“In this paper, I investigate the ethics, principles, and activities of both geek and green communities of practice, and the practical and political issues they face. I hope to shed light on what the free culture and slow culture movements can learn from each other, and how they can work in synergy towards free, co-operative, and regenerative human cultures. In doing so, I hope to demonstrate why I believe there is a question of principle that is equally important to both camps. Which is more important way for humans to be free; free to know, or free to own?” … “Make no mistake, geeks and greens are different subcultures, despite the overlaps that increasingly exist. Geeks tend to be futurists, welcoming new technology, optimistic that its benefits will outweigh its costs. Greens tend to be more conservative, cleaving to the precautionary principle, and demanding proof of both safety and benefits before they embrace the synthetic. Geeks tend to be noncomformists, suspicious of the perceived social conservatism of neighbourhood politics, despite the entrenched social norms they co-operate under as part of online communities. Greens tend to be communalists, disapproving of competition, and despite their energetic collective competition for global moral leadership.”
* Paper: Free to Know or Free to Own? Convergence of Free and Slow Culture in Global Relocalisation. by Danyl Strype. Version 1.0 (Sunday September 5, 2010)
I believe this is an important paper, and not just for its call and description of convergence between slow and free, but also because of the underlying analysis of a common transvaluation that is rooted in 12 principles related to systems thinking. Comparing free software, free culture, slow food, permaculture, agile development, and others, author Daniel Skrype finds an underlying convergence and commonality. This is very congruent with one of my key points in my own lectures, in which I hypothize that major civilizational shifts are preceded by a massive shift in popular culture and value systems, see the mindmap here.
“This paper argues that private property law is a human construction, not a law of nature. Along with copyright law, and patent law, it may need to be reinterpreted to ensure it keeps up with social change, and continues to serve it’s original function, to defend human freedom from concentrations of power. This will require free culture groups, inspired by free software, with their global thinking, and slow culture, catalysed by slow food, with their local action, to play a a part. Example of this can be seen in the increasing use of free software, agile development, and permaculture design, in crisis relief and recovery. Because of oil dependence, industrial society is a long, slow disaster, which will require a massive relief efforts for the human species to survive. Courts, patents, and property are all used to concentrate power, and for a transition to a post-oil economy to work, the freedom to know and the freedom to grow are going to have to take precedence over the freedom to own. This doesn’t mean abandoning the concept of property entirely, just ensuring it functions to protect people’s ability to supply their needs, not as a means to enslave others. The ground is being prepared for these relief efforts by creating resilient community structures, and resilient communication systems, and synergies between the two are becoming clear. The capacity for both humanity and the potential for advanced civilisation to survive the coming decades intact will be enhanced by slow culture and free culture working like the twin blades of a pair of scissors.”
1. Introducing Free Culture and Slow Food
“What then, are the synergies between slow culture, which champions the local and the immediate, and free culture, which emphasises the global and the internetworked? Whereas free culture is about ‘thinking globally’, slow culture is about ‘acting locally’. Indeed that famous slogan of the environmental movement (also originated by the situationists, according to Hakim Bey ), could be restated as ‘think freely, act slowly’.
Look again at the description of slow art, and it starts to sound eerily familiar. Indeed, Lawrence Lessig’s spirited defence of “read/write culture” fits the slow as well as it fits the free. Nor am I the first to intuit the implications of ‘slow software’. Agile development trainer Jeff Patton calls for a “Focus on quality of delivery over speed of delivery” , and most tellingly, “Agile folks don’t believe they can effectively predict the future, or estimate development time. Many agile folks believe in emergent architecture, and in growing software incrementally” . This principle is summed up by one of 12 design principles distilled by one of the two founders of permaculture, David Holmgren, “use small and slow solutions”  (another set of 30 principles were laid out by co-founder Bill Mollison.
Returning to the slow food movement, it’s this principle that drives their opposition to mass corporatisation of farms, and the tyranny of the warehouse supermarket, and the burger franchise. Arguably this industrialisation of food suppresses the freedom to grow in the same way that dumping surplus food in developing countries suppresses theirs, by keeping the price of the commercial product lower than the cost of cultivation. Does opposing this mean the slow food movement believe in food freedom, in the same way the free software movement believes in software freedom? To answer that, we first need to define what we mean by software freedom, which brings us to a discussion of values.
So what about the defining values of slow food? Slow food must be good to eat, which correlates nicely with the freedom to run – fit for purpose. It must be clean, organic, cultivated by growers who can keep their own seed, and experiment with varieties, which fits with the freedom to customise. It must be fair, rewarding the growers and distributors properly for their labour and skills, which gels with the ethic behind the freedom to redistribute – the ability to “help your neighbour”. Finally, it must involve the eaters as co-producers, rather than disconnected consumers, which is analagous to the freedom to share improvements, and its goal of benefiting the community at large. Does slow food value freedom? I think so.
Permaculture is similarly grounded in a matrix of values. The permaculture ethics are usually stated as: earth care, people care, fair share. The WikiVersity Department of Permaculture expands the third ethic into two: distribute surplus, reduce consumption. Permaculture ethics then, emerge from a socialist tradition – Marx himself expressed the ‘fair share’ ethic in his famous phrase “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need(s)” – but this is combined with the systems thinking inspired by ecology and computer science, to produce an understanding that people can only act as freely as the system in which they live is optimised to allow. No human freedom can exist without a living planet, a nurturing society, access to resources, and arguably an understanding of how to maximise their utility.
The Agile Development mission statement also offers four points to consider . The first is “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools – which clearly involves people care, as does the last, “Responding to change over following a plan”. If we broaden earth care to environment care, then the second point, “Working software over comprehensive documentation”, could be analagous to regenerative human systems over money, and ideology. Finally, “Customer collaboration over contract negotiation” site quite nicely with fair share.
Obviously both slow food, and permaculture, are about a lot more than just where food is sourced from, and how it’s grown. Farmer Julian Rose’s passion for these deeper principles of locally centred cultivation, and fair supply, have led him to criticise the business-friendly focus on ‘organic source’ health food being transported huge distances for well-to-do customers . Journalist Michael Pollan’s book ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’ traces 4 meals back to source; standard supermarket; corporate organic; ‘”beyond organic”; and wild food; and comes to the conclusion that only the ‘beyond organic” meal is sustainable long term. Working with permaculture style practives which mimic natural processes, like parking a chicken tractor in fields recently vacated by cows to let hem scatter the dung in search of worms, Joel Salatin refused to freight his products cross-country, and made Pollan come to him.” (http://wikis.fu-berlin.de/download/attachments/59080767/Strype-Paper.pdf)
2. Convergence of Values
“”Do the simplest thing that could possibly work”, says Patton, and it’s a curious coincidence that the Agile Manifesto development principles, Holmgren’s permaculture design principles, and Rob Hopkins’ ingredients of Transition, all break down to 12 key points. It would be no surprise to find correspondence between the Transition and permaculture principles. After all, Transition began as a community-driven response to peak oil and climate change by activists and permaculture teachers like Rob Hopkins. What if we compare either Transition or permaculture with Agile? The agile and permaculture principles potentially link up in a few different ways, but I have laid out what I think are the strongest correspondences. I did the same with the Transition ingredients and the agile principles (see Appendix B). In both cases, I was excited by how easy it was to line them up. Then, fearing a confirmation bias, I wondered, “am I the first person to see these correlations?”. Apparently not.
A blog post by “edible landscape” designer Ethan Roland generalises the Agile principles, “pulling the most-useful for ecological and social landscape design to the top”. Roland makes some of the same connections I did, matching principles on ‘change’, and ‘self-regulation and feedback’, but he sees some of the parallels differently. For example, whereas I paired Holmgren’s “produce no waste” with the Agile ‘simplicity’ principle of “maximizing the amount of work not done”, Roland linked it with “LEVERAGE your work to do the greatest good for the greatest number of beings for the longest amount of time”, a principle from his own ‘Directives for Architects’. While I put Agile’s “working software is the primary measure of progress” together with Holmgren’s “catch and store energy”, Roland saw it as “obtain a yield”, a principle I matched with Agile’s “satisfy the customer”. My suspicion is that a programmer would think of the working software the same way a permaculturist thinks of a designed ecosystem, as a means to an end, and in a commercial software project the end is user satisfaction.
Another set of comparisons was made by Robert Dober, a contributor to a Ruby forum on FLOSSPlanet . He highlights the reference to sustainability of development, “The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely”, as being akin to permaculture. This goes against the grain of the biological principle that has more recently become part of permaculture thinking, that ecosystems, like organisms, have a ‘pulse’, and the pace of emergence is never constant. However, it does point out the need for the development process to sustain the energies of all of its participants in the longer term, and watch out for collective habits that are self-exhausting, as do the other two Agile principles he mentions about iteration (“slow and small solutions” in my correlations), and “reflects, tunes and adjusts” (“feedback and self-regulation” in my table).
Since the internet is one big global pond, it makes sense that the ripples from two pebbles like permaculture and Agile being dropped into it would eventually touch, overlap, and start to create interference patterns. So what about Agile and Transition? Being ‘in transition’ is often discussion in Agile writings, such as Patrick Wilson-Welsh’s article on adoption of Agile development practices , and the different transition strategies been used in different companies. Similarly references to agility are scattered through Transition writings, but it seems these two sets of ripples have yet to consciously overlap.
Even so, Wilson-Welsh’s article could easily be generalised in a way that would apply to the iterative progress made by a Transition initiatives, and the strategies that have been tried in different communities. For example, transition is a journey not a destination; get endorsement from management (local government); start with a team who are in regular in-person contact; let team members stick with their pet projects; identify way the community lacks resilience, and deal with those first; decide on methods for measuring the success of a project before you start organising it; simplify systems at every opportunity; ask your community whether they are ready to transition together, or whether to start with a small proof-of-concept project. His conclusion sounds exactly like Transition at work, an example: “Work to assuage fears, to celebrate positive results. Be patient if things get sticky. When all else fails, return to ways to create even more community. Do anything else you can to bring people closer. Celebrate every small success with food”.
So are these correspondences mere coincidence? The result of the same creative interpretation that sees dragons in clouds, and faces in tree trunks? Or is there a unifying pattern lurking beneath all these examples? One answer is that permaculture, Transition, and Agile, are all applications of systems thinking; to human habitat design, community planning, and software development, respectively. Both Meadows, and Kevin Kelly offer us a sets of emergent principles they claim can apply to any dynamic system, but arguably, it’s possible to identify common principles between any two things if you abstract them enough. Bodies of theory are all very well, but to be of any use, they have to be applied. The strengths of all these adaptive design practices become clearer when they focus the wisdom of crowds; and organise ‘barn-raisings’ – community mutual aid exercises – to solve problems under the most chaotic and stressful of circumstances.
Given the choice, both geeks and greens projects lean away from ‘Crownsourcing’ – “public” support via government departments, and state funding, which can have strings attached, and towards ‘crowdsourcing’ – public support via volunteer participation and direct donations. Crowdsourcing involves people in self-managing teams and networks, working together locally to help themselves, and collaborating with others from afar. Pragmatically, it enables experimental and unplannable projects, which could not happen if everyone involved was an employee on a wage, but it also connects with an intrinsic human desire to connect, and make a difference.” (http://wikis.fu-berlin.de/download/attachments/59080767/Strype-Paper.pdf)
3. Shared Knowledge, the Freedom to Know, should trump Privatized Ownwership, the Freedom to Own
“Arguably, the transition to a combination of slow, community-scale economies, and a free, global infostructure, offers the best chance of not only surviving the coming ecological changes, but adapting and thriving. For this transition to work, the freedom to know is going to have to take precedence over the freedom to own, and the state-granted monopoly of “intellectual property” is going to have to take a back seat to “intellectual freedom”. It may even be that the freedom to grow have to take precedence over other forms of exclusive property, in land and other natural resources. Fortunately, this transition is well underway around the world, and there are numerous opportunities for geeks and greens to work together to define wicked problems, and create new possibilities for humanity.
For example, like Stallman’s subversion of copyright in the GPL, there are people are creatively reinterpreting property to make it once again serve human freedom, by planting fruit and nut trees in public spaces. Free Food New Zealand’s initiatives on the ground are supported by online propogation advice, and fruit tree mapping projects, using Google Maps. Free culture advocates could help by migrating these maps to a system using Open Street Map data, and building on the OSM mapping features to make them more conducive to food mapping.
The permaculture movement was founded on the training of designers, and the sharing of teaching materials is already common practice. Developing course materials online, under a libre license, would be highly beneficial to both trainers and learners of permaculture design. One thing free culture advocates could offer is a concerted effort to teach more permaculture trainers how to use wiki, and introduce them to collaboration sites like WikiVersity, and WikiEducator, who already host materials from a short permaculture course at Otago Polytech.”
4. Converging despite Differences
“Make no mistake, geeks and greens are different subcultures, despite the overlaps that increasingly exist. Geeks tend to be futurists, welcoming new technology, optimistic that its benefits will outweigh its costs. Greens tend to be more conservative, cleaving to the precautionary principle, and demanding proof of both safety and benefits before they embrace the synthetic. Geeks tend to be noncomformists, suspicious of the perceived social conservatism of neighbourhood politics, despite the entrenched social norms they co-operate under as part of online communities. Greens tend to be communalists, disapproving of competition, and despite their energetic collective competition for global moral leadership.
Despite all this, the communities of practice around both slow culture and free culture have nothing to lose by supporting each others work, and a just, free, and sustainable world to gain. With the global adoption of infostructure which integrates the ethics and principles of free culture, especially free software, we can ensure the universal freedom to contribute to, and draw from the shared human knowledge base, which will assist “slow and small” community development around the world. With a worldwide adoption of human habitat design practices which integrate the ethics and principles of slow culture, especially permaculture, we can be more certain of sustaining the capacity of the biosphere to support complex life forms like ourselves, and societies which can support free culture.
Free software, open source development, and libre knowledge systems, offer the hope of every person on the planet having access to the knowledge they need to help people make their communities self-sustaining, and defend their freedoms. Permaculture, with its practices of regenerative production, incremental design, and renewable energy, offers the hope of making information technology sustainable, by embedding it in self-sustaining intentional communities of free people. By supporting the defence and collaborative development of commons (eg seed banks, ConservationCommons, CreativeCommons), both slow culture and free culture show themselves to be neo-luddite movements – working to humanise technology, rather than mechanise/ automate humans. To achieve this, we need to value the freedoms to know, and to grow, over the freedom to own.”