All for The Commons-Based Good

Amongst our capitalist and commerce-driven society, it’s hard to imagine a utopia such as Burning Man. In the same vein, the idea of ultra-useful, user-friendly or general powerful software for free is also pretty remarkable. During last week’s class, we began to touch on the divergent demographics and markets among the digital realm, namely the difference between open-source and proprietary software. Fred Turner directly address these electronic innovations with their analog, physical counterparts in his essay on the Burning Man festival and Google, Inc. Turner asserts that there’s a correlation between the boom of new tech along the Bay Area and the geographical occurrence of Burning Man. With Turner’s thesis in mind, I believe that there is an undeniable juxtaposition to be drawn between the driving mentality behind Burning Man and open-source services such as GIMP or OpenOffice and the free love and world peace psyche which prevailed among youth in the 1960s.

Woodstock Festival '69. Bethel, New York ©Jason Laure/THE IMAGE WORKS BLAU0093 3045 1022 1320-053

Woodstock Festival ’69. Bethel, New York
©Jason Laure/THE IMAGE WORKS BLAU0093 3045 1022 1320-053

Spanning over 50 years apart, it’s somewhat shocking to realizes the similarities between these two distinct eras. However, in observing the basic principles at work in both periods, the connection becomes all too clear. In response to America’s growing imperialistic efforts abroad as well as the multitude of domestic civil injustice, Americans began to practice protest and civil disobedience. In these increasingly activist methods, many discovered the power of discourse, debate and nonviolent protest. The newfangled idea of nonviolent opposition paved the way for the similarly absurd idea of world peace being the response to global conflict. Suddenly a generation of Americans believed that violence only seemed to breed more violence and so came an age of drugs, sex and rock-n-roll, also known as free love.

The rejection of stratification, conflict and division was at the heart of the Civil Rights Movement and related events in the 1960s. By striving for equal rights and universal freedoms, people learned that the greater good was the common good, not personal satisfaction. This focus on the common good segues into the parallel in modern culture seen in commons-based peer production and open-source software. The ideology at work here is predominantly communitarian with groups of diverse individuals uniting under a shared goal, not dissimilar to the actions of the programmer at Google who initially created Google News.

Krishna Barat, despite being a full-time engineer at Google, decided to use is relief and vacation time to create the code for Google News in order to effectively aggregate all news on 9/11 in 2001. Satisfied with his work, he then decided to kindly leave his side-project open to alteration: Google News became an open-source project for the digital masses. Anyone who was interested in bettering the program was able to do so freely. Thus, we see communitarianism at play again, somehow even more accessible and widespread than its 60’s rendition. By existing on the World Wide Web, these good intentions have the potential for an even greater corollary.

This is the central idea both behind open-source software and Burning Man. Turner’s point is validated in the fact that the same spirit as seen in the past is present in the modern-day, with thousands of people traveling to California to participate in a massive, counter-cultural party wherein people trade goods as opposed to accepting money and cars look like Lego masterpieces or metal dragons. Furthermore, just a few dozen miles away from this annual event is Google’s office where simple, but extraordinary programs like Google News are created for fun or productivity and essentially given away. Through burgeoning ICTs and the prevalence of the Internet, we see history repeating itself not only from the 1960s but also agrarian periods when there was no definitive currency. We are now digitally capable of participating in a shared-goods based community; the commons-based goods serve the universally (save for money-mongering corporations) beneficial common good.

Turner, Fred. “Burning Man at Google: A Cultural Infrastructure for New Media Production.” New Media & Society 11, no. 1–2 (2009): 73–94. doi:10.1177/1461444808099575.

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