At the Wizard of OS conference in Berlin, where I spent the weekend, I learned many things. Some things were about the wealth of networks, some others were about the Read-Write culture. These things came with fancy Powerpoint slides and speeches delivered from a stage by people with a lot of good ideas — and a lot of influence. Some things, presented on a smaller stage, challenged me with new ways of thinking about networks — of people, machines, code, images, and radio waves. The work of Simon Yuill stands out here, as does the creative “play” of my friends at Hive Networks. Others, like the talks by Onno Purbo, Macolm McDowell, and Bob Horovitz, braided together concepts old and new, creating the kind of thread that links actions like building a WiFi antenna out of a wok with careful advocacy for open radio spectrum at the international policy level.
But mostly I learned things at the picnic table. Between the big shiny venue where Lessig, Benkler and the other big names peeked out from under the lights, and the smaller hall where folks discussed everything from new copyright laws for digitally traded music to the “future of open-source software”, yellow umbrellas sheltered picnic tables, provided power for way too many laptops, and hosted experiments, late-night meetings, conversations, and chance meetings. At the picnic table we said, “Hey, do you two know each other? You should talk! And ten minutes later the two were four, and eight, and there was a meeting, and a list of things to do, and a volunteer project manager.
The picnic table is the antithesis of the boardroom, of the presentation room in the university department. No one makes you sit there, and you can leave when you want. You can ask dumb questions, or watch videos on your laptop, or produce the most fabulous DJ mix ever, or fall asleep listening to people debate whether network routing protocols should insist on centralization or whether they should promote a radical decentralization of a network . . . “and then”, someone says as I dozed, “we could do away with Internet Protocol all together”
The picnic table is the centre of radicalism, of the potential for innovation. It is, in short, the third place, reinterpreted in the age of open-source.
This picnic table, this culture of action, of experimentation, of using artistic practice and creative hacking as “proof-of-concept” that the networks we use to communicate don’t only have to be how they are, and might be able to be combined together to make the world (at least in some terms) a more just and beautiful place, is still such a privileged space. It’s taken me two years of listening at picnic table and barstools and in engineering lecture halls and in basements and living rooms, two years of listening and watching, writing notes and trying to understand what this box, this cable, this hardware, this dizzying rush of code across a screen, this invisible network might mean. Now I can sit at the picnic table and understand. I can take the ideas parcelled out in all the formal settings and make them make sense. I can make the link between politics and art and code. But just barely.
How do we get more people at the picnic table? Does it have to take two years to get there? If the issues are as important as the speeches inside the lecture halls seem to indicate, then there’s more reason to be outside trying to make them live. If not, the conversations at the picnic table will turn around themselves. It’s okay if the technological utopia doesn’t work out as planned. History says that it never has. But if the potential to make ANY kind of social change requires a “degree in Pointless Computer Physics” to happen, the Revolution is through before it’s really started.
NOTE: This is a comment from Mike (mtl3p) that accidentally got rejected from the last entry. But it fits well with this one too. Thanks Mike! END NOTE
Thanks for posting what you’re thinking about. I like that you’re
working though this with a different lense than Tracey or I.
My one comment is in response to the concept of wifi being “developped
from below”. Its funny – I can understand people looking at ISF as
grassroots and has succeeding because of “bottom-up” or people-power
type stuff. But mostly I don’t feel that way. I feel that these
people are technical experts. Our knowledge is power and our ways of
collaboration as arbitrary and byzatine as any other way of working. I
feel sometimes that we are using our power + expertise to impose
infrastructure on people. So the idea of “developped from below” just
becuase for the most part we are not in traditional positions of
power, doesn’t seem right. Hope that’s relevant!
see you soon! 🙂
Alison suggested that i post my comments 🙂
Cubism, surrealism, situationism, postmodernism, the New Wave in Cinema, are not things for everybody and to barely understand them, we do need a degree in pointeless arts and more cultural capital that most people can even think of. Most of people agree that these cultural movements are not accessible, but nobody deny that they contribute to the way everybody is seeing the world. But the first critic we generally give to free software (or technology) is that they are not for the masses, as if the “user-friendliness” dimension was the most important, if not the only dimension of technology that takes part in the creation of reality. Again, what we expect from technicians, is to create tools, not sense.
I think open source is about keeping open the “sublime” moment, when technology and culture are simultanously constructed. Free software is about free expression. With its elitist component.
Small extract from my thesis, strongly inspired by Simondon…
“Les objets techniques, contrairement
Picnic Table Ethics
As a proud member of the picnic table club, I would like to add some picnic table mentality into the equation.
The Woz4 conference will be judged by what it produces which seem to me to fall into two possible categories: to facilitate the propagation of the current model(s) or to enable a more radical approach that involves creating a new model that is pragmatic, simple and requires lots of…serious playing. The current model hinges around centralised management in which the members of the created community are subjected to a set of imposed rules and restrictions. Don’t like the current set of rules and restrictions from the dirty world of the corporate? Fine – then make up your own. But they are still a set of rules that a community has to accept. This brings about a murky ocean of legal issues – copyright, copyleft, copyfight, copyblah, copywha’ever. If the participants of the conference were getting confused as to which legal approach they should take, then pity the humble network user – (ie member of a community who is probably a real human being) who doesn’t stand a cat-in-hell’s chance of deciphering the problem. May I cynically question the motives of those who deploy “independent” community networks? Is it for some altruistic crusade to enhance the lives of mankind? Hmmm, perhaps I’ll shut up instead.
Enter last week’s picnic table where toys were built and blue sky thinking was in abundance, under a suitably big blue beautiful sky. Consider a member of a community who goes down the street to talk to a neighbour. Do they enter into a brief preliminary chat about their own legal rights of the proposed chat? Do they arrange a prenuptial before talking about the weather? No – they have a conversation. They both take responsibility for what they say and engage in a liberal flow of words and sentiments. The same thing should and could take place in network communities – an electronic conversation inside a private network which is decentralised, self governing and self propagating. If this requires re-writing the IP stack then why the hell not – there’s plenty of time after tea.
All the toys do is demonstrate that electronic conversations can be child’s play, which encourages participation by engagement. It’s about creating a community where people contribute without the expectation of reward. One thing I heard last week was someone whittering on about being paid for blogging. Call me old fashioned, but isn’t a blog a means of self expression to be consumed and debated by whoever wishes to participate? But let’s not stop at blogging, it can be expanded to create a flow of true bi-directional media that can encompass your text, sounds, movies, and even software. These electronic conversations will define the community itself, thereby creating an environment in which education, ambition, collaboration and inspiration are in abundance. This is my understanding of a community – an environment in place to serve a collective of individuals through cooperation. Communities should define the network, not be defined by them.
Now I’m putting the soap box away as I have far too much playing to be getting on with.
I can understand finally what is this special culture of action called picnic table ! Thanks Alison.