Poor Richard — Introduction
Hello p2p peeps,
Michel asked me to introduce myself and my approach to p2p.
I recently started blogging this year after being “out of network” for a long time. A couple of months ago I also opened a FaceBook account–reluctantly because of the controversies. Anyway, one of my new fb friends kept posting links to Michel Bauwens’ articles on the P2P Foundation Blog so I found my way to P2P Land–a place that feels a lot like “home”. But I have some intellectual catching up and verbal retooling to do. Much of the writing I’ve done so far this year may sound a bit “old school”, but I hope to catch up quickly.
P2P is a post-capitalist framework that makes a lot of sense to me. It transcends but includes capitalism; and encompasses many hybrids of open and closed, public and private, hierarchical and egalitarian associations. One thing I hope to bring with me into the p2p framework is sense of how some older, “legacy” legal, economic, and philosophical ideas might be rehabilitated and repurposed for the future.
But to start out, here is some history of my orbit around p2p issues.
Chunks of my life have been spent not just out of network but out of main$tream culture.
In the late 60’s I became disenchanted with the civil rights movement and with anti-nuclear, anti-war, and other protest movements because of what I saw as an inclination of my peers to “protest party” more than to build new realities brick by brick. I had a deep drive to “be the change” instead of protesting the problem (not that I’m unthankful for those who do the protesting).
I walked away from a stack of scholarship offers and took an old school bus around the country and then into the mountains of Tennessee. Have you read or seen “Into the Wild” by Jon Krakauer? That story has many parallels with my life in the seventies, except I didn’t die. With the help of an ingenious young junkyard owner I got the big blue bus to the top of Flower Mountain, and with the help of a hillbilly family I learned how to live off the grid.
Over the years I’ve visited many intentional communities. I’ve known many “Mother Earth News” style back-to-the-land homesteaders. I’ve been exposed to Appalachian hillbilly culture and had work/trade relationships with members of a horse-and-buggy Mennonite community. Those were all places where peer-to-peer culture was flourishing–only they didn’t call it that.
Around 1980 I spent a year as a Vista volunteer working with the Agricultural Marketing Project to organize tailgate markets for small, family farmers in church parking lots all over Appalachia. I learned about the problem of farmland being converted to other uses because of development pressures. I had long been interested in the legal issues confronting intentional communities, community land trusts, wild habitat conservation, etc. and so I went to the state of Tennessee with an idea for establishing a conservation easement program to help protect farmland and “open space” in Tennessee from development. The TN Department of Conservation loved the idea and the TN Conservation Easement Act of 1981 soon came into being.
Around the same time I helped to start the Tennessee Solar Energy Association with some help from Al Gore and others. I used to sit in my school bus and type out the TSEA newsletter on an old manual typewriter. That led to serving as a reviewer of grant proposals for an appropriate technology grants program for Jimmy Carter’s Department of Energy. I would often review proposals by the light of a kerosene lamp.
My reason for mentioning that chapter of my experience is that I discovered alternative ways to engage with government agencies and civil servants other than via protests, petitions, and other adversarial interactions. I found that overlaps in personal interests and causes could create influential peer-to-peer relationships among individuals in and out of government.
But like many young men I thought I needed the constant companionship and attention of a woman–and women didn’t seem to like my isolated mountain retreat for long. So I decided to move to town for a while and get involved with more people and more causes on a daily basis. That’s when an old interest in computers got me involved in strange new things.
My time as a Vista volunteer convinced me that non-profits were too dependent on philanthropy and grant cycles. I felt that many non-profits might generate some of their own revenues by offering specialized goods and services that were consistent with their core mission. Habitat for Humanity’s popular “ReStores” is a good example of the idea.
When a friend loaned me his home-built Heathkit personal computer I was hooked and soon I was promoting the idea of a personal computer retail franchise (based on the popular ComputerLand franchise but also incorporating books, classroom education, and mail order) that would funnel its revenues to non-profit organizations.
This took off almost too fast because my hopes for a worker-owned business model were in conflict with the interests of the original set of “angel” investors who participated in the start-up funding. There were many conflicting agendas (none of which included personal financial gain, by the way).
My own agenda took an almost bizarre twist as my unconscious mind ran through the possibilities of what I could do with a whole inventory of computers at my disposal. Direct mail marketing was a relatively new (but already notorious) phenomenon in the early 80’s, and I struck on the idea of using the demo computers on the sales floor to do direct-mail marketing in the public interest. Before long an ambitious plan took shape in my mind. I would market rural Tennessee real estate to the whole country (or to the entire world) using direct mail targeted at progressive, conservation-minded people. A special brokerage would handle the transactions, placing conservation easements and other kinds of restrictive covenants in each title, making the property attractive only to conservation-minded buyers. A non-profit brokerage might afford to offer property at below-market prices, and the associated easements would also confer tax benefits under the new TN Conservation Easement Act. The non-profit brokerage could eventually expand into green real estate development, green home building, etc.
I also imagined the possible political ramifications of attracting hoards of progressive, conservation-minded people from around the US and the world to sparsely-populated, rural TN counties. This could be the beginnings of an alternative economic and political base in a large block of rural Tennessee counties, perhaps with eventual influence on the politics and economy of the whole state.
However, it turned out I did not have the skill set or charisma to sell this idea to the investors and staff at the pace demanded by my own enthusiasm. I was eventually asked to resign from the organization I had created over conflicts in how resources should be allocated.
Stung by this failure I turned to repositioning and re-branding myself. Over the next decade I progressed from freelance IT consulting gigs to eventually becoming one of the principle distributed computing and web architects at a global Fortune 500 company. However, my attempts to introduce open-sourced software and peer-to-peer architecture into the top-down corporate environment were largely unsuccessful. Deeply frustrated by the vision of my “peers” once again, my corporate IT career came to its natural conclusion.
After a pointless quest to see how much money I could earn while having no time to spend it, and thoroughly burned out on high technology, I designed an occupational therapy project for myself. I spent two years restoring an 1890’s mill-workers’ house in a historic textile mill village in Burlington, NC.
As I recycled used tools, equipment, and materials in the restoration project I gained a much deeper insight into the subject of recycling and repurposing of existing materials, structures, machines, etc. Although I was always interested in electric vehicles, I became concerned with the problem of the existing fleet of internal combustion vehicles, numbering in the hundreds of millions in the US alone. We could not scrap all these vehicles and jump into new electric cars. Even though old vehicles can be recycled, that carries an enormous energy cost before a new vehicle ever hits the road.
Learning that most existing vehicles could burn high-ethanol blends, I started promoting the idea of a consumer- and worker-owned ethanol cooperative in the fairly progressive Durham, NC area. But the events of the mortgage bubble overtook me, and faced with difficulties converting my construction loan on the mill house to a conventional mortgage, I was forced to sell at an unfavorable price. This was another personal setback that sent me retreating to my counter-cultural roots.
I gave away everything I owned that my friends could use and hauled the remaining tools, equipment, incomplete ethanol still, etc. with me to Turtle Island Preserve, a primitive farm and educational venue in the Blue Ridge mountains owned by Eustace Conway, an American naturalist and the subject of the book The Last American Man.
There, at last, I was back among kindred spirits. Eustace and his band of merry men and women are some of the finest people on earth. But my stay there was short. I arrived in balmy July, but by January The Blue Ridge winter and the primitive lodgings proved too much for my advancing age and worsening arthritis. It seems that over a decade of city life had turned me into an actual city-slicker, in body if not in mind or heart. Reluctantly I left with little more than the down coat on my back and headed for my Mother’s warm house in Alabama.
Feeling that I had outlived my usefulness, I retired to a cozy, secluded cottage in Alabama to feed the birds and watch the deer play. I had no use for computers for a while. There was no broadband service, anyway. But eventually “the DSL” came to my neck of the woods and the pull of Google research and subversive, alternative media drew me back online. I discovered the world of blogging and social networking and finally I stumbled back around to the world of copyleft and p2p.
Besides venting opinions in Poor Richard’s Almanack 2010, in recent months I have been hatching a plan to save the world with a new generation of video games, informed by neuroscience and experimental psychology, designed to correct irrational thinking. Since I have no video game, virtual reality, or neurobiology credentials (or any credentials other than IT), this will be a highly collaborative, p2p, Creative Commons type project. When I finish working on a time-sensitive proposal, I will be happy to share further details. Meanwhile, I urge anyone with experience implementing educational products or services in Second Life to consider reading my post “The Beginning of Wisdom 3.0” and contacting me by leaving a comment there or at my FaceBook page.
P2P or bust,