Programming prodigy and information activist Aaron Swartz achieved groundbreaking work in social justice and political organizing. His passion for open access ensnared him in a legal nightmare that ended with the taking of his own life at the age of 26.
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The story of programming prodigy and information activist Aaron Swartz. From Swartz's help in the development of the basic internet protocol RSS to his co-founding of Reddit, his fingerprints are all over the internet. But it was Swartz's groundbreaking work in social justice and political organizing combined with his aggressive approach to information access that ensnared him in a two year legal nightmare. It was a battle that ended with the taking of his own life at the age of 26. Aaron's story touched a nerve with people far beyond the online communities in which he was a celebrity. This film is a personal story about what we lose when we are tone deaf about technology and its relationship to our civil liberties.
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Aaron Swartz was an internet hacker and activist who committed suicide under pressure from a U.S. government attempt to prosecute him for a crime (stealing data) where he meant no harm and sought to make no money. I certainly agree that the legal case against Swartz was absurdly overcooked; but the film throws up a number of interesting issues about theories of government in general, and the techno-utopian world-view that Schwarz subscribed to. Technological advance can make previous ways of doing things obsolete, and measures of control superfluous and/or unnecessary. They threaten vested interests (or, more probably, they threaten to replace an old elite whose interests are vested in the old technology with a new one unencumbered by attachment to the past). One can believe these changes are good in themselves; one can believe the death of the old control structures is an added bonus; one can believe that the changes are good precisely because they lead to the end of the old control structures. And this way of thinking (in the context of technologies for the storage and dissemination of data) leads to the idea that 'data wants to be free'; and that any attempt to restrict data availability is a form of human rights violation. This leads to some strange positions. For example, academic journals have existed, in some cases for hundreds of years, because publication has been intrinsically difficult. Now, it's easier, the traditional model may be obsolete, and of course, the publishers fight changes that threaten to end their cosy oligopoly. And yet, for an academic journal publisher to seek to defend their copyrighted material is not evil (unless one believes in the complete abolition of intellectual property, which is a different kind of argument). Being on the wrong side of history is ultimately a practical matter, not a moral one. And new models of publishing still come at a cost and still have to be paid for - data is not free (in that other sense of freedom) and in a world with differential ability to pay, that means it cannot be universally free in the other sense either.nnAnd as a scientist, supportive of the principle of open access, I find myself in agreement with most of Swartz's positions; and yet alienated by his friends and collaborators, who insist that the government should not have prosecuted Schwarz at all, basically because he was right and they were wrong. One really doesn't need a very advanced theory of power to see that this is a naive way of looking at the world, or an advanced theory of psychology to consider it an arrogant one. The world needs its Aaron Swartz's, and a wise and humane government would not seek to hand down excessive sentences on such people merely to assert its own right to make the rules. But the world also needs people to (mostly) obey the law, and while there may be many decisions of government that people might justly object to on grounds of conscience, Swartz's objections to copyright law lie mainly in the fact that it prevented him from doing cool and interesting things. I find myself in support of most of Swartz's specific views, yet sometimes I feel as scared of libertarians of left (like Swartz) and right as I am of the big government they oppose, whose optimism is invigorating yet in some senses selfish, with their apparent belief that government's worst crime is acting to prevent brilliant and privileged people from reaching the height of their potential. Whatever, it's a documentary that certainly makes you think, but one should screen the views of Scwartz's acolytes before swallowing them in their entirety.
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