“What could have been?” It’s a simple question that speaks to lifetimes of regret, of hours of thinking about alternatives, of wasted potential that can never be regained. Maybe the time wasn’t right, or someone was too bullheaded, or others simply couldn’t see the big picture. Whatever the case, it’s a question that looks at the present and find it wanting. Brian Knappenberger’s The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz spends most of its time asking, “Who is Aaron Swartz?” and “What could have led him to take his own life?” But the most powerful question that hangs over its somber conclusion is “What could have been if Aaron Swartz hadn’t committed suicide?” While filmmaker Knappenberger could’ve benefited from allowing a bit more time to pass to fully understand the ramifications of Swartz’s death, ultimately his film looks at the impact that one person can have on a burgeoning new world while examining the impact the powers-that-be of the old world will have on that one person.
Swartz was a computer prodigy — working on the committee to define and build RSS feeds at 14-years-old and founding Creative Commons while still in high school. Eventually he would go to (and drop out from) Stanford, co-found Reddit (getting fired after Conde Nast bought it), and found political activism organization Demand Progress. Later he was embroiled in a criminal lawsuit stemming from academic article downloads from the paywalled digital library, JSTOR; a lawsuit that was fiercely pursued by the federal government, even after JSTOR had dropped all charges. Swartz accomplished a lot in his young life before taking his own life on January 11, 2013, yet Knappenberger’s interview subjects — including family, friends, mentors, and peers — paint the picture of a person who was never quite satisfied with what he had already achieved. And despite being a prolific speaker and interview guest, there’s still a lot that is unknown about Swartz, not least of which is his motivations for committing suicide (though it is widely assumed that it was the pressure of facing many years in jail and being labeled a felon for accessing information).
Indeed, even with all of Swartz’s blog posts, videos, and interviews, the young man is still something of an aloof cipher. Though Knappenberger is able to get a lot of people to talk about Swartz, it’s hard to tell how much of it is simply the natural instinct to lionize someone after their passing, as few of them have anything bad to say about him. That doesn’t mean the subjects are being untruthful, just that it’s hard to fully understand someone when they are constantly described in only positive terms. There are many moments in The Internet’s Own Boy where there seems to be an almost cold distance between the interviewees and the man they are describing. Furthermore, with so much of the film being focused on technological innovations, the detached feeling permeates into describing Swartz’s various accomplishments. This makes it difficult to feel invested in the story and doesn’t even provide a better understanding of Swartz than a profile in a magazine.
Eventually, towards the end of the film, Knappenberger finds two stories that elicit passion: the fight to stop SOPA/PIPA, and Swartz’s suicide. That cold disinterest when previously describing how Swartz objected to the paywall obstacles of accessing medical research gives way to a frenzied pace of Swartz marching in the streets, conducting interviews, and rallying people behind his cause to protect the Internet from moneyed interests and bureaucratic mishandling. Knappenberger cuts between legislation progressing and Swartz’s mounting rush to stop this bill, despite all of the money and lobbying siding with SOPA, which shows how effective Swartz could be at identifying problems, distilling them, and rousing forces behind him to attack. That impassioned fight and improbable victory are almost immediately undercut when he killed himself a few months later. And by framing these diametrically opposed events so closely together, one of unexpected triumph and the other of debilitating resignation, Knappenberger deftly underscores what the world lost when Swartz killed himself. It’s a sobering one-two punch that is very emotionally effective and almost neutralizes the previous 40 minutes of dry chronicling of Swartz’s life and accomplishments. By showing the audience what this man could do for the world, Knappenberger then forces us to accept that he will never get that chance.
Net Neutrality is a big topic of discussion these days — people striving to ensure that the Internet continues to be a level playing field that doesn’t favor the privileged or large corporations. It’s hard not to think about what Aaron Swartz would be doing to fight for everyone’s right to access all of this knowledge. And so it’s easy to come back to that question of “What Could Have Been?” While half of the film isn’t as powerful or engaging as it could be, Knappenberger nails the homestretch and makes sure that audiences will at least partially comprehend the many worlds of possibilities that were lost to us forever that night in January.