Hacking, Making, and Sharing

on February 13, 2011

I’ve got the midwinter doldrums and heavy-duty posts are coming hard. So I’m going to take a break by doing a simple round-up of some of the trends and movements that I see as about to coalesce into a holism-based counterculture.

Trends alone are not sufficient, of course. A counterculture explodes only when there is both a volatile mixture of elements and a spark to ignite that mixture. But these trends are what will fuel the fire — and each of them is already displaying the distinctive pattern of thought that will shape the next decade.

The movements that have been catching my eye are primarily offshoots of the environmental activists and computer hackers that I previously described as heretics of the 1980’s. Their roots go back to the potent blend of holism, multiculturalism, and do-it-yourself-ism nurtured by Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog in the late 60’s and early 70’s. But what I’m seeing now suggests a new degree of assertiveness and philosophical self-awareness, along with a dedication to the nitty-gritty of everyday life that is very different from the ecotopian romanticism of the 80’s.

These movements fall into three broad groups, which intermingle at many points. The first is typified by WikiLeaks and Anonymous. It is rooted in the hacker ethic and in the belief that access to tools and information should be considered a fundamental human right.

The second, which I’ve only become aware of recently, involves a new wave of environmentalism that over the last two or three years appears to have moved away from any expectation of government-based solutions and applied itself instead to direct action.

Here’s one example, a video of a “depaving” event last year in Portland, Oregon — a city that for better or worse has a reputation as an epicenter of trendy idealism. (I’ve had trouble getting the embedded video to play, but you can get to it directly by clicking on the caption.)

Depaving Day! from Streetfilms on Vimeo.

As the participants enthusiastically rip up an unused parking lot to turn the area into a community garden, one explains, “It’s about reclaiming the commons … and when we start talking seriously about urban food forests, we really need to talk about taking up the asphalt and starting to think about it as places to grow food.”

There are a couple of interesting objectives being expressed here. One is the explicit goal of creating a food forest — a concept which I only encountered recently, but which appears to have been embraced whole-heartedly by urban gardeners. The other is the idea of reclaiming the commons, which derives from an emerging social model based in the multiculturalism vision.

As explained at On the Commons, “The commons is what we share together. From parks and clean water to scientific knowledge and the Internet, some things are no one’s private property. They exist for everyone’s benefit, and must be protected for future generations. A movement is emerging today to create a commons-based society.”

The idea that certain things belong to everyone represents a direct repudiation of the current free-market culture in which everything has an owner, a price, and a potential for being turned into profit. And the added demand that society should be constructed around the commons rather than around private property is one of those seemingly simple notions that can set off a whole train of changes in social relationships.

Change of some sort is already inevitable. I suggested a few months ago that the concept of what it means to “own” something is rapidly being subverted by technological and other developments. But neither lofty aspirations nor the earnest idealism of middle-class white kids can guarantee that those changes will occur in a way that makes for a genuinely humane and communal society. A grittier, more forceful component will be required as well.

One example of a more anarchic, in-your-face approach to environmentalism is guerrilla gardening, which calls for scattering seeds anywhere an empty spot beckons. As explained at a website devoted to sustainable architecture:

“The term ‘guerrilla gardening’ might scare off some, but the practice has a long history of both radical and community-building tactics. Liz Christy and the Green Guerrillas transformed an abandoned lot in NYC’s Bowery during the 1970′s and as the BBC recently reported, guerrilla gardeners are ‘sowing the seeds of resistance’ in South London. Many ‘resistance gardeners’ consider themselves to be vandals of sorts but with plants or seeds as weapons, often operating covertly at night in empty lots or on public property that otherwise remains unkept or barren.”

This strategy has recently been taken up by a group of artists in Buenos Aires who, according to a recent news story, “want to make the Argentine capital a free-for-all kitchen garden, turning neglected parks and verges into verdant vegetable patches.”

“Following in the footsteps of ‘guerrilla gardeners’ who have been scattering flower seeds in vacant lots and roadsides in cities such as London and New York since the 1970s,” the story continues, “the Articultores group is taking the concept a step further. Armed with vegetable seedlings and seed bombs – seeds packed with mud for throwing into neglected urban spaces, their goal is to provide organic food for city residents.”

The story implies that attempts by these “Art Farmers” to provide free, organic food for city dwellers may prove more effective as symbol than in practice — but the shift of focus from flowers to food appears highly significant in a world that is teetering on the brink of long-term food scarcity.

The same emphasis on food is present among the Portland depavers, as well as in the Young Farmers’ Coalition, a group founded in 2009 to encourage young people to return to the land. Their webpage makes clear their affinity to these other movements by proclaiming, “Introducing… Farm Hack, The DIY Farm Tool Blog: Where farmers share their best inventions, modifications, innovations, fixes and ideas to make their farms work better.”

Combining farming, hacking, and do-it-yourself-ism in just four words may represent something of a world’s record — but it does offer a potent message about the shape of things to come.

The role played by the DIY movement is particularly interesting to me, because it has a far longer history than either hackerism or environmentalism and has shifted philosophical ground several times over the years. Its intellectual roots lie in the Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 19th century, which began as a protest against the ugliness and standardization of machine civilization. And after World War II, do-it-yourself-ism experienced a resurgence as a form of personal empowerment.

But during the last few decades, its strongest appeal has been as a rejection of consumer culture. This attitude was already prominent in many of the music-based subcultures of the 1970’s and 80’s — punks, goths, even metal — but now it seems to have moved beyond the anger and despair of those years and is blossoming into an outright rejection of free market economics.

The most striking example of this kind of rejectionism may be the drop-out culture of the “travelers,” young Americans who deliberately embrace a neo-hobo lifestyle. According to one recent article, “What binds them is an ethos of anti-consumerism, environmentalism and unconditional sharing of material goods. In their view, taking over an abandoned building and using it for shelter is recycling, not trespassing. Hitching an unauthorized ride on a train is considered ‘green’ because it doesn’t use extra fuel. … Young travelers tend to be creative types — talented musicians or writers — who are rebelling against the expectations of mainstream society.”

But the anti-consumerist ethos does not belong to the travelers alone. I’ve been picking up hints here and there of a new utopian ideal — the dream of a society in which economic transactions take the form of peer-to-peer exchanges, without bloated corporations elbowing in to take a cut, and in which the fruits of creativity become part of the cultural commons.

I myself can’t quite imagine a future where we all make a living by selling things to one another on Etsy, but I can see an image of that future exerting a powerful appeal for decades to come and helping to generate new social institutions.

So put all the pieces together — do-it-yourself-ism and the hacker ethic, information transparency and the creative commons, a world of makers rather than consumers. Add in a streak of multiculturalism and a passion for social justice, and you have something very close to a full counterculture.

All it needs is the final spark that will change it from a set of hopeful aspirations to a new voice of moral authority — one that will inspire people to step forward and say, “Yes, I am part of that. That is who I am and what I believe, and I will judge everything according to whether it furthers those goals.”

At that point, it will be important to establish a distinctive cultural identity for the new way of thinking, and this is the reason I’ve had my eye on steampunk. When a counterculture first appears, it benefits from having obvious public signs — distinctive forms of dress, speech, and behavior — that enable members of the “tribe” to recognize one another on sight.

The hippies provided those signs and symbols for the 1960’s, and it helped bring together a broad range of people who were technically not hippies themselves. For the same reason, I believe we are likely to see something equivalent over the next year or two.

I don’t know exactly how it’s going to play out, of course. These things always happen intuitively and not by design. But in one way or another, it will get done — and the world will start to shift and shift again.

Related:

A listing of all my posts on the emerging counterculture can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

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