Let Freedom Ping

by Doc Searls

From the cowardice that shrinks from new truth,
From the laziness that is content with half-truths,
From the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth,
O God of Truth, deliver us.

  —Source Unknown

I can't stand listening to Ralph Nader. His rap resonates with a lot of people, but for me the guy is strumming on a brick.

See, I love business. And I love markets, which are the social environments of business. They're fascinating to me, especially right now, when the sociology of business is changing so rapidly. Many of those changes start with the sociology of software—most notably the Free Software and Open Source movements. That makes business really interesting right now.

But Ralph hates business. Ever since he made consumer advocate a job title and became its permanent exemplar, he's been out to protect consumers from producers, no matter what.

Pick any big business and Ralph has a beef with its producers. Take air travel, for example. Since airline deregulation, a system built primarily to serve the world's upper business castes has been transformed into a bus system for everybody. As affordable transportation, a coach seat from New York to Chicago on American Airlines today is about the same price as it was on Greyhound in 1960.

Considering what it's asked to do—transport millions of people millions of miles at great altitudes at explosive speeds in fuel-engorged metal contraptions between airports built to handle far less traffic, every day, and do it while killing people at a rate far lower than automobiles—the airline industry delivers a service that routinizes the miraculous on a grand scale.

But, it has problems. There are lost bags, late arrivals, suspicious cancellations, bad food, stale air...all the stuff comedians have been joking about for generations. So comes the question: What do we do about all those problems?

Well, it depends on whether “we” are the government or the market. Ralph thinks We the People means We the Government. So do most of your basic Democrats. Your basic Republicans think We the People means We the Market. So Democrats like solving problems with Big Government while Republicans like solving problems with big market.

The problem is that neither side has ever seen a big market in which there has been much balance of power between supply and demand. Supply has pretty much controlled demand ever since Industry won the Industrial Revolution. That's why those of us who listened in history class remember a little something about James Watt's steam engine, James Hargreaves' spinning jenny and Eli Whitney's cotton gin, while we remember zip about the angry losers who broke into Hargreaves' home in 1768 and smashed twenty of his jennies. On the road of history, those guys were pavement.

We do remember something about the Luddites.

Here's some context from the French historian Elie Halevy, who wrote the six-volume History of the English People in the Nineteenth Century . In the first volume, originally published in 1913, he writes: “The equilibrium of society was overthrown to the detriment of the country districts, and to the advantage of the towns which were rapidly increasingly both in number and in size.”

Production, Halevy notes, changed from a local and artisan-based system to a centralized factory-based system, requiring workers and their families to abandon their rural homes and move to the cities and towns surrounding the new factories. This was no abstraction. It was the relocation and enslavement of a defeated people: “In these vast urban masses and in the manufacturing districts surrounding them the established social fabric was completely shattered.”

Luddites were craftspeople who refused to admit defeat. “A movement of insurrection on a large scale was organized in 1811,” Halevy writes:

For two years the Luddites, as these revolted workmen were called, smashed (knitting) frames by the hundred, pillaged houses, and assaulted or killed obnoxious persons. The agitation spread to the neighboring districts and caused panic throughout the length and breadth of England. Cobbett extolled the Radicalism of Nottingham; Byron sang the praises of the Luddites.

So does The Working Class Encyclopedia (http://hammer.prohosting.com/~penz/encycl/), but with a different spin:

The original Luddites operated in the Midland counties of England in 1811 and 1812. They did not roam the country, destroying any machine they found, as popular belief has it. They did their research and attacked only the looms belonging to scab Weavers who undercut the price of Handweavers. Often looms belonging to different Weavers were set up in the same room within a factory. The looms of fair-priced Weavers were left untouched.

Note the capitalization of the noun “Weaver”. This is a handy reminder to check your surname for the fossil remnant of an ancestor's role in a real marketplace. If it's Weaver, Weber, Tanner, Smith, Baker, Shoemaker, Shumacher, Merchant, Marchand, Hunter, Farmer or Fermier, your signature is a living reminder of the time when markets were profoundly social, when one's “living” and one's name were the same thing. Supply and Demand, Production and Consumption were all no farther apart than Vendor and Customer—the distance of one handshake.

The hearts of their cultures were the markets where they met and did business.

The beginning of the Industrial Revolution was the end of craft. While a few people continued to produce goods on their own, their economic significance was trivial. What mattered were the mines, factories, mills and transport systems that made and moved goods from production to consumption.

Markets were reconceived as commercial habitats where schools of fishlike creatures called consumers were organized by appetite and fed products pumped down distribution pipes that terminated in retail outlets. The culture this produced was often called “consumerism”, but the better label is producerism: an economic and cultural system where producers were in charge.

This is the vast economic machine that Ralph Nader—the ultimate Luddite—is out to break. So he attacks it everywhere producers make life hard for consumers, such as coach class in airplanes. “One would think that buying an airline ticket for a seat on the plane would include knees along with toes and torsos,” Ralph writes. “But since airline deregulation over twenty years ago, passengers who do not fork up the dollars for a first class seat are treated more as cattle than as customers when it comes to space.”

Well, not entirely. Airlines also had to find ways to handle demand for more passengers on a finite number of routes. Still, some airlines are starting to treat coach passengers as full-bodied bipeds again. American Airlines, Ralph observes, “will give them three to five extra inches of space in about a year.” Then, he adds, “Hooray for small favors.”

He sees no reason why big government shouldn't correct the airline industry. “Within the next 60 days the Aviation Consumers Action Project (ACAP) will file a petition with the FAA and the Department of Transportation to set minimum leg standards, unless the industry follows American Airline's lead in increasing coach class leg room to tolerable levels”, Ralph writes. He also calls for a Six-Footer's Club, “to advance normal comforts for tall people”. If you want to find out more, he provides a PO box in Washington, D.C., plus a phone number, but not a web site (although I found the quoted piece at http://www.nader.org/).

As a working (and consuming) class hero, Ralph is right up there with Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg and César Chavez. No other individual has had more influence on the biggest industry in the United States—automobiles—than Ralph Nader. The man has single-mouthedly saved thousands of lives. We owe him.

So why can't I listen to him?

Because he has already won and doesn't know it. The Industrial Age is over, and the Information Age is well underway. Workers are walking away from rusty old industrial machines that are dying for a single transcendent reason: they mistook people for parts. Now those people are going off to ply their crafts as competent human components of better, smaller machines—or large machines with better, smaller, more craftlike, i.e., autonomous—parts. These are machines they run, not machines that run them.

Consumers—those poor victims Ralph still fights for—are starting to discover what they really are, which is customers. If they don't like what they find in the market, it has never been easier for them to go make those things themselves, or to draw the attention of smart producers to the presence of demand. In this new age, the threshold of enterprise is so low it verges on zero. The thresholds of creation and innovation aren't much higher, which is why product and service choices spread wide everywhere supply hears demand. And what choice does supply have but to listen? If they don't, somebody with better ears will get the business.

The world is working like a real marketplace again, for a single reason: it's wired that way.

Who wired it? Try the Open Source development community, including the Free Software movement from which it grew. If you want to see a model of a craft-driven world in which every “worker” is a free, autonomous and effective agent, this is it. Show me a large technology producer (e.g., IBM, Dell and HP) that now proclaims itself as Linux-committed, and I'll show you a company in compliance with its software engineers as well as its customers' software engineers. All of those engineers like Linux and open-source software because it's easy to craft. It still might not be easy to use, but the software craftspeople are taking care of that. This was made especially clear by the GNOME, Helix Code and Eazel developers at LinuxWorld Expo in August 2000. Finally, we had an answer to the innovation vs. implementation question. These geeks can do both, thank you.

These are the same geeks Ralph addressed at The Bazaar last December, (his speech is at www.cptech.org/ms/harm.html). In that speech, he expressed extreme agreement with the government's case—and judgment—against Microsoft. I just checked on Altavista to see how many pages link to that speech. Try six. A total of 1,748 pages point to the Consumer Project on Technology (http://www.cptech.org/) domain, where the speech resides. Ralph's own home page (http://www.ralphnader.org/) makes an even sadder case, attracting a whopping total of five inbound links.

Perspective: Slashdot's number is 28,303. Which goes to show there aren't a whole lot of consumers left in the Open Source development world.

Or anywhere, which is Ralph's real problem. Ralph has a vested interest in the consumer, just like a Marxist has a vested interest in the worker. His heart is in the right place, but that place is being vacated by people who are starting to notice they have real power that power doesn't come from social and political movements, or from those movements' leaders. It comes from themselves.

Consumers and workers are rhetorical relics. The Net is uniting both, and they're throwing off their chains. Industrial communism and capitalism are both terminal. They can't survive in a networked marketplace, where “We the People” means exactly what it says.

We have real challenges in this marketplace, not the least of which is understanding how it's going to work, now that “the People” are working both sides of the supply-and-demand handshake. What are the new social contracts? What laws do we really need, and why are we keeping the ones we don't? How can we truly help those who can't help themselves? What are our agreements about privacy and anonymity, and how do we organize them? How do we build the needed infrastructure around our new Commons, and how do we keep those stuck with dead industrial market models from wasting our time?

We can find a democratic answer in the networked market's most honest voting mechanism. It's called the hyperlink. If what you say doesn't attract many, maybe there's no market for it.

Let Freedom Ping
Doc Searls (doc@ssc.com) is senior editor of Linux Journal and coauthor of The Cluetrain Manifesto. His opinions are his alone and do not express those of Linux Journal or SSC.
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