28 May 2008

El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido

As RMS has always emphasised, free software is political, because it is essentially about liberty. Openness and transparency are also political - just look at how the ruling classes fight them. But beyond that, I find myself wondering how the ideas behind free software can be applied more directly in terms of changing the world.

One way is to take the idea of collaboration, and apply it at the simplest level: sharing information and uniting voices for or against something. That's the basic intent of the site Avaaz.org:

Coming together in this way, Avaaz has become a wonderful community of people from all nations, backgrounds, and ages. Our diverse community is brought together by our care for the world, and a desire to do what we can to make it a better place. The core of our model of organizing is our email list, operated in 13 languages. By signing up to receive our alerts, you are rapidly alerted to urgent global issues and opportunities to achieve change. Avaaz members respond by rapidly combining the small amounts of time or money they can give into a powerful collective force. In just hours we can send hundreds of thousands of messages to political leaders telling them to save a crucial summit on climate change , hold hundreds of rallies across the world calling for action to prevent a genocide, or donate hundreds of thousands of euros, dollars and yen to support nonviolent protest in Burma.

It's hard to tell how much good this kind of thing does, but the investment of time is so minimal that it's a bit like Pascal's Wager: worth doing however low the rate of return.

But beyond this kind of Concerned Letter-Writing 2.0, how can the technologies of connection be harnessed to do something more practical? Like this, maybe:

When Estonians regained independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991 they not only acquired new political freedoms, they inherited a mass of rubbish – thousands and thousands of tonnes of it scattered across illegal dumping sites around the country. When concerned citizens decided that the time had come to clean it up, they turned not to the government, but to tens of thousands of their peers.

Using a combination of global positioning systems and GoogleMaps, two entrepreneurs (Skype guru Ahti Heinla and Microlink and Delfi founder Rainer Nolvak) enlisted volunteers to plot the location of over 10,000 illegal dump sites, including detailed descriptions and photos. That, in itself, was ambitious. Phase II of the clean-up initiative was, by their own admission, rather outrageous: clean-up upwards of 80% of the illegal sites in one day, using mass collaboration.

So, on May 3rd, over 50,000 people scoured fields, streets, forests and riverbanks across the country, picking up everything from tractor batteries to paint tins.... Much of this junk was ferried to central dumps, often in the vehicles of volunteers.

Only connect.

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