On the recent HBO comedy series Silicon Valley, one of the funniest recurring bits involved unwashed geeks boasting that they and their frivolous apps were going to “make the world a better place.” But two years ago, Aaron Swartz, a programming prodigy, actually did that.
When the U.S. Congress threatened to pass the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which critics called a dangerously overreaching piece of legislation, Swartz organized rallies, spoke to media, and inspired regular people to march in the streets.
On Jan. 18, 2012, major sites such as Wikipedia went dark for the day. And Congress, astonishingly, backed down. The incident was a “proof of concept” moment for Swartz, a restless intellect who had been trying to evolve from nerdy coder – he helped develop the RSS format, and was a founder of Reddit and other democratically-oriented sites – to a hacker of politics. But the U.S. government had other ideas, and they squeezed him hard for an earlier incident, in which Swartz had tapped into a mainframe computer at MIT and downloaded millions of academic journals without authorization.
In January, 2013, as his criminal trial approached, he died by suicide. Director Brian Knappenberger, who also directed We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists, delivers a touching, morally outraged portrait that, in memory of Swartz, may inspire people to ask hard questions about how the new world is being shaped away from view, behind closed doors.