Disrupt the mainstream

January 29, 2013 | 1 comment

Anonymous contre Acta à Rouen

“Mainstream culture,” as a concept, needs to die.

A little pre-history. The Diamond Sutra, a sacred Buddhist text and the world’s oldest surviving printed book, was produced in China in 868 AD. It took another couple of hundred years before moveable type was invented, and another four hundred years for the printing press to be invented. Almost six hundred years after the first printed book was created, it became possible to mass produce literature. Two hundred years after that, the first newspapers began to appear, but they didn’t reach large circulations for another two hundred years – a thousand years after the first book.

Because of the advances in the printing press that allowed for larger circulations, newspapers could be distributed over a much larger geographic area. Prior to that, they had mostly existed in communities, where the publishers were easily reached. An unintended side effect of wider distribution was that this feedback loop was eroded. Newspapers became a one-way medium; a trend that continued with the invention of newsreels, radio broadcasting, and the television. Almost simultaneously, manufacturing techniques improved to allow for mass-market products made out of new materials like plastics.

The separation wasn’t clean. Because of its capacity to reach large audiences quickly, both government and business had interests in the media that went well beyond (while embracing) traditional advertising. They underwrote content, leaned on the companies who produced it, censored both explicitly and implicitly, and created a media environment that sold not just products and ideas, but a way to live your life. More than ever before, there was a wrong way and a right way. There was a mainstream, and then there were niche interests. This had always been true to an extent, but the main route for lifestyle propaganda had previously been churches, who fearfully controlled the means of communication. In the modern age, the media itself began to take the place of religion. (Think about the semantics of the phrase “mass culture” for a second.) Business and government had a direct channel to get their messages to the people. At the time, this seemed like a liberation.

It wasn’t a liberation compared to what came next. The beginnings of the Internet showed up in 1969, not at all coincidentally during the peak of the counterculture movement in the sixties – the first cultural movement to challenge the mass-market status quo. Usenet showed up ten years later, allowing anyone to participate in semi-public discussions. Ten years after that, Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web. Ten years after that, Napster was allowing anyone to trade music. A decade later, mass-market publishing was in free-fall.

For ordinary people, the utility of mass culture was coming to an end. Information was freely available without the involvement of businesses, governments or churches – both to consume and to produce. Anyone could publish, without anyone’s permission, no matter who or what they worshiped, where they had gone to school or how much money they had in their bank accounts. There were no corporate policies dictating who could be heard, and no slush piles where ideas that didn’t fit pre-defined marketing templates could languish. It was a free-for-all. Free as in speech.

In the middle ages, the church decried texts that defied its authority, often sentencing authors to death. In the 21st century we’re a little more laid back, but it’s nonetheless predictable that corners of the mass media, sensing that it’s under threat, have been arguing that Internet content is less reliable, or shady, even, contrary to the views held by the public. Meanwhile, proposed legislation like SOPA and PIPA and the Communications Decency Act were transparently aimed at neutering the new medium, and were often sponsored by the media companies themselves. (Wiser corners of both business and government have gone another way, and are simply buying these new media outlets.) Even now, opposition to SOPA is spun as a tech company triumph, while the truth is more subversive: the Internet is a grass-roots people connector, and it was the people who spoke in defense of their free speech.

Just as the media had fragmented from a few large organizations to something that every single person in the developed world could participate in, manufacturing is currently enduring the same kind of shock that publishing experienced. Sites like Kickstarter are flying in the face of traditional manufacturing processes, and allowing anyone to begin making products.

Mainstream culture was a construct. It was created partially by accident, because we were all consuming the same products and the same media, and partially on purpose, because people who conform to a set of ideals make better consumers from the manufacturers’ point of view and better citizens from government’s point of view. Once upon a time, it improved most of our lives through new manufacturing techniques and distribution models. In a world where this is no longer necessary, however, this imposed conformity is a kind of oppression. One need only look at the prevailing American ideals of strength over intellect, wealth over integrity, or the dismissal of “special interests”, to see a kind of fascism at work.

We’re all special interests. Humanity is beautiful because we’re all so different. We have dreams, ideals, values, goals and loves, and for each of us, down to a person, they’re all slightly different. That’s why democracy is so great – or at least, has the potential to be so great – and why freedom of speech is so important. We create a better society, and better lives for all of us, by embracing those differences and letting them form a patchwork, building something bigger together than the sum of all of us. Different ideas, cultural contexts, sexualities, abilities, preferences, characteristics, likes and dislikes; all of these are complementary as part of a bigger whole. The technology we build is there only to make our collective lives better; it doesn’t exist for itself, or so that we can make a profit. We’re building to progress. Technology is subversive, and always has been, because it empowers the previously unempowered. With the Internet, the time for enforced values has passed; we can all have a voice, and we can all have a media that serves us for who we really are. Ideas can and should be freely exchanged. People can and should be free to be themselves.

The concept of mainstream culture needs to become obsolete. That’s not to say that all the things in it can’t live on, enjoyed by audiences, or that the people who make their livings creating it can’t apply their skills to make new things for different kinds of people. That’s the point: it takes all sorts.

Photo: Anonymous contre Acta à Rouen by Frédéric Bisson, released under a Creative Commons license.

Aaron’s army

January 24, 2013 | Leave a comment

This speech, in honor of Aaron Swartz, pretty much sums up why I work on the web. This is why it’s worthwhile.

Aaron was part of an army of citizens that believes democracy only works when the citizenry are informed, when we know about our rights—and our obligations. An army that believes we must make justice and knowledge available to all—not just the well born or those that have grabbed the reigns of power—so that we may govern ourselves more wisely.

He was part of an army of citizens that rejects kings and generals and believes in rough consensus and running code.

[...] Aaron Swartz was not a criminal, he was a citizen, and he was a brave soldier in a war which continues today, a war in which corrupt and venal profiteers try to steal and hoard and starve our public domain for their own private gain.

Read the full text of the speech over here. It was given as part of a memorial for Aaron Swartz at the Internet Archive tonight.

Which side are you on?

January 21, 2013 | 1 comment

Woodcraft FolkI grew up in a culture of counterculture politics. My parents met in Berkeley during the early seventies, which should tell you pretty much everything you need to know; they were, separately and together, involved in Vietnam protests, equal economic and political rights and liberties, tenants’ rights, and the environmental activities around Peoples’ Park. It’s partially in tribute to them that I, now, have settled in Berkeley myself, after a lifetime growing up in Britain. It still confounds me that it’s considered impolite to talk about politics in some circles, because growing up, it was impolite to not. Although I’m on a more capitalist trajectory, seeing the practical need to earn money as a form of self-protection and freedom, when push comes to shove I’m behind modern activist politics completely. These movements are not necessarily related, but I broadly support Occupy, WikiLeaks and Anonymous; I regularly donate (albeit relatively modest sums) to the EFF, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Planned Parenthood and the ACLU.

My politics often inform the projects I work on. Elgg was originally an angry response to the license fees and terms imposed by educational software, which siphons huge amounts of public money away from teaching. I became a part of latakoo because of its social mission to support journalism. I’m proud of both, but there’s no denying that both are commercial businesses, with investors and shareholders; a far cry from direct action.

In fact, publicly, to my shame, I’ve mostly been quiet. So have most of us.

On Friday, I attended an event for Internet Freedom Day, celebrating a year since SOPA was struck down, and also memorializing Aaron Swartz, who had a lot to do with that victory. One of the attendees was Peter Eckersley, the Technology Projects Director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who stood on a chair, gave a beautiful speech, and then called the Internet community to action: why are so many Americans, per capita, in prison? The problems of Aaron Swartz’s specific case are numerous, but isn’t this the larger problem? He suggested that this is the problem that Aaron would have preferred us to tackle.

And why can’t we, as a community, tackle this problem? Sure, it’s not specifically a technical problem. But the technology community can certainly help find a solution. We can use big data analysis to look at case reports, determine trends and potentially uncover problems. We can build systems to create better reporting of miscarriages of justice. And we can accept that the technology world is well-connected, wealthy and well-educated, and can make an enormous impact on any social issue if it chooses to. There are network effects to activism, and the tech community has strength in numbers.

This is exciting to me. I believe that activists like Aaron – and the thousands of likeminded people that we’ve never heard of – are extraordinarily brave, and prescient. I do think the tech sector is about to be more political, and I intend to lend my support, my skills and my momentum wherever it is needed. It’s an exciting time for all of us. It’s time for each of us to ask ourselves: do we want to change the world, really, on a societal level – or not?

Quiet hero

January 17, 2013 | 1 comment

Visiting Ft CollinsThe geniuses, the nonconformists, the hackers, writers, lovers, activists and revolutionaries. Those should be our heroes. Aaron Swartz was someone to look up to.

I didn’t know Aaron, but know plenty of people who did. The memories of him, his life and work all paint a humanist picture of someone who understood what was right, and was brave enough to let that sense of justice and humanity run all the way to the core of what he did. Had he been alive in the 1960s, he would have been working for justice in the framework of the time. Instead, he was alive in the Internet era, and he hacked. And then he was hounded, both by the government and his own demons, to the point where he felt he had to take his own life.

The promise of the Internet age is to remove gatekeepers, provide information equality and empower anyone to be informed. Academic journals have long been an injustice: expensive paid-for periodicals that are baked into the academic system, so that your work must be published there in order for it to be generally accepted as valid. Those results are then locked up behind those paywalls, even when the work itself has been paid for with public money. Aaron downloaded over four million of these documents from JSTOR, an academic journal archive. I believe this act of civil disobedience was morally outstanding. Whatever his plans for the documents (he never released them), simply the act of accessing them without permission was strong movement in the right direction. That information should be free. That information should be all of ours.

Under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the US government was going to send Aaron to prison for 50 years.

Of course, JSTOR, and the ridiculous prosecution that followed, didn’t happen in a vacuum. Aaron already had some major victories under his belt. Two years previously, he had downloaded documents from PACER, the court records system that stored court proceedings (which, like all US government documents, are free of copyright) in a non-free, hard-to-use database. Aaron grabbed 20% of the entire database using a free trial pilot at 17 public libraries. He was also at the forefront of the fight against SOPA, the draconian copyright act that threatened the Internet itself – a story that is best told by Aaron himself in his own eloquent words. In short, it is no wonder the government wanted this troublemaker locked away.

And so, he is no longer with us.

One obvious concern is that of his suicide itself. Every suicide is a waste, and the loss that the community feels is nothing compared to that of his family and friends. Men are 5x more likely to take their own lives; those with high IQs are also more likely. Those are the demographics of the hacker community. Blue Hackers is one site that deals with this; for more, you should read this post by Evan Prodromou. If you are having suicidal thoughts, please talk to someone.

Returning to the law, another immediate reaction is that the legislation that he was prosecuted under, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), should be revamped. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has pursued this, suggesting that:

It’s time for Congress to amend the CFAA to clarify what counts as access “without authorization” and what doesn’t. This will help ensure prosecutors can’t use the law to bring arbitary cases against people they simply don’t like.

Some progress is being made: Rep Zoe Lofgren, the Representative for the Congressional district that includes San Jose, has introduced “Aaron’s Law” to change the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which (among other things) would no longer make it a felony to break the terms and conditions of a website. If you are a US voter, you should contact your representatives in support of this bill. Update: Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) has sent a letter to the Attorney General raising concerns about the conduct of the Justice Department in Aaron’s case.

I think, too, that there’s a larger battle to do with the Internet and information freedom. There’s a line to be drawn. Aaron was a hero, who made a measurable impact on modern freedom of speech through peaceful means. Dave Winer suggested “retiring his number”, in reference to the practice of retiring famous baseball players’ numbers in memorial. I’d like to think, though, that we should be following his example. Aaron was among the most visible of a new kind of activist, who saw the Internet as something much bigger than just a new way to make money. He saw it as freedom, and expression. He saw it as people. He was working for us.

It’s the least we can do to carry on his fight.

Aaron Swartz’s memorial is on Saturday, January 19, 2013, in New York City.

Photo: Visiting Ft Collins by Quinn Norton, released under a Creative Commons license.

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