In honor of Aaron Swartz07 Mar 2022
Yesterday, I finally watched a movie that was long on my watch list: “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz”. It tells us the story of Aaron Swartz, an internet prodigy that used his talents and drive to genuinely make the world a better place, being responsible for some of the most influential things that affect the life of tech nerds and regular people: the RSS 1.0 protocol, co-founding Reddit, the grassroots movement against SOPA and PIPA, a grassroots movement to elect progressive politicians such as Elizabeth Warren, the Open Library… He became perhaps the first internet martyr, committing suicide while being criminally prosecuted by the US government for trying to make knowledge accessible to all.
Watching the movie made me realize how dispirited I am with the current state of the web. My general impression is that in the 2000s, the Internet was the land of equality, countless possibilities, innovation, and hope. I still remember my days as a teenager and, from my own bedroom as a teenager, getting in touch with the fascinating Japanese culture though their mangas and animes. At the time, Naruto was the most watched anime in Brazil even though no TV channel was broadcasting it, a feat that was only possible by the efforts of thousands of volunteers all over the world that would spend their free time recording animes, adding subtitles, translating to hundreds of languages, and publishing the final video files in their community-led websites. That’s what the web was about: people doing things for fun and, in the process, helping shape the world.
Somewhere in the 2010s, this sentiment was transformed into sadness and sorrow (play naruto sad song here). Bit by bit, we saw the open and free internet morphing into this land of walled gardens, pay-to-access silos, Orwellian-like surveillance systems. Want to see what someone is writing on Facebook? Log in first. Want access to this news article? Pay first. Want a new cellphone? Get addicted first. Tech companies became the wealthiest, most influential corporations in history, with more power and reach than most (if not, all) elected governments in the world. Somehow, we went from a utopia to this dystopian Second Guilded Age.
That’s why I mentioned the Aaron Swartz story in the first place. Watching the movie made me realize that the battle isn’t over. We can still put up a fight against the centralization of data and wealth in the Big Tech companies. We can start our own grassroots movements and advocacy groups to fight for the open, egalitarian, empowering ideals of the web. We can design new protocols, make difficult-to-understand technology so easy to use that even the least tech-savvy person will join our movement. We are not powerless. There is still hope.
Starting today, I want to learn more about what options we have in our hands: decentralized web, ethical social networks and tech products, making technology accessible to citizens of non-English speaking countries, the fight against Big Tech and natural monopolies, search engines as a public good… I want to be part of the movement that fights for the Internet as it should be, and perhaps, even makes the world a better place in the process.
In honor of Aaron Swartz.