a partner in the development of Reddit in 2006, which was sold to Condé Nast later that year.
That libertarian vision of the Internet – and of society too, for that matter – rests on an unacknowledged contradiction, in that some form of state power or authority is presumably required to enforce private property rights, including copyrights, patents and other forms of intellectual property. Indeed, this is one of the principal contradictions embedded within our current form of capitalism, as the Marxist scholar David Harvey notes: Those who claim to venerate private property above all else actually depend on an increasingly militarized and autocratic state. And from the beginning of Swartz’s career he also partook of the alternate vision of the Internet, the one with a more anarchistic or anarcho-socialist character. When he was 15 years old he participated in the launch of Creative Commons, the immensely important content-sharing nonprofit, and at age 17 he helped design Markdown, an open-source, newbie-friendly markup format that remains in widespread use.
One can certainly construct an argument that these ideas about the character of the Internet are not fundamentally incompatible, and may coexist peaceably enough. In the physical world we have public parks and privately owned supermarkets, and we all understand that different rules (backed of course by militarized state power) govern our conduct in each space. But there is still an ideological contest between the two, and the logic of the private sector has increasingly invaded the public sphere and undermined the ancient notion of the public commons. (Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani once proposed that city parks should charge admission fees.) As an adult Aaron Swartz took sides in this contest, moving away from the libertarian Silicon Valley model of the Internet and toward a more radical and social conception of the meaning of freedom and equality in the digital age. It seems possible and even likely that the “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto” Swartz wrote in 2008, at age 21, led directly to his exaggerated federal prosecution for what was by any standard a minor hacking offense.