So, lately, I have been traveling, a lot. I have flown so many times in the last 1.5 years but have barely collected any airline miles because I have traveled on all sorts of random carriers, following the cheap fares that I find on the net. I am bound on another trip tomorrow to yet another hacker
extravaganza being held in America’s oddest city, Las Vegas. This time, I will be driving across the blackness of the desert late tomorrow night to arrive in the flood of lights that is Vegas at dawn.
Whenever I fly though, I can’t help thinking about the experience as a way to reflect upon and learn about American society and culture. Maybe it has to do with the fact that since I fly cheap airlines, I end up flying through three random American cities, like Denver, Las Vegas, and Columbus to get to my one destination. Running madly across the airport to barely catch my connection gets me thinking about what we can learn about “America” via the experience of flying. I can’t really give justice to what you can derive from the experience of traveling across the sky in a small blog entry but here are some small tidbits.
So, when you first walk on to a plane, you have to pass first class, and I basically gawk at all the passengers because, well, not entirely because I am envious of the large, roomy seats, but because I nearly always count the number of males vs. females. Invariably, the males win out. Hmmm, the “gendering” of society can be read simply by walking through the first class section of most major US airlines.
Then, I head over to my seat and pretty much always whip out the Skymall magazine not because I am looking for some “neat” gadget for my pet or uncle but as part of my quest to understand the ways that middle class America is conceived of by our marketers. The Skymall magazine is this cultural artifact that strives for reaching out to this ideal-type, platonic form of an American middle class family unit and in the process also constructs this form. It asks: if we have a family that has everything (a suburban house, 2.3 healthy children, a stable, high paying corporate job, 1 dog and 1 cat), what sorts of stuff can make their lives even more comfortable, even seemingly more safe from life? One new item particularly blew my mind away on my last perusal of the magazine. It was this lie detector for using at work and at home. The online version does not in any way give justice to the print version where they suggest using it on your teenage daughter to see whether she really is babysitting or out with her friends. Here is part of the the text:
“So when your daughter calls you on your cell phone to tell you she’s babysitting for a neighbor, you’ll know if she’s out with her friends beyond curfew. You can also discover whether a salesman or business affiliate is telling you the truth..”
Like what the heck is this all about?
Ok, aside from the fact that it just seems inherently problematic that this ad and product emanates a vision of society in which the general, normal precondition between people is mistrust, this little gadget speaks a million trillions words about American culture and societal trends. Well, I have already mentioned the whole issue of mistrust, then there is generational conflict in which adults and kids have no basis for mutual respect and trust for each other, and then the rise of and creepy desire for surveillance where we can not only monitor movement but the depths of our emotional stances. Skymall and its stuff are there to make our existence in this mistrustful American landscape just slightly more comfortable and safe by providing us with this wonderful gradgetry. Maybe Skymall should at least be a little more honest in the ad and tell parents to use it for what they really think parents want to use it for: to make sure their daughters are not having sex or taking drugs.
Finally, there is the whole arena of “conversations” on planes. They generally take one of two forms. The “silent until 15 minutes before the plane lands” or the “I will tell you my life story though you are a total stranger” forms. There are on opposite ends of the same spectrum Judging from traveling in other countries and what other people have told me, these conversational modes are pretty common for Americans. But it is too late for me to dissect the modes of conversation on planes right now. I will leave this as food for thought. Oh and by the way, the “LCD” of the lie detector “displays 9 levels from ‘truth’ to ‘false statements,’ and 9 levels of stress.” Ahhhh, the 9 levels of truth…
Wohooo, I got my IL state tax refund, for the whopping amount of $8.48 (.14 cents of which were interest). Geez, not even enough to buy me a cd these days. But I have been listening to some really good music this weekend. I went to see Femi Kuti at the Fillmore and got to dance my little heart out. I thus broke out my Fela Kuti and Antibalas cd’s later in the weekend which were perfect for the mega-cleaning that went on in my room. And my roommate has opened me up to a great band God Speed You Black Emperor. I am listening to the cd “Lift your skinny fist like antennas to heaven” right now. It is an amazing cd, not to mention a great great name.
So, lately, I have been pretty obsessed about the ideas of a commons partially because that is how I like to think of the free software movement as it has significantly contributed to the creation of a technological commons or public repository of knowledge and I think has also revived the idea of a commons for society at large. Here is a seemingly good article, Reclaiming the Comons, on the importance of having a vibrant commons.
But back to free software… What
I find unique about the free software and open source commons that is that it has not been created or guaranteed by governmental, corporate, or academic institutions but has emerged out of the technical and ethical imperatives of a technological professional group. Free software can be seen as a relatively independent cultural space where professional activities and ethics can be freely exercised in such a way that has benefits for others than the professional group. It is possible to add professional groups to the repertoire of philanthropic institutions and activities. Clearly objections can be made about the supposed independence of the domain of open source; academic institutions such as Berkeley and MIT have historically played crucial roles in the development of key free software applications, the Internet where most development occurs would not be possible without government funding and private R& D, many free software developers have high paying jobs that give them the financial luxury to volunteer time, and corporations like I.B.M and Hewlett Packard have contributed significant funds to projects. Despite these and many others connections (which I don’t want to mystify as non significant), it is arguable that free software projects and goods do have a degree of independence from the institutions and social structures that give it different forms of underlying support. If HP files for chapter 11, Debian will still likely exist as a project. It is largely hackers as a collective group who mandate the technical and legal unfolding of software and its distribution. What if other professional groups had an independent domain by which to exercise their professional and ethical work as an ideal for philanthropy??
Though the open source movement is certainly not the first to cultivate and spread the idea of free or cheap computing for social empowerment, it is perhaps the first computer socio-technical movement that has reached a large enough critical mass that its software is in fact being deployed as a commons all around the world by governmental, non-profit, academic, and corporate bodies. Schools around the nation and the world have either adopted Linux as an alternative platform or are seriously considering its use to replace proprietary software.
In some instances, such as in the Portland School district, the local Linux User Group (LUG), PLUG, has played a pivotal role in organizing and facilitating the move from proprietary to open source software in schools. Thus, though open source development and to some degree activism largely occurs online, there is a very important grassroots, local level that is employing open source as a commons. Along with schools, governments in Latin America, Asia, and Europe have either to some degree adopted the use of open source software for government agencies or are seriously considering its adoption. Governmental use of open source software is an interesting inversion of traditional societal roles in which the government is the consumer of public goods as opposed to the producer of them.
Is a commons a form of philanthropy? It is certainly the case that the type of giving that results from a commons has substantial differences from more traditional forms of philanthropic giving. A commons is for anyone to take and use, often in ways that are unknown to the creators of a commons. Use does not require grant applications, goal specifications, or monetary awards. Much in the same way that hackers often hail freedom
One of the most consequential effects of the free software movement is that it has reawakened the idea of and the importance of a commons for our society. What free software has provided is a real live working model based out of a social movement of another distinct legal means by which to induce creativity, reward it, and protect knowledge within our society. One of the hallmarks of anthropology is to make visible the diversity of human socio-cultural interaction, organization, and expression which are too easily are erased by universalistic explanations for human behavior. An anthropological outlook can be used to make us more sensitive and aware of alternatives as well as open up our own cultural categories for scrutiny. Free software development and legal codes has thus among many other things acted as a form of anthropological critique by providing another viable means to knowledge production. The effects I would argue have been profound and are evident in the technical and non-technical projects (an nonprofits) that have burgeoned as a result of direct inspiration by the world of free software. There are a ton of projects out there, like Creative Commons that explicitly takes inspiration from the FSF and the copyleft. Time will tell whether projects like these will take a life of their own but it is good to see their birth…