Web of Change – Kate’s session

I was fortunate to be able to run an open session at Web of Change. I was hoping to gather together a group of hardcore geeks working on free software projects, or on any tech projects, oriented to progressive social change. I was interested to hear the shit, from the source. This is really a crucial aspect of my research. I think that the theory is important. It is necessary to think about things from a broader perspective – like what we’re doing and where we’re going as a society; like what the fuck is wrong, and why (and how) we should change things.

The guys (and yes, it was all guys, as per) who attended my session were really interesting. No shock there, but the other commonality they shared was a desire to “do good”. Only one was involved in the activist work I typically study (Guamanian, an original Indymedia hack, from IMC Victoria). But it was fascinating to hear their take on my take on things. They were very generous in tolerating my non-geekiness, and the audacity I show in wanting to scrutinize them for academic purposes.

I gave my spiel on what I think tech activism is, its history, and how it imbricates with the global justice movement. I am realizing with increasing despondence that this movement is not on the radar of many people, and the geeks at Web of Change are no different. I had a chat w/Guamanian a.k.a. Dan Bashaw after, a sort of session debriefing, and he agreed that the broader open source community is not just unconcerned with this sort of activism – they are unaware of it. That’s a bit of a nasty shock. But the cats in this session displayed a genuine interest in the topic, which was pleasantly surprising. Dan suggested that probably the only way the tech activist community communicates with the much wider open source community is through its code. That is, not through its guiding philosophy or self-professed ideology, but through the programs that have legs beyond specific activist projects and translate into broader use.

Dan made the very astute observation that what activists learned in the global justice/anti-globalization movement has not translated or crossed over into the more institutional setting of NGOs and non-profits. Many of the activists at Web of Change work in this sector – the professional “social change” sector. In sessions, there has been virtually no discussion of this very major, relatively recent wave of social justice activism – the event-centred, radically democratic, often anti-capitalist activism which earned much (negative, un-analytical, sensational) media coverage from 1999 till the outbreak of the Iraq war. It’s like Seattle et al. never happened for most of the folks here, or if it did, it was but a blip on their activist radar. As Dan said, the only mention of the word “anarchism” was in the hot tub, under the cover of night. Today, someone did call out “spokescouncil” when we were discussing tools for organizing. The facilitator had never heard of it, and asked for a definition. The spokescouncil, as you may know, was a key mode of on-the-spot group decision-making used in the middle of major actions, such as N30, A16, OAS, G8, FTAA etc. etc.

Some of the central points that arose from my session, in no particular order, were:

1. Directly supporting or engaging in social justice issues is important, but so is the broader context within which this happens e.g. the work around privacy done by the Electronic Freedom Frontier; the percolating debate around net neutrality; it is possible to develop code in the spirit of the General Public Licence, if not the letter.

2. Values that inform the free software movement – volunteerism, openness, collaboration, peer review – predate this movement and extend beyond it. The philosophy of free software informs progressive ways to make change, to take power from corporations and to create a more egalitarian society.

3. Open source is an immature movement; it’s relatively new in the public and corporate consciousness. Technical developments remain complex, developer-focused in a way that makes them unmanageable by users. The o.s. community is insular and hostile to critique, despite the fact that usability, upgrading and documentation “suck”. If discussion remains healthy and open [no pun intended, surely – ed.], these problems will be solved.

4. People generally have a hard time solving complex problems collaboratively. You can’t make progress solely by having millions of people talk to each other [e.g. social software phenomenon]; you have to structure the problem… The current tools we have, for example, blogging software, tend to polarize issues into Left-Right, progressive-fundamentalist etc. We need to expose this problem, make it more visible. We need more than just fond memories of conversation.

5. Although the open source community doesn’t necessarily identify with the politics of the free software movement, or embrace Richard Stallman’s notions of free – either in the anarchist or libertarian sense – there’s more commonality between the two than appears at first glance. The working values are identical; for people engaged in software development there is no distinction.

6. There’s a fundamental problem w/current technologies connecting everyone to everything. Everyone has a certain reservoir of good will, to causes not affecting their own life; there’s a personal reservoir and collective global reservoir. Before the internet, only the local community would tap into the reservoir; now there’s a gazillion causes, and the ones who get most attention are ones who manipulate technologies best.

7. You need a theory of change; you build that process [of change] out of short term targets. You need a theory that connects what you to a vision of the world you want to see. The ongoing goal is to make a world that operates by different means.

8. Open source vs. free software: In the short term, short term, day to day, it doesn’t matter [about the philosophy of free software], as long as you have access to source code. But if one of things you want to change in world is huge corporate power patents, the reduction of commons, the privatization of everything, it makes a huge difference. What that does [free software development] is create a new world, so that years from now, you don’t have companies like MS that totally dominate the industry. When we talk about the tools of oppressor, are we feeding into system or are we creating a new system? It’s important to think about in terms of our goal? If, as a developers, we’re thinking in terms of what can we do to create a commons and ensure t hat commons sticks around, free software is extremely important.

Hot damn, that’s enough of that (for now)!

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