I saw “The Internet’s Own Boy: the Story of Aaron Swartz” — Brian Knappenberger’s new documentary — with almost a dozen other Hacker Schoolers today. I thought its tone was moderate and unsentimental, a relief considering how I feared it might be. It was unshrill, and it made clear but did not overstate its points about government inaction against the banking industry’s moral failings. So I strongly recommend it and will probably see it again. I’m also impressed at how quickly the producers managed to get it finished and in front of audiences — it’s not yet eighteen months since Swartz’s suicide. It came out yesterday and is available for rent or purchase on Vimeo and other streaming providers.
After the movie, the group of us had a pretty good discussion about issues in the movie. One of us spoke about her friendship with Swartz, and then there was silence for a while before it seemed right for conversation to begin.
She also sent around an essay by her husband (at 1, 2). From these it is clear that Swartz’s political views were considerably more hardened than is apparent in the movie. I suppose the movie’s authors wanted to play down some of those views. Of course, all of us connected to Hacker School — by association with the ambiguous, perilous word “hacker” — may be subjected to misjudgment and perhaps much worse, even though none of us is engaging in activities of the sort Swartz was. It also sounds from the essay as though Swartz’s long-term mental well-being may have been less ideal than the film portrays — the film gently suggests that he had been through a period of depression earlier in his life. The essay says “It was disease that killed Aaron” — well, this reader perceives that he has been left to decide which “disease” is meant, though much of the writing describes bipolar disorder.
Figuring out what to apply oneself to is a perpetual problem for Hacker School batchlings, and one question that arose in our discussion was whether the movie brought any of us clarity about what to apply ourselves to. Specifically, this came up in light of a remark by Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman in the film:
“Aaron believed that you ought to be asking yourself, all of the time, ‘What is the most important thing that I could be working on in the world right now?’ And if you’re not working on that, why aren’t you?” (See Noelle Morris, Educational Resource to accompany “The Internet’s Own Boy: the Story of Aaron Swartz”, n.d., accessed 20140628, p. 7 #21).
For me, this is not a question at all. I am still a very weak and inexperienced programmer, and expanding my knowledge and proficiency remains at all times my prime task. There isn’t any other concrete “work on this now” goal that I can imagine coming ahead of that. I have already made considerable sacrifices for that goal, and forced those sacrifices on my family. This is a matter of gratification deferred and the subject is not open for reconsideration. Beyond my own case, I think the phrase “the most important thing that I could be working on in the world” is what the old Marxists of my youth used to call “highly tendentious” — it’s supposed to bend your reaction in a certain direction. But I have had enough of being bent by ideologues of any cast. I wish I had learned to resist them at a younger age than I did.
The one thing I really disliked about the movie was a phrase repeated by a relative of Swartz’s about the “magic” of programming. If there’s anything that ties together Swartz’s various activities and the views in his writings, it is that the sources of knowledge and information should be transparent. That means not thinking of any of them as magical. It’s not a small point. If human society is really to be divided into the Eloi and the Morlocks of H.G. Wells’ “Time Machine”, then I must reluctantly place myself with the Morlocks — the allegorically sightless and carnivorous culture that lives underground and preys at night on the gentle, ignorant Eloi. The Morlocks seem to possess some technical skills, if not actual knowledge of engineering. But it would be better to avoid a division like that — it smells too much of hubristic elitism to be a good dichotomy. If you doubt me, ask yourself: what fraction of society do you suppose identifies itself with the effete Eloi? Refusing to accept that division requires refusing to accept the existence of magic, even as a metaphor. The condition of the Eloi is that they can’t understand the Morlocks’ skills and regard them as magical.