Technology doesn’t occur in a vacuum, as the heart-wrenching documentary “The Internet’s Own Boy” about the late information activist Aaron Swartz reminds us. And so the darkness that has enveloped the world in recent times has come here to SXSW in Austin, as well.
South-by-Southwest's Interactive conference, celebrating its 21th year with about 30,000 attendees flooding into the Texan capital, is usually a place to extol the marvels of modern technology, to treat tech like a quasi-mystical Force for good. But this year at SXSW the focus is on privacy and security, not innovation, and the most prominent people aren't tech evangelists like last year's keynote speaker Elon Musk but fugitive information activists Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, appearing via satellite.
“The dark side of technology has really become apparent in the past year; it's become obvious to everybody. Hackers pride themselves on having woken up from the matrix already but what Snowden did was yank the veil from all our eyes and we can see what our relationship with our government is, and that's pretty profound,” director Brian Knappenberger told the Huffington Post Canada after his film's screening.
Knappenberger in the film described 2011 as a year of revolutions from Occupy and Arab Spring to Anonymous -- the latter of whom was the focus of his previous doc “We Are Legion: The Story of the Activists” -- and that 2012 was year of the crackdown, of which Swartz was a tragic casualty.
“Years ago I would have called myself a techno-utopian, really enthusiastic about the democratic principles of the internet – the ability to protest, the ability to talk to anybody all over the world, the innovative potential. I was genuinely excited, like everybody was. I still think that stuff is important and great, and technology expands our reach, but it’s also smart to look at the downside, the underbelly of it. And that's really what’s dominated the past year. This [movie] is the story of the pendulum going too far."
Swartz, who took his own life at the age of 26 while facing a possible 35 years in prison for illegally downloading millions of pages of scientific journals from M.I.T. servers, was an Internet prodigy. As the film shows, he was reading at age three, coding not long later and working as an equal with adults while still a teen. He helped develop RSS technology at age 13, built the platform for Creative Commons licensing at 15 and was one of the founders of Reddit. By 19, he was a millionaire after the popular site was sold to Conde Nast.
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But then Swartz quit and became a political activist for the freeing of information from the hands of government and corporations, information he believed “belongs to us as a commons." He started activist organization and wrote manifestos, but his biggest success was leading the campaign that killed the much-hated anti-copyright laws SOPA and PIPA.
“It's striking that Aaron turned his back on start-up culture, that's an admirable move. He made money and didn't do what ever other person here at [SXSW] Interactive would do, which is build to flip and start again. They're just trying to upgrade their own bank accounts. Aaron went on to want to make the world a better place – and not as a start-up slogan. He looked at it with a level of sophistication that I think almost nobody had in that culture. I attribute a lot of the outpouring of support after he died to that,” says Knappenberger.
The documentary, which includes interviews with Swartz’s family, friends and colleagues but no government representatives, argues the case that the Obama administration was trying to make an example of Swartz to deter other information activists, and that led to his suicide.
If so, the government's plan didn't work. Former NSA analyst Edward Snowden subsequently released thousands of classified documents in one of the "most significant leaks in U.S. history”.
“I'm in the camp that kind of revelations that we heard from Snowden are things that are in the public interests, that are things we should know and it's important for us to really talk about it. I feel like it's a really good thing that we're struggling with these issues more. There is this dual competing impulse with technology. It is good, it is great -- it is who we are, we're tool-building creatures – but there's this dark side, and often we don't see it.”
Swartz saw it, though, even when he didn't have a name for it. In one of the old interviews shown in the doc, he speaks about the audacity of the government spying on so many people it can't even give an estimate of how many and that justifies the spying with classified laws. We know now, thanks to Snowden, that this program was called PRISM, but at the time nobody paid it much mind.
“That part, when I saw it, was haunting, especially when he was saying there's never been this moment, there's been a long slow progression that goes back to the ‘70s, but there’s never been a moment to galvanize people to say we need to fix this.”
So can SXSW be that moment? Can the combination of all these pivotal figures, which also includes British journalist Glenn Greenwald (who has been working with Snowden) and Corey Doctorow, the Canadian founder of Boing Boing and digital rights activist, provide this community with the needed momentum to enact change?
“Yeah, I absolutely hope that having Julian, having Glenn, having Edward all talking about this -- and I hope my film fits into that same dialogue -- that it amplifies this discussion which really genuinely needs to be amplified. It really genuinely needs to be heard.”