Pop culture right now likes to portray techie innovators as entrepreneurs. Think Mark Zuckerberg in "The Social Network" or the amiable malcontents of the HBO comedy series "Silicon Valley." All their efforts — all that substantial brain power — is geared toward building a business. And scoring a major payday. Becoming captains of industry.
What's so interesting about Aaron Swartz, the Internet pioneer from Highland Park who is the subject of "The Internet's Own Boy" (at the Siskel Film Center this week), is that he deliberately took a different path.
"It's a really important part of his story," filmmaker Brian Knappenberger told me, "and it's one of the reasons people really responded to him."
Thin, with a big head of brown hair and a two-day stubble, Swartz was already a seasoned programmer by the time he dropped out of Stanford University and went on to co-create the social news site Reddit. That's a template for success right there. He could have easily continued down that path and made serious money in Silicon Valley.
"There was a decisive turn he made after selling Reddit to Conde Nast," said Knappenberger. "It made him a very rich 19-year-old." (The exact figure isn't shared in the film, but it's hinted it's about $1 million.) It also gave him a taste of the corporate world — "gray walls, gray desk, gray noise" — and he wanted no part of it.
Swartz's interests lay elsewhere. The way we interact with technology has not just a consumer aspect but also a social-political one: What are our rights online? And who is trying to limit or infringe upon them? This became his focus and some of his projects strayed into gray legal areas.
He committed suicide last year at the age of 26 in the midst of a confusing (some say overzealous) federal prosecution sparked by his efforts to download millions of academic journals from a paywalled database in order to — well, it's not clear what his intentions were.
The film speculates that Swartz might have simply made all that material available for free just to make a point: That scientific findings shouldn't be off limits to those who can't afford access.
"The other thing," Knappenberger said, "and I came more and more to this, is that he could have just been analyzing that research for evidence of the kind of funding corruption that leads to biased results, particularly in the area of climate change. He was, by the way, at Harvard in a fellowship studying this exact thing. So there's a lot to be said for this argument."
The prosecutor saw something sinister in Swartz's actions, but Swartz himself never explained his goals. If convicted of the 13 felonies he was charged with, the penalties could have included 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine.
"He wasn't the stereotypical hacker, that sort of Asperger's stereotype," Knappenberger said. "I think he was very social. But he was becoming increasingly isolated. There was a real fear that his friends would be implicated in this if he told them anything."
So he didn't talk about it. To anyone. That could not have been an easy mental state.
"There was another element in which he didn't seem to want to admit weakness," said Knappenberger. "Like, he didn't want to admit to his friends that this wasn't beatable. He didn't want to make it seem like this would break him."
The documentary is not unbiased. It is not a fully fleshed-out look at Swartz, the person, nor does it really consider some of his human fallabilities. As a filmmaker, Knappenberger is stronger when it comes to delineating philosphical ideas about technology (he's very good at this, in fact), than creating a human portrait.
I came away from the film thinking that Swartz was an incredibly sophisticated thinker, but he did appear to have one blind spot. Knappenberger rejected this when I mentioned it, but I got the sense that Swartz wasn't thinking strategically about: What happens if I get caught? How will I navigate things if this doesn't go according to plan?
The government had already brought cases against other hackers — some of whom were engaged in cyber-civil disobedience, which doesn't sound felony-worthy — and those charges included stiff prison terms and fines. Was Swartz naive enough to think law enforcement wouldn't be interested in what he was doing?
Knappenberger responded strongly when I said this. "I actually disagree with that .… Obviously he was cavalier, and he pushed some boundaries, and he was willing to take risks. There's no question about that. But did he think it would be 13 felonies? No. Thirteen felonies is way too much for this crime, and I don't think anybody could have predicted that.
"I think he probably thought he was risking something like a misdemeanor. And I think he probably thought he could get away with it. It seems to me that he was shocked by the level of intensity of the legal prosecution."
The film includes interviews with Swartz's family, including his father, Robert, a calm, open-faced man with thinning gray hair, and his mother, Susan, who understandably can't make it through the interview when asked about the day she learned of her son's death. Both will be at the 3 p.m. Sunday screening for a post-show talkback.
The documentary is also available for purchase on Vimeo, and buyers will be allowed to download and share it for free. "It's a Creative Commons license," Knappenberger said, "which is something Aaron helped develop, so it was important to me to have the distribution of the film in line with that."