The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz


falling_icarusThe Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz is a recently-released documentary about the now-deceased hacktivist.  Aaron’s story is told through interviews with many people that knew him personally.  We hear from Aaron’s family, friends, and business associates.  There’s also footage of Aaron Swartz throughout his life.  The audience gets the same story we’ve read since Aaron’s death, a tragedy not unlike the mythical Icarus.  This 105 minute video suggests the federal government pressured Aaron Swartz into killing himself.  My own conclusion is Aaron took his life for more personal reasons.

Over-Ambition Resulting In Tragedy

Icarus’ story involves wings of feather and wax.  He flew too close to the sun, the wings melted, and he drowned in the sea.  The story’s theme is over-ambition resulting in tragedy.  Similarly, “The Internet’s Own Boy” shows a young Aaron Swartz dressed for Halloween as his favorite computer.  His peers describe the pre-teen Aaron’s ability to engage in thoughtful discussion at computer industry trade shows and technology conferences.  There’s video of people cheering on Aaron Swartz at political rallies to promote Internet freedom.  His lawyer enthusiastically describes how Aaron could’ve beat the government’s criminal case.  And his former girlfriend confides Aaron considered his personal theme song to be Fiona Apple’s ‘Extraordinary Machine’ (“…I seem to you to seek a new disaster every day…I mean to prove I mean to move in my own way…”).  All of these people appear to have encouraged Aaron Swartz until he ultimately hanged himself.  Over-ambition resulting in tragedy.

Aaron’s Personal Life

I watched “The Internet’s Own Boy” with a conscious focus on the individual human being Aaron Swartz.  His business success and political efforts amount to distractions from the more important question of why this person chose to kill himself.  With that in mind, I observe that one of the best things anybody could’ve done for Aaron Swartz might’ve been to pull him away from the crowd of people you see in this documentary.  I don’t recall any mention in this video that Aaron had any creative outlet or friends beyond those in the technical community.  “The Internet’s Own Boy” lacks even one person saying they attempted to talk Aaron Swartz out of the activities that resulted in a federal criminal case.  However, we see plenty of bystanders even after his death rationalizing Aaron’s behavior.  Some of those people argue the acts of Aaron Swartz were somehow everybody’s fault except Aaron’s.  Those types of people certainly influenced Aaron’s mindset.

Why Do You Suppose Aaron Swartz Took His Own Life?

The only person that truly knows why Aaron Swartz took his own life is now deceased.  From this documentary, I conclude Aaron Swartz eventually understood he was the only person forced to deal with his problems.  None of these people encouraging him or surrounding him faced the immense stress of multiple felony criminal charges, paying for an expensive legal defense, or spending time in prison.  Aaron seems to have lacked any trusted friends beyond the types of people that encouraged him to break the law and fight a federal criminal case.  Aaron’s realization that he had to deal with his problems alone created the private feeling of isolation that caused him to take his own life.  I’d like to believe that some friends that had no involvement at all with computers, technology, or Internet politics could’ve shown Aaron there was more to life than his current legal mess.  Those friends might’ve helped Aaron see beyond his situation and find new purpose for his life.

The Internet’s Own Boy

And so The Internet’s Own Boy gives us a documentary of the same public persona we’ve read about since the death of Aaron Swartz.  What we get is Saint Aaron, the patron saint of the Internet that died for our cyber-sins.  I would’ve rather seen Aaron Swartz, the human life with interests, hobbies, and friends that have nothing to do with technology.

(Editor’s note: Featured image on this post is Falling Icarus, a painting by RaychulWhatsername).

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