The Internet’s Own Boy Reaction/Reflection

Lawrence Lessig and Aaron Schwartz. Rich Gibson, CC BY

Aaron Swartz is a name that is perhaps not known by most Americans, or even users of his own website, Reddit. However, The story of his life is both riveting and tragic, and one that deserves to be told. This is just want “The Internet’s Own Boy” attempted to do. It would be logical to think that the co-founding a website, Reddit, with millions of users worldwide every single day would be the premise of a documentary exploring Swartz’s life, but that is not the case. Instead, the documentary focused on his rebellion from the locking up of knowledge, and how immoral that Swartz believed that it is to do so.

While most people in their early twenties are enrolled in college or just beginning a career, this was far from the case for Swartz. After numerous achievements such as working on Creative Commons, RSS, and Reddit, Swartz was intwined in a legal disaster after taking a stance against the privileging of knowledge and downloading millions of scholarly journals to share with the world. As I watched the documentary, I found myself actively evaluating my stance on the topic, as it is not an idea I had previously invested much time into thinking about. Therefore, the film did not only shift my thinking, but it created my thinking on the topic.

The first visceral reaction I had regarding Swartz was how he was right. He seemed like the prime example of a case where the system failed him. He was portrayed as someone who was fighting for what is right and just by director Brian Knappenberger. The film did an excellent job of not holding back and showing how much good he was doing, and then how much pain he was put through before finally taking his own life at just 26 years old.

However, after watching the film and unpacking all that I had just learned, my thinking began to shift in another direction. As I watched the documentary, I had noted how Swartz was portrayed as a hero and martyr, and the criminal justice system was made out to be the villians. And once the intense emotions of Swartz’s story had passed over me, this is something that I couldn’t just let go. It caused me to try to compare his actions to other activities that have a more defined moral code of conduct. Whilst doing this, the closet I could think of to his downloading and distributing of scholarly articles and journals is robbing a textbook store. I don’t believe there would be any leniency at all showed to someone who robbed the Wake Forest textbook store in order to distribute textbooks to students for their classes so they didn’t have to pay for them. And the final conclusion I drew is that it is because that is how capitalism works. In the example with a textbook store, they are trying to make money, their mode through doing this is only different than a store such as a grocery store in that they are selling books instead of food. At the end of the day, those who create these scholarly journals are paid for their work, and those who pay for it know they can sell it.

I walked away from the film thinking that it definitely would be great if everyone in the world had access to knowledge and resources such as these journals for free. However, it would also be nice if everyone had a surplus of food, but you don’t see people stealing food from wholesale stores and distributing it for free as a way to rebel against the system. Ultimately I agree with Swartz’s motives and admire him for his actions, but I can see exactly why his case was handled like it was, and I can’t imagine that changing anytime soon.

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