Archive for the ‘Power to the People’ Category

Friday, April 20th, 2007

Death of Proprietary Culture

The title is a snippet of the article entitled "Freeing the Mind: Free Software and the Death of Proprietary Culture" by Eben Moglen.  I highlight the second half of the title because I believe we tend to overlook the fact that the whole spirit of open source extends far beyond Linux, the GPL, and all the other software applications and activities.  It’s really more about information where ever it is and how no one has the right to restrict access to it.  It’s a huge message.  Read the article and I think you’ll be enlightened – as I definitely was.

Monday, April 16th, 2007

In Support of Sustainability, Part 2

Al Gore’s next ethical spectacle will take place on 7/7/07.  The event
has it’s conceptual roots in Live Aid, a cross-continent rock concert
held in 1985 to help raise funds and awareness about the famine in
Ethiopia.  This new event, 22 years later, is called Live Earth.  Live
Earth is a massive, 24-hour, multi-venue, global concert to raise
awareness of environmental issues and in particular those issues
related to climate change.

is truly an ethical spectacle, yet it is very different than the
spectacle of An Inconvenient Truth.  A rock concert, first of all, can
never be as didactic as a documentary film.  However, little in the
world is so deeply rooted in spirituality than music.  Whereas you’ll
never learn a whole lot from a music event, it will probably touch you
at a more fundamental level than a documentary ever could.  A music
event alone, however, doesn’t constitute spectacle.  But one on this
scale surely does.

Besides the largeness of the event and the
spiritual significance of music, there are other aspects of Live Earth
that are promising.  The event will be held in 7 continents on a date
represented by three sevens.  The significance of this seems entirely
manufactured, but the effect is as if there was some deeper meaning
than just dates and numbers.  There will be over 100 performers and,
judging by the marketing from Live Earth’s partner MSN (unfortunately), viewers will be able to watch any of the acts live on the internet.

upshot is we have a spiritual event of mythological proportions (has
there ever been anything so big?) where individuals get to participate
at their discretion from their own homes.  It’s nearly the perfect
synergy of myth, inclusiveness, and connectedness that a fully-realized
ethical spectacle calls for.  Perhaps this is the type of thing that
only someone like Al Gore can pull off, but in my search for more
spectacles in support of sustainability, I see the beginning other, more bottom-up movements that have the requisite mythological undertones,
promote inclusiveness and individual control, and advance
connectedness and sustainability.  I will discuss these movements next time.

Tuesday, April 10th, 2007

In Support of Sustainability, Part 1

Last week in Slate there was an article about a book called Dream, by
Stephen Duncombe, which looks at the
failings of the contemporary progressive movement. According to the
article, Duncombe argues that modern-day progressives need a
"spectacle" rooted in "story and myth,
fears and desire, imagination and fantasy."  Bush’s "Mission
Accomplished" aircraft carrier show is used as an example of
conservatives’ understanding of this need.  Similarly, progressives of
the past seem to
have understood this idea.  The author discusses Rosa Parks for
instance–how the act of disobeying a racist law had myth-like

Al Gore and his documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, are also mentioned
in the Slate article.  In a way, Al Gore’s personal story is similar to
hero myth–The underdog suffers a humiliating defeat and disappears
from the public eye for a
period of time, presumably to reflect and learn, and then returns to
share what he’s learned in the hope of helping the world.
His documentary is a true example of the type of spectacle Duncombe
describes.  The film juxtaposes Gore’s personal story with the story of
the planet.  The shared mythological undertones demonstrate the
connectedness of
the planet with human life and the uniqueness of humanity.  Yet, for
better or for worse, the film plays on our darker emotions such as
fear.  How powerful fear is!  A point reiterated by the chilling
spectacle of Gore raising himself up on
a lift to show us how carbon dioxide levels are literally off the
chart.  He shocks us with before and after pictures of receding
glaciers and then asks us to imagine what will happen if our sea levels
rise 20 feet.

Clearly, spectacle can be a
powerful way to promote whatever ideas one wishes to further, provided
that in some way the spectacle is tied to
mythology and our collective dreams.  Duncombe might call a spectacle
like one that promotes sustainability and environmentalism an ethical
spectacle, one that furthers inclusivity and openness as opposed to
hiding the truth, one that perhaps removes fear from the equation.

I sometimes feel a mythological and dreamlike connection to the
natural enviroment which I attribute to growing up in the foothills of
Adirondack Mountains so I feel there must be a better way to affect
change in the way we live without resorting to scare tactics.  Fear
seems to add fuel to the political fire for an issue that I would like
to see less politicized.  Perhaps the ends justifies the means, but I’m
looking for signs of a different kind of spectacle.

Monday, March 12th, 2007

Marketers Hate You

It’s ok, they hate me too.  I can tell that marketers hate us because
they are constantly attempting to distill whatever demographic we
belong to into simple slogans, product lines, and ad campaigns.  To
them we are merely consumers: giant wallets with tiny brains and no
free will; sheep, to be herded into groups and manipulated en masse.

Case in point is Calvin Klein’s new fragrance for hip twenty-year-olds called CK in2u, which I read about in the New York Times
last week.  CK in2u is the successor to the wildly successful CK-1
which was popular in the mid 90’s.  Calvin Klein is courting a
demographic they call the technosexual.  It’s a self-serving label.
Sex is easy to wrap up and sell.  Calvin Klein has access to beautiful
models and can capitalize on the implicit promise that if you use CK
in2u, you’ll get some.
According to the New York Times, "A typical line from the press
materials for CK in2u goes like this: ‘She likes how he blogs, her
texts turn him on. It’s intense. For right
now.’"  This is fantasy and the DIY generation, the "technosexuals",
won’t buy it.

savvy twenty-somethings are just too well informed for such an obvious
and insulting ad campaign.  They can learn about Neil Postman with a
quick search of Wikipedia and corporate viral ad
are old news.  They will not have their consent manufactured by ads
featuring gaunt teenage models.  They want to think, not to be thought

Mostly, though, they want control–control over the
product, the style, and the message.  This is something that we will
talk a lot about in this blog.  The technically savvy are all about
control.  It’s not about group or demographic ownership, but personal
ownership.  They blog because they want to get their voice out there.
They think they are unique.  Their community participation is bottom-up
whereas ad campaigns like that of CK in2u are top-down.

How you
open up a fragrance line, I don’t know.  I write software and in
software it’s easy (open source and public API’s for example).
However, one way to get started in both product categories is to be
less hostile towards the purchaser.  Treat them more like producers
than consumers.  Don’t distill their motivations into sex and only
sex.  Let them create their own real groups instead of joining some
make-believe idealized club.  Finally, don’t hate the people who you
want buying your products.  They know all the tricks and they can smell
the hatred a mile away.

Thursday, March 8th, 2007

“Revolutionary Spirit”

In the February 19, 1996 issue of Newsweek Steve Wozniak is quoted as saying:

" Our first computers were born not out of greed or ego but in the revolutionary spirit of helping common people rise above the most powerful institutions"

Great stuff.  And who were those "most powerful institutions"?  They were the mainframe and mini-computers vendors of the day – IBM, HP, Digital, Prime, Wang, Data General, Control Data, etc.  Most people don’t remember those days too well because the micro-computer (or PC as it came to be known) has insinuated itself into just about every part of our lives.  And in the same way, it’s hard to imagine a world bereft of all the innovation the PC-revolution sparked.  For example, can you really remember a world without spreadsheet applications or the browser?  All of which points to something I think about all the time.  Ten years from now, what will we look back on and say "how on Earth could we have lived without…[fill in appropriate invention here]"?  Revolutionary possibilities are all around us.  There are many "powerful institutions" that are holding up innovation.  The key is finding those most vulnerable and then doing something about it.  I think the spirit Wozniak describes is alive and well and there are plenty more revolutions to be had.

Wednesday, March 7th, 2007

Ain’t Democracy Grand

This blog is not about politics.  It is, in part, about the benefits of putting power in the hands of people to decide things for themselves.  This link with the slightly misleading title "Vermont Votes to Impeach Bush/Cheney" is a terrific example.  Where else on Earth could this happen but here?  I almost wrote – what other country on Earth would allow… – and then caught myself.  In America we are not ALLOWED our freedoms.  They are ours from birth.  We, the people, allow the government to administer the country.  Democracy is bottom up.  There are so many things in life where we’ve been trained to believe that certain things are "allowed" us when in reality the power is all ours to begin with.  Anyone who’s ever gardened knows what I’m talking about.  "You mean I’m not just stuck with the crap I can buy at the supermarket??"  We’ve just been brainwashed.  The power to take control of things in your life is yours (to take :) ).  And it’s addictive.

Thursday, March 1st, 2007

Apple Tempts the Fates

You have to love a company that is so full sure of itself that it can get up in public and say something like this:

"If we offer something that has
tremendous value, that is sort of this thing people didn’t have
in their consciousness — it was not imaginable — then I think
there’s a whole bunch of people that will pay $499, $599.”

From the Bloomberg article here.

Not in my conciousness?  Not imaginable?  It’s a cell phone for God’s sake.  Sure, it’s got some cool features but don’t try to tell me it won’t live or die based on it’s success at doing one thing – making phone calls.  That’s all people really want.  Forget the other fluff.  If it can’t do that one thing well, game over.

Is it inevitable that market power translates into unbearable hubris?  Or is it really just a reflection of who’s running the show?  Personally I think it’s the latter.  Quick, who’s the CEO of Proctor & Gamble?  Of course you have no idea.  Forget the fact that P&R have immense market power.  They’re a little more humble. 

Apple has come a long way over the past few years, cheered on by the weary, MS-oppressed masses (including me).  They used to be the radicals.  But now, their autocratic attitude is starting to feel very un-Apple.  Like Google, it they’re not careful, they’ll lose the prestige they’ve always enjoyed as the underdog.

Monday, February 26th, 2007

ARRL – Power to the People

I got my
ham radio license a few years ago (KC2JZR) and was surprised to find
myself joining a network of over 3 million people worldwide (700,000 in
the U.S. alone). I got my license because I am a geek. But what really
piqued my interest was the organization that supported me – the ARRL.
The American Radio Relay League is the voice of Amateur Radio (or ham
radio operators, "hams"). This not-for-profit group represents a
fascinating hybrid of DIY energy and enthusiasm working effectively
with big government, in this case the FCC. Here’s a snip from their website:

Today ARRL, with approximately 152,000 members, is the largest
organization of radio amateurs in the United States. The ARRL is a
not-for-profit organization that:
• promotes interest in Amateur Radio communications and experimentation
• represents US radio amateurs in legislative matters, and
• maintains fraternalism and a high standard of conduct among Amateur Radio operators.

And this isn’t some little outfit running on a shoestring budget:

At ARRL headquarters in the Hartford suburb of Newington, a staff
of 120 helps serve the needs of members. ARRL is also International
Secretariat for the International Amateur Radio Union, which is made up
of similar societies in 150 countries around the world.

If you visit the FCC’s website and look up Amateur Radio you find a
whole section on it. The hams of the world get serious respect. This is
from the FCC web site regarding the role of Amateur Radio:

• Promotion and enhancement of the Amateur Radio Service as a voluntary noncommercial public communications service.
• Continual advancement of the art of radio communication.
• Expansion of the reservoir of trained radio operators and electronic experts.
• Enhancement of international goodwill at the grass roots level.

This is a stunning example of not just the power of these "amateurs"
but how the U.S. government has encouraged, accommodated and cooperated
with the public in ways that most people don’t appreciate or even know
about. But it’s easy to find out more. Just check this out.  I can’t think of any other national, volunteer organization that has such systematic impact on things so important.

There is a critical issue facing us today, especially in the wake of
the September 11 terrorist attacks and the Katrina disaster in NOLA.
How much are we going to rely on government to take care of us and how
much are we going to do ourselves? Thomas Paine said in "Common Sense"
that "Society is produced by our wants, and government by wickedness",
and all too often over the past few days I’ve been feeling that
distinction. My confidence in government to do the "right thing" is at
an all time low. I know I’m not alone. The digitally enabled masses are
speaking up via blogs, SMS, forums, etc. and big media is paying
attention, alerting the public at large of the discussion. All this is
a good start. But it’s only that.

One of my themes on this blog is the power of DIY, not just as a way
to build things, but as a way to view the world, as a way to live. In a
way, if you had to categorize it, it’s sort of libertarian. But it’s
really more about control – over your life, over your world. In ceding
all control over our safety to the government we are, in effect,
forfeiting a huge chunk of our freedom. We expose ourselves to all
sorts of potential problems – big ones. So what do we do? I find the
existence of the ARRL enormously encouraging. Clearly, the public at
large can not just shoulder the burden of public safety, but I do think
that technology, designed creatively, distributed economically, and
used cooperatively with government can, and absolutely should, play a
key role in helping all of us sleep better at night. The ARRL is a
perfect example of this. I anticipate much more discussion in the
coming months and years as we try to deconstruct what happened in NOLA.
I’m hoping the ARRL gets the credit they deserve but more importantly,
I hope that it inspires our leaders to issue a call to arms. All of us
need to take more responsibility for our own, as well as our
communities’ safety. And I strongly believe technology can play a
crucial role.