This is the first Essay in a series collected at Towards Convergence and a Respectful Future.
My parents divorced when I was three, I was young enough that I don't remember a time when I had a single home. My parents had 50/50 custody of me so I spent Monday and Wednesday with my mum, Tuesday and Thursday with my dad, and they swapped weekends. Holidays were stressful, Thanksgiving and Christmas happened twice, some a third and fourth time when accounting for Grandparents. I was not unprivileged, my homes were not unstable, and I was well-cared for, better than most accounting for being the only child. It all just happened extra, and I switched contexts and personalities as necessary, far more than most children.
Growing up between homes like that meant that I always had with me a
backpack full of the things which I would like or need to have for the
next 24-72 hours. I became involved in mobile computing because of this,
learning how to program C using the Graffiti input method on a Palm T|X.
That little T|X did nearly everything that I could care about doing, it
was my MP3 player, it was my ebook reader, it was my IRC client, until
my friend Michiel gave me an account on his server to run
irssi, at which point it was my primary SSH
client. My first summer job in high school was filing paperwork for an
insurance company, and one of the first things I bought and saved up for
was a Gateway laptop with a big hard drive that could hold all of my
music, all of my code and what not. I wouldn't have to timeshare with
parents who (bless their hearts) gave a shit about what I did on the
computer and the qualities of who I talked to and the habits I
developed. I think, to their credit, this care is one of the biggest
reasons that I largely kept myself out of the dumpster of thinking that
a lot of people in that position fall in to, I was close for a while, go
read some of my blog posts from 2009-2011.
Having on hand at any time the things you own exactly one of is an abnormal habit to have, and it's something that's followed me in to adulthood and forms the back-bone of the values and ethics I am honing here. At first I relied on myself, it was a very self-focused thing, of course. If I couldn't trust my dad to be willing to go over to my mom's because I forgot my data drive, I would just carry the data drive with me everywhere, even to dinner. But over the decade, computing has moved towards handhelds and towards cropshare computing, and now everyone has a window to look at their data, even when they shit. There is of course the Easy Solution of trusting unaccountable third parties, but even at this young age I'd solidified a belief that trusting these parties was irresponsible and simply wouldn't work in the long term. And here we are in the tumolt of a society learning this.
But this doesn't scale and as my range of Empathy expands, I feel confined. My parents are not better off because of the software I've written or the ethical positions I've taken, and God forbid I ever find love and want to share all of my life with someone! So rather than live self-sufficiently as an individual, I find myself being drawn to the ideas behind and around collective mutual aide. Self-sufficient anarcho-syndicalism, a federation of syndicates, the direction of thought at this point is brighter than the vision of someone living in the woods with their own land and property and a mountain of ammunition to "protect" it all, as alluring as that feels. Obviously, I live in a city which provides my power and gas, my water and trash, curious how you participate in the system you criticize. I pay taxes to the state and I rely on public transit, and I feel a connection to this community. Though I increasingly day dream about living in the woods on a farm, I'm still here, and I wouldn't have it any other way, though I'm not going to pretend I have any idea how to reshape a society let alone a community to be able to survive a vision like this.
I have tools I can use and I have an idea of how those tools are currently being misused. As technology evolves and the world grows around it, these things become more difficult, large corporations with their own ethics and their own laws begin to legislate by force around us, and society sort of just … bends. There is no informed consent, there is increasingly no opt-out. Companies are able to use their position of power to embed themselves in the lives of their users, and build walls to keep other up-and-comers out. The Arcology and the CCE were designed to be not so elastic, pinned instead to the fundamentals of a web of free and open association. Those fundamentals are being degraded under the banner of anti-abuse and anti-spam and fighting misinformation, a bending of the human rights behind privacy towards closing ecosystems.
Anti-abuse and anti-spam and platform integrity are noble and important in their own right, but free association and private conversation among friends and family are things which a society are built upon and I cannot help but feel that these companies are doing everything they can to influence these things in spite of the communities they control. And I find myself wanting to push back.
I first visited Arcosanti around a decade ago with my father, one of our many escapes from a city he increasingly hated and the morbidly hot summers that it enabled. The dream of communal living in a home that exists within and alongside the ecosystem it's embedded in was real, and beautiful, especially in north-central Arizona. It was situated along a high desert canyon full of sage brush a fair distance from the edge of Arizona's cool wet pine forests. The vision of it was perhaps more incredible than the state of Arcosanti when I visited, it was no Sim City 2000 Launch Arcology, but a small collection of common space, homes, and architectural workshops built above a small canyoned creek, with terraced greenhouses built in to the side of the site down to the creek bed. Open barrel-vaulted buildings designed to provide cooling shade in the summer, but let the light in during the winter for radiant heating. An architectural design school cum commune for building an experimental utopian society.
For much of my childhood, I wanted to be an architect, to design spaces to live in, to build them and live in them. I studied, to the depths that a 14 year old is willing, Frank Lloyd Wright and his ilk. I spent time at Taliesin West, I spent time sketching and planning homes, sprawling estates with secret hallways and common spaces. Most of my peers enjoyed the Fountainhead for different reasons than I did – I pictured the creations, not so much the creator. But the allure of building these spaces on a computer compelled me to move from a plan of studying civil engineering and architecture towards computer science and my current life. But the under-current is there, I still dream about buying a square mile of land somewhere and inviting my friends to build an arcology with me. In the mean time, I found communities of common interest, lost them, and am finally in a head space to align myself to them again.
This year I revisted Arcosanti and I found a community struggling to make sense of itself after the death of its enigmatic and problematic leader. The free software community is similarly struggling to make sense of itself in similar fashions and for similar reasons. And they both seem to be doing a poor job of it. I believe there is a way out though, in re-considering Free Software as a Community of Mutual Aide.