Some Stuff I’m Thankful For

It’s customary at this time of year to take stock of all the things we’re thankful for. Although like most other people I’ve got plenty of good things in my own life that I don’t appreciate nearly as much as I should, that kind of personal material about other people doesn’t really hold much interest for most of us.

But putting on my columnist hat, I see a lot of things of general political and economic interest that give me reason for gratitude. Just following the news, I frequently find myself humming that line from Cat Stevens:  “I’ve been smiling lately, thinking about the good things to come …”

Since Orwell (at least), a recurring theme in speculative fiction is that the technofascists will take advantage of new technologies to put society under total lockdown and transform our lives into authoritarian hells. Fortunately, the forces of freedom are a lot more creative and efficient in making use of technological possibilities than are the forces of authoritarianism.

Everywhere we look, we see new technological developments, new ways of organizing ourselves, to cooperate with one another and secure livelihoods outside the controlling frameworks of the state and the corporation.

In the past year Wikileaks has emerged as a leading example of the potential for decentralized information warfare against large organizations. Wikileaks has released caches of sensitive and embarrassing official documents on Iraq and Afghanistan that dwarf the Pentagon Papers. It’s a distributed network, with servers in numerous countries, so no single government can shut it down.

More generally, we see a proliferation of whistleblowing and “culture jamming” activities on the Internet.  The communications media, in the broadcast age, were dominated by a handful of giant gatekeeping organizations.  The only time the internal workings of one large organization (like the Pentagon) were exposed to the public was when the gatekeepers at another large organization (like the Washington Post or CBS News) decided exposing them was in their own interest.

No more. This is the network age, baby. Three billion people have a CBS News on their desktop or phone. We can talk, and they can’t shut us up.

Taco Bell has been fought to a standstill by the Imolakee Indian Workers, Wal-Mart has encountered the Wal-Mart Workers’ Association, and the TSA is just now making its first acquaintance with WeWontFly.com.

The file-sharing movement has also grown in the past year, further obsolescing the business models of the Copyright Nazis at the RIAA and MPAA. The same thing is happening to the eBook, as Kindle DRM is hacked. And thanks to encryption and proxies, their threats of punishment are increasingly laughable.

If you work in the information and cultural fields, you probably find that you can produce better quality work at home using free desktop or browser-based software than you can at work using expensive proprietary “productivity software” (and with a boss demanding status reports).

Even though the micromanufacturing movement is in its very early stages, a garage equipped with homebrew digitally controlled machine tools can do most of what once required a mass-production factory — at a cost two orders of magnitude cheaper. We’re now seeing a reversal of the technological shift that brought about the concentration of economic power and the predominance of wage employment two centuries ago: A shift from expensive machines affordable only by large organizations, back to general-purpose craft tools affordable by individual workers.

Projects like Open Source Ecology are rapidly expanding the range of cheaply built tools for the garage factory, while 100kGarages is continuing its pioneering efforts in networked micromanufacturing.  We’re approaching a time when most of the stuff we consume can be produced in a microfactory with under $10k worth of tools, using open-source digital designs, and marketed to the surrounding neighborhood.  When the cost of a factory is three months’ wage, “how ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm?”

Daniel Suarez, in his science fiction novels Daemon and Freedom, described a society of decentralized local economies, based on micromanufacturing technology and intensive agriculture and linked together by darknets, functioning off the grid.  Now asymmetric warfare specialist John Robb  is anticipating a real-world version of it (“Completely New Economies as a Software Service,” Global Guerrillas, Nov. 4), with resilient communities made up of producers and consumers linked by opt-in economic networks governed by software-based rules.

In area after area of life — covering more and more of the goods and services we depend on — new technology is giving individuals and small groups capabilities previously only within the reach of bureaucratic hierarchies with billions in capitalization. For a growing share of our needs, the giant organizations that used to control our lives are finding that we don’t need them any more.

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