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October 7, 2017

The best tech-focused documentaries of all time

by John_A

Why it matters to you

These tech-themed documentaries will entertain and inform in equal measure.

Do you love tech? Enjoy documentaries? Then, boy, are you going to love our round-up of the best tech documentaries available for your viewing pleasure. (If you hate technology and non-fiction films, on the other hand, you’ve probably come to the wrong place.)

From underdog video game stories to films which explore what the internet is doing to us, here are our picks for the tech-related documentaries you need to see right now.

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)

Probably the most obviously “fun” documentary on this list, King of Kong follows a narrative you’ll have seen in everything from Rocky to Karate Kid: an underdog hero’s journey as they battle against the odds to make it in the world.

In this case, the world our hero — a high school teacher named Steve Wiebe — wants to make it in is competitive videogaming, by securing the high score for arcade classic Donkey Kong. Against him is lank-haired arcade legend Billy Mitchell, who turns out to be a deliciously underhanded movie villain.

Lincoln Ruchti’s Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade is another great exploration of the golden age of arcade gaming, but it’s hard to match King of Kong when it comes to sheer nostalgic exuberance.

We Are Legion: The Story of Hacktivists (2012)

We Are Legion is a documentary about “hacktivist” collective Anonymous.The film puts the Guy Fawkes mask-wearing hacktivists into a historical context, by tracing their more modern 4chan incarnation back to the protest culture of the 1960s.

Director Brian Knappenberger manages to get some interesting interviews with real life Anonymous members, and poses the right moral and ethical questions. With both large scale hacks and protests only having gotten bigger since 2012, We Are Legion remains incredibly timely viewing.

The Man with the Movie Camera (1929)

It’s easy to think that the world we live in now — with the arrival of drones, robots, AI and 3D printing — is seeing profound change than at virtually any other point in history. This documentary, the oldest on our list by more than half a century, will challenge that belief.

A highly experimental film shot directed, written and edited by the Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov, The Man with the Movie Camera sets out to depict what was then the modern city, freshly transformed by mechanization and electrification.

High on Marxist propaganda this film may be, but there’s something exhilarating about seeing a largely cynicism-free dream of human and machine working side by side to create something bigger out of individual pieces. You know when folks say “they don’t make them like this any more?” Well, they don’t make them like that any more.

All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace (2011)

A sprawling, 180-minute documentary that was screened in three separate parts, 2011’s All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace is the work of British filmmaker Adam Curtis. Far more of a personal nonfiction essay than a fly-on-the-wall documentary, its central premise is that computers have singularly failed to liberate humanity in the way their countercultural forefathers promised.

With that overarching argument, AWOBMOLG (the unwieldy title comes from a 1967 poem) veers from analyzing Ayn Rand’s influence on Silicon Valley to exploring the ecological dreams of Buckminster Fuller to cybernetics and evolution; somehow stitching them together into a cohesive whole.

You may or may not agree with everything this documentary says, but you’ll come away feeling like you’ve just read one of the most thought-provoking New Yorker articles in years.

We Live in Public (2009)

The notion that, to some degree, social media has made our private lives public isn’t really up for debate here in 2017. But the idea that this was possible — or desirable — wasn’t quite so clear in the 1990s. Step forward Josh Harris, one of the first dot-com millionaires, and a man described as “the greatest internet pioneer you’ve never heard of.”

An eccentric individual pitched somewhere between artist, entrepreneur, and troll, Harris managed to burn through his personal fortune by putting together weird social experiment projects like one in which 100 artists lived together in a webcam-filled underground bunker in New York, or a similar endeavor in which he and his girlfriend lived in a similarly surveilled apartment — with the world able to tune in to watch their every move.

Edited from more than 5,000 hours of footage, shot over 10 years, We Live in Public is a fascinating, funny, and sometimes disturbing document of dot-com era excess, which also manages to ask some probing questions about our connected world today.

Downloaded (2013)

This documentary, directed by Alex Winter, a.k.a. “Bill” from the Bill & Ted movies, tells the story of Napster and the rise of file-sharing services in the 1990s. It’s a slick production about an important chapter in internet history, with some impressive names among the interview list.

It may not have too many surprises if you followed this story closely at the time, but Downloaded is an intriguing enough tale to warrant a place on this list. Since it’s about the challenges of copyright in the age of the internet, it would go very well with the next documentary on our list…

The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz (2014)

The Internet’s Own Boy tells the story of Aaron Schwarz, a computer programmer and copyright activist who committed suicide after being charged with a maximum of $1 million in damages and 35 years in prison for downloading large numbers of academic journal articles to make them freely available.

Filmmaker Brian Knappenberger is firmly on Schwarz’ side, but it’s hard not to be when you hear about the extent to which Schwarz was hounded by the U.S. Justice Department.

Indie Game: The Movie (2012)

The second game-related documentary on our list, Indie Game focuses primarily on the independent game developers behind Super Meat Boy and Fez as they struggle to make their dream projects a reality.

If you’ve never dipped a toe into the world of gaming outside of the big AAA Call of Duty-style franchises, being introduced to the deeply personal world of indie gaming is like discovering the world of independent movies and alternative music (back when both labels meant something) for the first time. If you are familiar with indie gaming titles — either as a player or a creator — Indie Game presents a compellingly relatable take on a familiar story.

For All Mankind (1989)

If you’re like a lot of folks, you hear about a documentary concerning the Apollo mission and man landing on the moon and think a) what a spectacular achievement that was and b) I already know that story. That’s kind of the point in this instance. By now, footage of the moon landings is one of those things we’ve seen so many times that it loses some of its impact. Director Al Reinert pulled no punches when, in 1990, he brutally told one interviewer that the story has, “been covered and treated as news to the point where it bores everyone to tears.”

What makes For All Mankind so special was the discovery, by Reinert, of a massive archive of unseen NASA footage of the missions. Compiling beautiful celluloid footage from all six successful Apollo lunar landings, Reinert presents a documentary that (one imagines) captures the sheer majesty and transcendence of what space travel must feel like at its best. Oh, and there’s a wonderfully ethereal score by Brian Eno.

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