Brian Knappenberger talks about his new film, the life and legacy of Aaron Swartz, and the troubling trends that survive the Internet activist.
The Internet’s Own Boy details how F.B.I. and Secret Service agents went after members of Swartz’s inner circle. Knappenberger says, “They told Aaron’s father they wanted to make an example out of him, but an example of what? What kind of behavior were they trying to deter? The majority of Aaron’s activity was about social organizing and getting people involved in their government. The notion that Aaron was some sort of quasi-celebrity hacker who needed to be made an example of is absurd and unsophisticated.”
“I think Aaron’s story is compelling for lots of different reasons. My previous film We Are Legion followed hackers and activists, so I was following Aaron’s story right from when he was arrested. He was so deeply engaged in so many issues that are really relevant about information, our relationship with information, the way the Internet is changing, and the freedoms of the Internet. And then I was struck by how much his story resonated with people far beyond the communities in which he was a celebrity—people that didn’t even know him.”
—Brian Knappenberger, director of The Internet’s Own Boy, on Aaron Swartz. Read the rest of the Q&A and watch the new trailer, over here.
“When I was a kid, I thought a lot about what made me different from the other kids. I don’t think I was smarter than them and I certainly wasn’t more talented. And I definitely can’t claim I was a harder worker — I’ve never worked particularly hard, I’ve always just tried doing things I find fun. Instead, what I concluded was that I was more curious — but not because I had been born that way. If you watch little kids, they are intensely curious, always exploring and trying to figure out how things work. The problem is that school drives all that curiosity out. Instead of letting you explore things for yourself, it tells you that you have to read these particular books and answer these particular questions. And if you try to do something else instead, you’ll get in trouble. Very few people’s curiosity can survive that. But, due to some accident, mine did. I kept being curious and just followed my curiosity. First I got interested in computers, which led me to get interested in the Internet, which led me to get interested in building online news sites, which led me to get interested in standards (like RSS), which led me to get interested in copyright reform (since Creative Commons wanted to use similar standards). And on and on. Curiosity builds on itself — each new thing you learn about has all sorts of different parts and connections, which you then want to learn more about. Pretty soon you’re interested in more and more and more, until almost everything seems interesting. And when that’s the case, learning becomes really easy — you want to learn about almost everything, since it all seems really interesting. I’m convinced that the people we call smart are just people who somehow got a head start on this process. I fell like the only thing I’ve really done is followed my curiosity wherever it led, even if that meant crazy things like leaving school or not taking a “real” job. This isn’t easy — my parents are still upset with me that I dropped out of school — but it’s always worked for me.”
Aaron Swartz, in a previously unpublished email exchange with Ronaldo Lemos.