8 tech documentaries you can binge-watch this weekend
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1. "Genius on Hold"
Remember the movie "Tucker?" The weirdly optimistic story about a man, his dream and the lengths to which corporate America would go to crush him? Well, "Genius on Hold" is just like "Tucker," if Jeff Bridges was a tech genius and, instead of beating Ford, GM and Chrysler, he ended up in federal prison for aiding the mob. Released in 2013, and available to stream on Netflix, "Genius on Hold" is the story of Walter L. Shaw, a telephone engineer who almost singlehandedly invented the modern telephone and then was destroyed by AT&T for his trouble. It's not a doc for the faint of heart; there are no happy endings here. All the same, it's an important story about the powerlessness of individuals when faced with companies too big to regulate.
If "Genius on Hold" is the story of a man being brought down by the system, then "Downloaded," released in 2013 and directed by Alex Winter, is the story of a man bringing down that system. First premiered at SXSW, the title of this one says it all: a look at the impact of filesharing on the Internet. It's chock full of Interviews with software developers and musicians about software such as Napster and its many seismic impacts. Interviews include Henry Rollins, Billy Corgan, former record producer and Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, former Sony Music Chariman Don Lenner. Beastie Boys' Mike D, and Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor. Available for Netflix streaming and--of course--illegal download.
3. "Second Skin"
Before "Downloaded" hit SXSW, there was a different kind of tech doc to make its debut at the festival. "Second Skin" showed up in 2008 after following the lives of seven people as they entered the world of Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs). The film shows us the lives of people who have been transformed by virtual worlds in online games like World of Warcraft, Everquest and Second Life. The story is a lot more than endless boar killing and erotic role-play, it's an in-depth look at how virtual worlds are transforming our lives, and possibly impacting our future.
4. "Indie Game: The Movie"
Video games are more than just big box console exclusives and MMO behemoths like World of Warcraft, some of the most entertaining and revolutionary versions come from individual artists just hoping to create something all their own. "Indie Game: The Movie," directed by James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot, and released in 2012, follows independent game developers through many a sleepless night and ulcers as they try to get their games to market. With Jonathan Blow, the creator of Braid, offering perspective on the industry as a whole, the filmmakers focus on Super Meat Boy developers, Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes, and Fez creator Phil Fish. The film is a fascinating, uncensored, often unflattering look at the reality of independent game development: long hours, frequent glitches and little appreciation. Watching the struggles faced by indie developers, it's not surprising that so many of them crash and burn, as was the case with Phil Fish only a year after the documentary's release.
5. "We Steal Secrets"
If you give a man a fish you feed him for a day, if you give Julian Assange a fish he'll post it up on the web for all people to see every day. Released in 2013, "We Steal Secrets" is the story of the self-aggrandizing, controversial, un-Cumberbatchable, Julian Assange and his crusade to escape sexual assault charges--oh, and also to “help” whistleblowers tell their secrets through his equally controversial website, Wikileaks. It's an engrossing film that takes viewers from Assange's dubious beginnings as a hacktivist to his current legal dilemmas. Interviews include the man himself, as well as Chelsea Manning, Nick Davies, Michael Hayden and Vaughan Smith, among others.
If Julian Assange has an alter hacktivist ego, it is probably Edward Snowden. Hero to some and villain to others, Snowden was responsible for revealing to the world that the American government was reading all of our emails and listening to all of our phone calls (among other dastardly deeds), in what became the biggest reveal of government secrets since the Pentagon Papers. "Citizenfour," directed by Laura Poitras and available for streaming on HBO, is a first draft of history. The doc, filmed by Poitras during Edward Snowden's first meetings with the reporters who would later break the story, is an intimate and often chilling look at one of the most important events in recent years. The doc is a must-see, not only to gain an understanding for Snowden's motivations, but also to get an uncensored look into a critical issue that most people, sadly, seem not to care about.
7. "Inside the Dark Web"
Released in 2014, "Inside the Dark Web" offers viewers a peak behind the curtain of the meme-and-cat-video-driven Internet we know and love. Those already versed in the Dark Web or encryption won't learn much that is new here, but for anyone new to these concepts it's a good jumping point; it introduces viewers to the sphere people like Assange and Snowden call home. The film takes a look at the murkier side of our interconnected culture, where criminal enterprise and information activism share the same space. Surveillance is the focus here, with interviews featuring hackers and scientists whose technology is fighting back against oppressive governments and corporations. But it's not all glory to the hacktivist either, the doc is quick to point out that the tech is highly controversial, as law enforcement battles to eliminate entities like Silk Road.
8. "American Experience: Silicon Valley"
Available for free viewing through PBS, "Silicon Valley" is an origin story. In a Ken Burn's-style, through photos and interviews, this one tells the story of Robert Noyce, and the 1957 rebellion from Shockley Semiconductor Company, the event that more than any other created Silicon Valley as we know it today. Perhaps not as stylized as the other docs on this list, "Silicon Valley" is, nonetheless, essential viewing for anyone in the tech sector. Without Noyce there would have been no Fairchild Semiconductor, without Fairchild no Intel. Without Intel, the tech industry as we know it would not exist. But Noyce did more than found some of the biggest players in the Valley, he also helped invent the culture of rebellion and innovation that makes Silicon Valley such a source of both innovation and frustration.