The new documentary The Internet’s Own Boy describes the rise and tragic death of computer hacker Aaron Swartz, a child prodigy who at age 15 had visions of harnessing technology to change the world.
Though many feared that Swartz’s suicide—committed under the pressure of a pending federal prosecution for copyright infringement—would cast a pall over the hacking community, there is no shortage of computer whiz kids following in Swartz’s footsteps.
A Canadian teenager barely old enough to vote used the software platform for the e-currency Bitcoin to create a companion computer program that connects investors, helping them freely share code, programs, data, and ideas. Another teen, using a nom de guerre swiped from My Little Pony cartoons, pocketed nearly $100,000 (and counting) in annual competitions to find security flaws in Google’s highly advanced Chrome search engine. In Kenya, a teenager who was denied a visa to attend hacker camp in New York is setting up her own computer-science school in Nairobi.
For nearly a year, Swartz faced federal charges for allegedly using Massachusetts Institute of Technology computers to hack into JSTOR, an academic database. Prosecutors said Swartz then illegally copied roughly 4.8 million articles in protest of the commercialization of intellectual pursuit—which many consider to be the essence of hacking.
Directed by award-winning filmmaker Brian Knappenberger, The Internet’s Own Boy traces Swartz’s life from teenage programming sensation to “hacktivist” intent on creating free universal access to the world’s Web-based, computer-accessible knowledge and research.
Though Swartz’s story ends tragically, it serves as a backdrop for an emerging generation of computer prodigies.
These are but a handful of examples among many thousands of teenagers and young adults around the world who, like Swartz, are gifted, self-taught hackers who want to use the power of the Internet as a force for social change.
Vitalek Buterin Made Bitcoin Better
Twenty-year-old Vitalek Buterin invented a computer program some are calling “the LEGO of crypto-finance.” Based on the network that produced Bitcoin, Ethereum allows users of the virtual currency to share ideas and build Internet apps or search tools for any purpose they can imagine.
“The approach that people were taking [programming code for Bitcoin] was sort of like having a computer with a separate hardware module for solitaire, a separate hardware module for Internet Explorer, a separate hardware module for World of Warcraft,” he says. “It’s obviously a very inefficient way to do things.” So Buterin created his own.
“Pinkie Pie” Won $100,000 From Google
Last year, a teenage hacker known only by the handle “Pinkie Pie” won a $40,000 prize from Google after revealing security flaws in its Chrome search engine. But it wasn’t the first time Pinkie Pie took home Google’s cash: In 2012, he won $60,000 in the same competition, and he is known in hacking circles as a prolific talent.
Alexandra Jordan Created the App Super Fun Kid Time
Still another computer prodigy—nine at the time—created an impressive social networking program that won over a tough crowd of judges at the 2013 Disrupt Hackathon. Like Swartz and other tech prodigies, Alexandra Jordan taught herself how to code, identified a problem (summertime boredom), and applied her new skills to solve it.
“One of kids’ biggest problems in the summer is to try and find playdates, ’cause they’re all bored,” Jordan told the Disrupt audience. Her app, Super Fun Kid Time, allows parents and kids to quickly find playdates based on area schools, grade and age levels, and interests.
Martha Chumo Founded Hacker School in Nairobi
Perhaps most impressive among the new generation of hackers is Martha Chumo, a self-taught 19-year-old programmer from Kenya. Invited to attend Hacker School, a New York–based “retreat for hackers,” Chumo crowdfunded her $5,000 trip but ran into visa problems and was forced to cancel.
In a move Swartz would have admired, Chumo stayed home and launched a hacker school for girls in her hometown of Nairobi.
“In programming you’re constantly reading and learning and doing something new,” Chumo recently told CNN, adding that she wants other girls to experience the adventure of cutting-edge computer science. “You get to do something new and not use the same old technology forever—that’s the fun part, and also being able to build anything that you can think of.”
This article was created in association with the social action campaign for The Internet’s Own Boy, which is being released by TakePart’s parent company, Participant Media, and filmbuff.