The Internet's Own Boy

By Christopher Redmond

Mailed on July 09, 2014

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Dear Tim Berners-Lee
Inventor of the World Wide Web

Dear Tim,

Few people on this planet are as qualified to talk about the Internet as you. In fact, you're the reason most people don't know the difference between the Internet and the World Wide Web. The interlinked hypertext platform you created, free for everyone to use, is why we live in a "www" world. Ironically, we don't even see those letters anymore when searching or promoting a website - that's how foundational your invention has become. This free-for-all, interconnected philosophy became an inspiration to many people, but maybe no one more than Aaron Swartz.

As the title of Brian Knappenberger's documentary suggests, Swartz was part of the first generation born into the Internet age. He became obsessed with coding in elementary school, and by age 13, he was already making key contributions in open-source development forums and helping establish an alternative to copyright, called Creative Commons. He caught your eye shortly after this time, and based on your interviews here, he obviously made a lasting impression. In the very first scene, the film points out that Swartz died at the age of 26 (one salacious report says the government killed him, which certainly hooked my interest). But by the end of the film, once his story is more thoroughly explained, your short but beautiful eulogizing is what truly helped defined his life's ambitions and legacy.

The short-list of Swartz'z contributions will usually name him as a co-founder of Reddit, the so-called "front-page of the Internet". The sale of the site could have set him up as a looming titan of tech industry, but that was never Swartz's ambition. He enjoyed a frill-free lifestyle, and became more and more enamored with following your example and making information accessible to everyone. This would also lead to many troubles in his life, including a trial that would have him facing up to 35 years in prison for a crime that one interviewee describes as equivalent to "taking out too many books from the library at once."

Interviews with family, friends and experts string together the narrative of Knappenberger's film, who only inserts himself when an antagonistic large institution or government agency "declined to comment". This makes the flow of information to the audience a bit more regulated than I'm sure you would have liked, but despite all the hacktivsm supporters that are featured, we still understand that Swartz's activities were often outside the realm of the law. Of course, that was often the point. He wanted to highlight the rigidity and arbitrary nature of many rulings that blocked the free-flow of essential information to the public. This is a path that has since gained wider attention through whistler-blowers and leakers like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden.

I'm not sure where you wade in on their controversy, but you never wrote anything as inflammatory as Swartz's Guerilla Open-Access Manifesto. If you had, rest assured it would have jeopardized your Knighthood and inclusion into the 2012 London Olympic Games Opening Ceremonies.

Still, your sympathies obviously lie with Swartz and his family, and you do come across like a surrogate father to this lost son of the Information Age. So thank you for your kind contributions - to the film, and the Whole Wide World.



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