Rushkoff pushes open source government, life, universe and everything

New York-based author Douglas Rushkoff believes the open source view of computing should be extended to government and our very concept of reality.

Open Source Democracy by Douglas Rushkoff (Free of charge (naturally))

New York-based author Douglas Rushkoff (pictured) believes the open source view of computing should be extended to government and our very concept of reality.

Too much of what we think of as “the truth” is dictated by “proprietary” entities who have framed structures that are no more reality and no less metaphor than an operating system’s GUI, he says.

Taking his own lesson to heart, Rushkoff, author of a number of conventional books on the media, sociology, fringe art and Judaism among other topics, has published Open-Source Democracy (35 pages) as an eBook through the Gutenberg Project. The terms of the Gutenberg licence allow readers extensive copying and reuse rights, subject to acknowledgement.

The network of information and relationships made possible by the internet, Rushkoff argues, is nothing less than a second Renaissance, with the same perspective of liberating the individual from unreasonable received “authority”.

“The first Renaissance took us from the position of passive recipient [of scripture and other authorised texts] to active interpreter. Our current renaissance brings us from the role of interpreter to the role of author. We are the creators.”

So we and our “servants” in government should use the electronic tools of direct democracy more effectively than blunt tools such as opinion polls. Rushkoff envisages a political environment where elected leaders use the internet to engage with constituents and justify the decisions they have made on our behalf, "rather than simply soliciting our moment-to-moment opinions”; where they “engage the public in an ongoing exploration and dialogue on issues and their impacts”.

The initial manifestations of the “new media” operated as a kind of gift economy, Rushkoff says. “People developed and shared new technologies with no expectation of financial return.” Just as significant was the orientation of the early internet to two-way communication. “It was not a medium for broadcasting by a few but for the expression of the many.”

All this, he suggests, risks being turned round by the forces of commerce and conventional media, anxious to restore the community to the passive role of consuming “authorised” texts through controlled technology, with the inevitable attached advertisements and buying opportunities.

Governments have wittingly or unwittingly assisted the conventional media in their fight against the new, by passing ill-considered laws aimed at combatting perceived online threats like pornography, money laundering and terrorism, but with far broader effect, he says.

The dot-com collapse of 2000, Rushkoff contends, showed the fragility of the attempted “backlash”. Businesses attempting to visit on the new medium a passive consumer model, with its vacuous trade in “eyeballs”, were ripe for failure.

The essay is interesting for the number of modish threads Rushkoff manages to weave into the service of an open-source culture; from environmentalism and anti-globalism to chaos theory and fractals.

One of his wildest theories, in my view (and I’m a rooted sceptic on fringe health matters) is that “attention deficit disorders” represent the old culture’s view of the agile mind of a child of the internet generation, and our children are being medicated to keep them focused long enough to read an advertisement rather than instantly clicking away from it.

That doesn't quite gibe with my experience. My teenage daughter channel-surfs like a demon on TV and conducts six simultaneous conversations through online chat; but I haven’t noticed much effect on her enthusiasm for the latest skilfully marketed fad.

Many will see Rushkoff as having a disturbingly skewed view of the world, but as an excursion into the workings of an individual mind, the essay is worth reading, and occasionally, even the most sceptical among IT professionals will accept “he’s got a point there”.

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