The way I spent today is not how I’ve spent past 4th of July holidays, but I think I’m going to aim to do so in the future. Instead of fireworks and barbecues, I would love to take the 4th of July as a day to really examine an issue or two (via film, music, art or books) that our country is getting wrong. Yes, there are some fantastic things about this country, but the more I read and the more I learn, the more I see so many injustices. There are the obvious ongoing ones (colonialism, slavery, racism, misogyny, the carceral state, income inequality), but there are also the ones that I am just not tracking but clearly should be.
This film falls into the latter category. After watching it I’m angry, I’m sad, and I’m inspired as hell but also a little overwhelmed. A lack of knowledge – scientific, historic, and political – motivates the authors of so many bad laws, court decisions, and policies. We only need to look at Monday’s Hobby Lobby ruling, where a company was allowed to argue that because they claim to believe something – even if it is wrong (Plan B is not, in fact, an abortifacient) – they can use that to deny access to healthcare to others. That basic lack of scientific understanding is the foundation of so many horrific policies. If more people in the public (not those in power – they likely know what’s up, but don’t benefit from the facts and so twist or deny them instead) had the opportunity to see how laws are implemented, or studies are conducted, or research is done, they might view things differently, might support different causes, and might not be as content with the status quo.
Aaron Swartz was many things, and this documentary seeks to share who he was with the public while exploring the seemingly abusive prosecution that appears to have ultimately lead to his suicide. Faced with 13 counts of charges stemming from plugging his computer into MIT’s system to download journal articles (possibly with the goal of analyzing them to see if there is a relationship between corporate dollars and how climate change science is researched), he took his own life. I had read about what many view as prosecutorial misconduct in this case – this likely should have been a simple civil matter between Mr. Swartz and MIT, not a literal federal case – but this film certainly helped me understand it better.
The narrative is pretty straightforward. We follow Mr. Swartz from his youth (reading by the age of three) through his 20s, when he was an instrumental part of stopping SOPA, a horribly crafted piece of legislation that you might remember from when many sites – including Wikipedia and Reddit – went dark for a full 24-hours to protest the censorship the bill would perpetuate. Mr. Swartz believed in knowledge and education, and felt strongly that the public should have access to knowledge and public materials. Through interviews with his family members, former colleagues (including Lawrence Lessig), and members of the community fighting for an open internet (e.g. Electronic Frontier Foundation), the film builds a picture of someone who was a rational idealist and a real progressive who saw important wrongs that needed to be fixed.
When I was contemplating law school I assumed I would go into mass media law. I found it fascinating, and since I was attending school during the turn of the century, there was a lot that was not known. Napster was still a thing, and piracy was presented as the beginning of the end for creativity and knowledge. And here is where I am still conflicted. We live in a money-fueled society. In the current system, journal articles and other research and knowledge are often built as a way for the authors to learn but also to survive. For someone to be able to spend months on a research project, they need to be able to have a place to live, food to eat, etc. While many of these articles are funded by research grants and tax dollars from the government, I have a hard time trying to figure out how, in the system we currently have, right now, we can change the motivation while still making the information public.
But thanks to films like this, I’m interested. I want to learn more. I know net neutrality is in trouble, and I want to be involved in ways to ensure that corporations can’t limit my access to certain website. I’m furious that the FBI and others felt that it made sense to prosecute this man literally to death because he downloaded journal articles. I’m also interested in learning more about how to balance creativity and knowledge with surviving in the system we have now while seeking to change the system itself.
I suggest checking the film out, especially if you are someone who wants to see this nation do better and be better. If you’re in Seattle, it’s playing at the Egyptian from the 11th through the 18th. It’s also available nationally via Amazon streaming for about $7 for a three-day rental.