The Occupy Boston Information Technology team, better known as OBIT, hosted the first Community Gathering of Spring on Monday March 26 at E5. A crowd of about one hundred joined OBIT for vegan sushi, interactive theater, free software demonstrations and a demonstration of the future of information technology in political activism.
Jeremy Stark unveiled his ongoing consensus project, The General Will (www.generalwill.org), a site designed to analyze and revise legislation. The average citizen is allowed to review drafted bills paragraph by paragraph and offer suggested changes. The idea is to bring the voice of the average citizen directly to the floors of Congress through direct democracy and circumvent the power of lobbyists. Used as an empowerment tool, the General Will builds on the spirit of similar tools that put the responsibility for building and drafting laws directly into the hands of citizens and voters.
Stark borrowed the SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) bill for his demonstration of how participants log onto the General Will site and offer suggestions for specific changes. Once the community agree the debate and revisions have been exhausted, the finalized revisions would be included in a new draft of the bill. The premise is that the input of citizens will result in a law that would more accurately reflect the will of the general public and would be a more legitimate form of direct democracy. Stark’s presentation initiated a number of questions around untrained voices being trusted to draft legislation. An audience member chimed in that there are online tools designed to translate legal language into layman’s terms.
OBIT member Ross Glover brought the crowd to its feet with a relationship and trust building exercise. The theater games are based on Brazilian theater director Augosto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed Technique. The Colombian Hypnotist is a game which requires two players, with one following the other’s actions through a small space. Participants were able to express individual and group frustrations with technology’s innovations and failings. In addition, the audience collaboratively created amusing human machines. Groups re-enacted personal interpretations of the information age by creating pulsating, jerking, pounding, and tweaking machines animating the troubles and triumphs of technology. Each machine told its own story of computer melt-downs, email overload and confusions plaguing users.
Dana Moser gave a brief lecture on free software and the movement to abandon proprietary corporate products in favor of free and open software packages which share Occupy community values. Many in the information technology and activist community contend that free software puts power into the hands of the 99% and removes it from corporations. But some attendees debated the convenience of using products that are well known, widely used readily available versus open source packages that are less familiar and more difficult to master.
In response, Moser drew an analogy between the software and banking industries. While Bank of America is very accessible and easy to use, it has many practices that are antithetical to the message of liberating the 99% from corporate greed. By voting with their feet, and moving their money to local credit unions, consumers can leverage their own power and save money in the process. A similar principle applies to adopting free and source software as a conscious political decision. Occupy Boston Radio, obr.fm, is an example of open source software being incorporated into a political movement. Free and open source packages such as overhead expense beyond equipment.
Other ethical issues have recently made the news surrounding corporate technology company practices. Recent problems in Apple Inc.’s manufacturing plants in China present a current example of hard choices for activists both enamored of innovative technology and critical of the company’s labor practices. There is another dilemma of privacy and the collection of personal data through online tracking software. Hidden programs often execute without the explicit knowledge or often the knowing consent of the user. Many privacy issues may be solved through adopting free and source operating systems and software.
A few questions remain: Where does a community with the values of the Occupy movement ethically in adopting new technological tools? Should political stances extend into our purchasing habits around hardware and software?
The debate continues about free and open source software tools and allowing citizens of all classes the right to expand their tools, skills and knowledge for little or to no cost. To help bridge this digital divide of computer skills needed to take advantage of all free software has to offer, OBIT will be holding a series of technology training sessions for both Occupy Boston and the wider community.