Sunday 31 August 2014

Net loss: "The Internet's Own Boy"

The Internet's Own Boy serves as an example of documentary-as-shrine: a series of warm, glowing tributes organised in haste around an altogether flattering picture of its subject that may only have real meaning to the inner circle responsible for putting it together. That subject is Aaron Swartz, creator of Reddit and foremost proponent of open access Net content who committed suicide last year, aged just 26, after attracting the attentions of the US Government over his plans to circumvent private paywalls and make hundreds of thousands of research documents freely available to the public. Like some of the content he championed, the kid came and went in the blink of an eye; Brian Knappenberger's film attempts to give this life some permanency and context.

The first half accordingly sets forth some biography. One of those prodigies the home computer age keeps throwing up (the "boy" of the title is not accidental), Swartz established the Info Network - a forerunner of Wikipedia - when he was 12, spent his teenage years coming up with the concept of RSS feeds (nope, me neither), and was bought out by Conde Nast, in a deal that made him a millionaire, before he reached the age of twenty. Knappenberger has unearthed some funny, telling footage of this cocky, self-assured upstart sharing an industry platform with bearded greyhairs, looking both out of place and way ahead of his time - for this is another of those narratives that describes just how the world has begun to skew young.

Anybody hoping for a multifaceted portrait of a new media pioneer such as Aaron Sorkin gave us of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network will, however, likely be disappointed. Swartz's family, friends, colleagues and lawyers offer a steady stream of testimony as to what a bright, curious, generous soul their boy was, each new gush extending both viewer monotony and suspicions. Maybe Swartz really was a latter-day Jesus - or, more likely, that he didn't live long enough to incur any real enemies - but the narrative as presented here doesn't lack for incidents that might have been interpreted either way: Swartz's getting himself fired from Conde Nast for not showing up in the office is taken as a laudable show of anti-authoritarian dissent, where my dad (and surely not just my dad) might disagree.

Alex Gibney, in his superior We Steal Secrets, found checks and balances for similar claims, and in doing so, compiled an exceptionally nuanced psychological profile of these latter-day cyberpunks; here, Knappenberger's failure to initiate any wider or deeper inquiry around Swartz's demise manifests itself most keenly in the final hour, which proves so insistently pro-nerd and anti-The Man as to risk sending casual viewers fleeing to Reddit in the hope of finding out what other people are having for their tea. The individualism that thrives online, that entrenched wilfulness born of logged-on solitude which got Julian Assange into such trouble, could surely have been read into Swartz's eventual self-sacrifice, leaving behind as it does a father, mother and brother still visibly struggling to process Aaron's departure.

Instead, we have to sit and wait to discover just where Knappenberger's film takes its title from - one supporter's final-reel summary that "[Swartz] was the internet's own boy, and the old world killed him", a simplification that speaks unintended multitudes about the denial of personal responsibility fostered in certain dark and lousy corners of the Net. I understand the compulsion to make martyrs from such tragic, needless losses, but this determinedly soft-focus and respectful film feels heavily redacted in the manner it goes about doing so; it would surely have been truer to Aaron Swartz's personal and professional ethos, and the legacy he leaves encoded in a string of ones and zeroes, to put it all very much out there.

The Internet's Own Boy is now playing in selected cinemas.

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