Occupy Your Computer

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Nov 25, 2011 GMT
Bruce Byfield

As I write, many of the local Occupy movements are ending. They'll almost certainly be back, since the problems they address haven't been solved even slightly. Meanwhile, however, you might want to remind yourself just how radical an idea free technology and culture can be, and consider whether they should be part of the movements.

I make this statement partly because, while free technologies don't seem to have played a major role in most of the local Occupy movements (in fact, some have shown what I consider an appalling fondness for Apple products), free technology and culture seem to have helped to create the atmosphere from which the local movements grew. Environmentalism played an even larger role, but the movement's culture of collaboration would be familiar to anyone who makes a living in free technology or culture.

Too often, though, people in our communities lose sight of their own radicalism. Some just want to keep their noses down and code or document. For many more, though, familiarity makes us take the ideas we live with for granted. We are used to downloading the software we want when we need it, and using Creative Commons Licenses when we want to borrow content. We're used to doing what we want with our computers without smirking uneasily about the idea of piracy.

Being a Minority

What's easy to forget is that we and our friends and colleagues are a minority. Most people can't even conceive of what we do every day. If they are aware of our daily expectations, they've often picked up strange ideas about us -- ideas like we don't have desktop environments, and are poorly paid, for instance, or are all foaming at the lips whenever Microsoft is mentioned.

Tell them how we live, and the average person doesn't believe it. People are used to ceding control of their computers via EULAs, and fidgeting with registration and activation procedures before they can use their software. They're used to having their computers upgraded without their approval, and their activities phoning home. If challenged, they will say that such arrangements are more convenient, but mostly they just don't know that alternatives are possible.

Nor can you easily tell them. Partly, it takes a long time to explain the inconceivable. You need to explain not only concepts, but the concepts behind the concepts. Yet mostly, the problem is that almost nobody believes you. Either everyone is convinced that all computing is like the model they know, or they immediately start looking for the catch that they know must be there.

Moreover, if people do believe you, they hardly know where to start, because the world we occupy is complicated and frequently hostile to strangers. Mostly, they'll stay with what they know, problems and all, just because it's familiar.

All these things make evangelism for free technology and culture one of the hardest tasks you could hope to undertake. More than once, I've shied away from the effort myself, because the sheer amount of explanation required makes you risk being dismissed as an obsessive crank.

Challenging Technical Inequalities

However, despite these difficulties, explaining free technology and culture remains an important and urgent business. For one thing, access to computers, productivity software, and the Internet is starting to be a basic requirement for freedom of speech and access to information. Proprietary software interferes with this extension of basic rights, while free software enables it.

Just as importantly, the rise of new technologies and their uncritical acceptance raise new issues, ranging from the privacy issues of the cloud to restrictions on personal freedom through legislation like the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the United States to the international Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). Because of the lack of understanding and the deceit of such names, the majority of those opposing such problems are those involved in free technology and culture.

Admittedly, many of the most basic social equalities have no direct relation to technology and culture. Yet inequalities in these areas help to limit and perpetuate inequalities in society as well -- and most people hardly think of the fact at all.

If you've been around the community for any length of time, I'm saying nothing you haven't heard before. But, sometimes, a basic message is worth repeating because over-exposure makes us forget it.

For now, we seem to have lost our chance to add an important dimension to the Occupy movement. However, maybe when the Occupy movement begins another phase, some of us should consider getting involved, not just as private citizens, but as representatives of our communities and their values. We may be able to provide a perspective that nobody else can -- and one that is desperately needed for a better world.


  • FOSS is a gift

    FOSS is for everyone. This includes the Occupiers aka 99%ers. It is obvious that within their cornicopia of things to protest, they have traditionally targeted the 'usual suspects'. Their love of proprietary software, hardware, and OS were easy and readily accessable. I also caught one occupant trying to use a pay-as-you-go cellular service to do a bit of facial recognition. I bet he's a real Mcgyver in the trailer park. And I think: There go I but for the love of my FOSS. We, FOSSaurians, are not meant to beat the uninitiated over the head with our +7 swords of level 9 healing. You always, always, always, always, always, always, always, ad infinum.... catch more ants, for the antfarm, with honey than you do with a 9lb hammer. We have been given the knowledge to accept this gift. Should we not share it just as freely?
  • Re: Hackers are not henchmen of liberals

    You're a clown. "We produce, they consume. We create, they waste." Haha..that's funny. Not everyone thinks human beings are slime and society is full of blood-sucking leeches. The only thing YOU seem capable of creating is animosity and hot air!
  • Re: Hackers are not henchmen of liberals

    Well, you are entitled to your opinion, of course, although you seem less than willing to grant me mine. But you have heard of an opinion column, right?
  • Hackers are not henchmen of liberals

    With Occupy movements being basically stodges of liberals, frankly, I do not see how the Free Software at large would be linked to the cause of liberal oppression. Of course, if one possesses the brilliant mind of our bearded, rabidly child-hating leader, small contradictions like the fundamental opposition of freedom and oppression are trivial to resolve. But for the rest of us, the Occupiers are the most remote. We produce, they consume. We create, they waste. The whole article "Occupy Your Computer" is built on a false premise, proposed as an unquestionable axiom.
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