Nothing we ever do is truly novel, no matter how much we convince ourselves it is. Faced with nearly any seemingly insurmountable problem, you can easily scare up comparable examples from the not-too-distant past.
You often find heroes who saw the darkness and then dedicated their lives to alerting everyone and future generations to a better way. We largely ignore those people, it seems.
But the systems that we have inherited were designed in certain ways. The internet, and computing in general, is an interesting example. The roots of computing go back to the eternal struggle between free-spirited hackers with long beards and men in suits who want to make profits.
Yet that struggle seems to have blossomed into something that encompasses our whole lives. Friendships maintained or forgotten. Money made or spent. Elections won and lost based on systems that we inherited and are seemingly unchangeable.
But what is so crazy is the fundamental building blocks of the internet were designed to avoid monopolization and manipulation. The system is built in a way that leans towards what I believe is a freer world, a place where things are shared instead of commodified. But the struggle between good and evil continues.
The tools of self-governance, of self-creation, the ability to control our own destiny- are being robbed of us by certain silicon valley entrepreneurs, scheming suits, and a gang of arrogant money hounds who treat human attention like the new oil.
The internet has evolved into a place where we have all accept pre-fab houses, presenting ourselves in Facebook blue, homogenized and consumable. Consumable first to corporations and advertisers, secondly to each other. But at best this an abnormal and new way for humans to interact and present ourselves to each other. At worst it is robbing us of something seemingly indefinable- our individuality, our ability to express ourselves, our ability to decide what we see and when.
It is hard to turn off a machine, no matter how crooked, when they have asked us to store our friends and family inside it.
The number of artists whose whole body of work, and not only that, but their connections to other artists and potential future income, all stored inside the machine. It is hard to feel all of this was done by accident.
The virtual world is remarkably more shapeable than the physical world. It feels no less real- and the creations we have made that we can experience and inhabit can easily be related to physical wonders like huge libraries or museums.
The internet was built with an idyllic vision where everyone could craft anything they wanted and give that, freely, to anyone else. The plumbing of the internet was built by dreamers, anarchists, and hackers. We have seen only a portion of the impact these ideas have had on the world, and already we are in awe. The world is already changing more quickly than we can comprehend.
Much of our current world ties back to the stew of hippies and hackers in California in the late 70s and early 80s that birthed much of the technology we use. Academics and college students and computer scientists bounced off each other and got a lot of things rolling in ways we still experience today.
“The e-mail list started at Stanford a decade ago, now connected to MIT, has gotten so big that it needs to be split into two: Dead-Heads, for people who only need to have the set lists and tour dates… and Dead-Flames… for the people who want to talk about everything. They burn through memes in a way that won’t become common to the rest of the world for almost a quarter century. Jesse Jarnow in “Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America”
We can barely understand the ability ideas have to spread from person to person now. The only thing we can relate it to is viruses– going viral. Ideas can spread like a cough, person to person, out of the control of any leader, director, or king. They can be a joke, or a dance, or a rhyme like they’ve been for thousands of years. Or they can be ideas like freedom, liberty, truths that powerful people don’t want told. We’ve seen the effects of those memes too.
Individual freedom, liberty, and the ability to express yourself to the world around you are embedded in the DNA of computing and the internet. At least for now.
But 200 years ago, to spread an idea far and wide, you had to travel by foot and tell people yourself. There were human limits to your impact. Maybe you came from the right family, the right race, had the right amount of money and could access a printing press, let alone the time to write. We lost out on a tremendous amount by not building a system where we could listen to anyone’s ideas. Systems kept the powerful in power and reinforced themselves.
I like living in a world where everyone has the ability to express themselves on the most powerful mechanism humans have ever created to do so. Computers – and the worldwide network we have built to tie them together – are such an amazing, world-changing thing that our human minds can barely comprehend the speed and completion with which our world has changed. And is changing. And will change.
We have direct access to all of that. We have the ability to harness some of the most advanced technology that not even the richest and most sophisticated have figured out what to do with. But there are a lot of people who want to monopolize that power for a variety of motives.
I like the idea of living in a world where everyone has hand-crafted their own house because I want to live on that block. I want to see the ways people express themselves. I want to visit those houses. I think the will of humanity in the absence of self-imposed scarcity bends towards goodness and beauty.
“It is quite clear that the society of open-source hackers is in fact a gift culture. Within it, there is no serious shortage of the ‘survival necessities’ – disk space, network bandwidth, computing power. Software is freely shared. This abundance creates a situation in which the only available measure of competitive success is reputation among one’s peers” Eric S. Raymond in “The Cathedral & The Bazaar”
There is definitely some privilege required to learn how to code. You need consistent access to a computer, electricity, the internet. You need time in your day, you need to have food in your belly. But compared with the effort required to get a message to 100 or 1,000 or a million people without a computer, it is easier than it ever has been to make an impact on the world. We will continue to see that impact us all in beautiful and terrible ways.
“Online communication has given rise to a new global commerce in ideas, information, and services. Because electronic messages readily cross territorial borders, and many online transactions have no necessary relationship to any particular physical location, existing geographically based legal systems have difficulty regulating this new phenomenon. This creates a new form of law– a law of cyberspace… Will this emerging cyberlaw provide ‘due process’? Will it, in other words, respect basic principles of fairness, as embodied in current legal doctrines?” David R. Johnson in “Due Process and Cyberjurisdiction” 1996
The only necessary right we have in our new digital world is to move on to new systems or create our own. We were given those with intention. But we will have to defend those rights.
Too often I think our natural instinct as citizens of particular pockets of the internet is to petition our feudal lords for the changes we want to see. We often forget we have the ability to create our own world, craft our own future to our liking. I suppose it is a hard lesson because it is so different from the reality we inhabit outside of the virtual world. But that it is why it is so interesting and powerful and worth defending.
But how do we do that?
How do we seize back the means of self-expression on this amazing network we’ve inherited and built together?
It requires sorting through a world of tools and services and seemingly-friendly fellow travelers and looking for those that share those core ideals. People who have pledged in one way or another to abide by those original shared goals. Or at least enough of them for us to work together. Sometimes referred to in shorthand as “The Hacker Ethic” or “Open Source” or “DIY” there are a set of ideals that help people create tools that can be bound together without sacrificing the ability to modify them or fix them or leave them altogether if you find a better tool later.
Little pockets of hackers exist on the internet solving their own problems– and yours too. They share them freely partially because it is the right thing to do, and because it’s easy, and because they share the hacker ethos.
The future lies with with those hackers and the kids that we teach those skills to.