Setting Fire to Hollywood's Plans for the Net: The GeekPAC Story

by Doc Searls

The work of thought is one of the most ancient and useful activities of humankind. To generate thought is to create life, liveliness, community. Consensus isn't important. What's important is how the generative power of our thought makes life vivid and burns out the dead brush, dead thoughts, dead institutions. - Michael Ventura

Technology trends start with technologists - Marc Andreessen

Simple, clear purpose and principles give rise to complex and intelligent behavior. Complex rules and regulations give rise to simple and stupid behavior. - Dee Hock

Back when I made my living as a marketing iconoclast, I filtered out potentially dull clients by sharing this rather aggressive marketing logic: <il>

  • markets are conversations; and

  • conversation is fire. Therefore,

  • marketing is arson.

Premise #1 later became the first thesis of The Cluetrain Manifesto, which ended up exemplifying #2 and #3. Ironically, little that I did in marketing ever had the same effect--and I did it, in one form or another, for 27 years. In fact, the most effective advice I ever gave as a marketer was to one of my last clients: Borland. "Support Linux," I said.

That was in early '99. Not coincidentally, that was also when I took my current job with Linux Journal, and also started working on Cluetrain with Rick Levine, Chris Locke and David Weinberger. Both moves marked my return to full-time journalism, a career I had left in 1972. Now I've been at it longer at the back end of my career than I was at the front. I also seem to be having a bit more luck setting fires.

Which brings us to GeekPAC.

The project was launched by Jeff Gerhardt, host of The Linux Show, where I'm a weekly regular. Jeff was inspired by an incendiary suggestion I made in the March 7, 2002 issue of SuitWatch, where I ranted about high-profile lobbying efforts by Disney CEO Michael Eisner and MPAA chief Jack Valenti, and called for some bold action:

Let's be clear about what's going on here. None of Eisner and Valenti's rhetoric is native to the natural interplay between Supply and Demand. In fact, the very nature of that interplay is anathema to people like these, who are accustomed to a world in which Supply tells Demand what it wants, what it will pay and how it will get whatever Supply decides it will have.

The Net threatens that system by putting it in the middle of a real marketplace where Demand has just as much power as Supply, and everybody involved is exactly one click from everybody else.

So the real war here is not between a few producers and its billions of "consumers". It's between two completely different visions of the Net itself. One sees it as a medium--a plumbing system for pumping content from producers to consumers, controlled top to bottom by suppliers. The other sees it as a place where people and companies meet to make culture, do business and share stuff that makes life interesting. Here in the Linux, Free Software and Open Source communities, we know which side we're on. And we're joined there by businesses that share the same passions and values.

The DMCA and the CARP recommendations are thick with the language of shipping. They outlaw the Net as a marketplace by describing its operations almost entirely in shipping terms. And we do the same when we argue with these people on their own terms. We have to stop doing that.

Law professor and author Lawrence Lessig has taken the lead in defining the Net as a "commons" and in framing copyright and patent law once again in the place-based terms the founding fathers used back when markets were still bazaars and customers were still customers--and not "target groups" of "consumers" of goods pumped through supplier-controlled distribution systems.

I suggest we join Larry there. And I suggest he join us in a Million-Customer March on Washington.

I'm serious. Isn't it time we gave Congress a friendly lesson in the democratic nature of real markets?

Incendiary ideas never belong to the original arsonist--or to anybody. As Michael Ventura says (in the top quote above), consensus isn't important. What matters is "the generative power of thought." For Jeff, my march-on-Washington idea generated a completely different thought with exactly the same purpose. To get his constituency--the geeks of the world--involved in the political process, Jeff came up with the idea of forming a political action committee (PAC), and a nonprofit organization to back it up. Then, after asking me to join the effort, he moved forward like a runaway freight train.

The result is GeekPAC and the American Open Technology Forum.

GeekPAC is so new it's still in the proverbial womb. So far, all we can point to is the document at the other end of the link above. Still no web site, no clubhouse, no legal papers-- though we're moving forward on all of those fronts, mostly because more geeks and sympathizers than we can count have come forward offering help and money--many thousands of dollars, so far--mostly thanks to a small but hot pile of news about the effort:

Proof of how new and open we are is that we're busy recruiting Hal Plotkin, even as I type.

Others founding members include Arne Flones, Kevin Hill and Russ Pavlicek, all regulars on The Linux Show, plus Eric S. Raymond (who needs no introduction) and Paul Jones, who directs (formerly Metalab and Sunsite) when he isn't busy teaching at the University of North Carolina.

All these people are, I believe, legitimate geeks. I'm not. In fact, while Jeff was busy coining the name GeekPAC in Aurora IL, I was sitting in the Linux Journal offices in Seattle, where another editor discouraged me from using the term, because I clearly belonged to a less technical species (the only code I know is Morse, and HTML doesn't count).

But the GeekPAC name has caught fire and for better or worse it's now a brand. We're stuck with it. I also think the Jargon File gives us some cover. It defines geek this way:

A person who has chosen concentration rather than conformity; one who pursues skill (especially technical skill) and imagination, not mainstream social acceptance. Geeks usually have a strong case of neophilia. Most geeks are adept with computers and treat hacker as a term of respect, but not all are hackers themselves--and some who are in fact hackers normally call themselves geeks anyway, because they (quite properly) regard `hacker as a label that should be bestowed by others rather than self-assumed.

Geeks built the Net. All due respect to IBM, Sun and Cisco, the Net was not something any large business would have designed or built. Big companies tend to like big control. They tend to be "open" in the same manner as a trap, a corral or a box canyon.

Big companies also tend to be best at big, complex projects: things that require lots of management. In Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web, David Weinberger gives management due credit for great industrial achievements such as the Hoover Dam, which he calls "a masterpiece of management as well as engineering". But he says we have something very different with the Net (or the Web, which most nongeeks tend to use as a synonym for the Net):

The Web, however, is teaching us a different lesson about management. Consider the Web as a construction project. It's the most complex network ever created. It is by many orders of magnitude the largest collection of human writings and works in history. It is far more robust than networks far smaller. Yet it was created without any managers. In fact, it only succeeded because its designers made the conscious decision to build a network that would require no central control. You don't need anyone else's permission to join in, to post whatever you want, to read whatever others have posted. The Web is profoundly unmanaged and that is crucial to its success. It takes traditional command and control structures and busts them up into many small pieces that then loosely join themselves--and that, too, is crucial to its success.

As a result, the Web is a mess, as organized as an orgy. It consists of voices proclaiming whatever they think is worth saying, trying on stances, experimenting with extremes, being wrong in public, making fun of what they hold sacred in their day jobs, linking themselves into permanent coalitions and drive-by arguments, savoring the rush you feel when you realize you don't have to be the way you've been.

The Web has driven through the plate glass window of traditional management. Its existence is a slap in the face of the managed world of modern American realism.

Geeks architected the Net with what David P. Reed and others call an end-to-end design. The document you are reading now is one of those ends. There are billions of others, all adding value to the whole. They can can do that because the Net embodies three simple virtues:

  1. Nobody owns it

  2. Everybody can use it

  3. Anybody can improve it

In the first two respects, the Net is very much a force of nature, like the Sun, the wind and the core of the Earth. In the third respect it is profoundly human. Combine all three and you get what Craig Burton describes as a constantly expanding hollow sphere comprised of everything and everybody "on" it. Across its empty middle, all the ends are one click away from each other, no matter how big the sphere gets.

Craig says this sphere is a new world--one made entirely by, and for (as well as of), human beings. He also says we have only begun to "terraform" that world by slowly improving its simple global infrastructure, and by building all kinds of new stuff on it. He also adds that this world utterly depends on the dumb emptiness in the middle--in much the same way as life on Earth's surface depends on the silent un-ownable mass below its crust. There's no way any company or government agency can improve on it.

Lawrence Lessig, the Stanford law professor and author of Code and other Laws of Cyberspace and The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in the Connected World, sees this terraformed world as a vast commons. He also sees it threatened by a Death Star of sorts. From the perspective of the Net's natives--the people who built it and understand everything from its geology to its ecology to the natural bazaars it supports (and which now take advantage of the Net to conduct billions of dollars worth of business, every day)-- this Death Star is the work of the Evil Trade Federation we might call the Entertainment-Industrial Complex. Or just Hollywood.

As a creative commons, the Net suppports countless new opportunities for Hollywood. But three of Hollywood's leaders--Michael Eisner of Disney, Hillary Rosen of the RIAA and Jack Valenti of the MPAA--have chosen instead to regard the Net as a threat and its citizens as thieves. They want to replace the Net's commons with a plumbing system for "content" entirely managed and controlled from the supply side. They are not interested in seeing billions of passive and voiceless "consumers" turn into active and vocal customers.

And so we find ourselves in a kind of war--not just between two interest groups, but between two fundamentally different ways of understanding the Net itself. One sees it as a commons. The other sees it as a distribution system. One wants to protect it and let it grow. The other wants to manage and exploit it. One expects innovation and market forces to solve the business problems that naturally accompany growth. The other wants government to protect established industries against exactly those kinds of problems--by restricting the very operations of the Net itself, and the devices that allow people to use the Net.

Larry Lessig puts it this way in The Future of Ideas:

A time is marked not so much by ideas that are argued about as by ideas that are taken for granted. The character of an era hangs upon what needs no defense. Power runs with ideas that only the crazy would draw into doubt. The "taken for granted" is the test of sanity; "what everyone knows" is the line between us and them.

This means that sometimes a society gets stuck. Sometimes these unquestioned ideas interfere, as the cost of questioning becomes too great. In these times, the hardest task for social or political activists is to find a way to get people to wonder again about what we all believe is true. The challenge is to sow doubt.

And so it is with us. All around us are the consequences of the most significant technological, and hence cultural, revolution in generations. This revolution has produced the most powerful and diverse spur to innovation of any in modern times. Yet a set of ideas about a central aspect of this prosperity--property--confuses us. This confusion is leading us to change the environment in ways that will change the prosperity. Believing we know what makes prosperity work, ignoring the nature of the actual prosperity all around, we change the rules within which the Internet revolution lives. These changes will end the revolution.

One of those changes was the Digital Millennium Copyright Act--the DMCA. Today a freight train of additional acronymic ordnance is heading from Hollywood to Washington: SSSCA/CBDTPA, UCITA, CARP...

Not one of these efforts fails to abridge founding principles of both the United States and the Net. So maybe now is a good time to revisit the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceable to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Politicians like to talk about "grass roots". With the Net geeks built a grass roots organizing environment like the world has never seen. It's a place where enlightenment spreads like wildfire. This is to our advantage--for as long as we still have it.

So pick up a torch and help us save this thing.

Doc Searls is senior editor of Linux Journal.


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