"I don't have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It's a depression. Everybody's out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel's worth, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there's nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there's no end to it."
Few have expressed the outrage of the common people at out-of-control capitalism better than the Howard Beale character in the 1976 movie Network. In the light of current events, the movie’s take on a society that has relinquished its control and independence to greedy corporates in exchange for more TV channels is even more poignant than it was 35 years ago.
Much has changed in the past three and half decades, and not all of it is “worse than bad” - far from it. The internet in particular has opened up virtually endless possibilities for humans to connect, play, work, create, and share. The net today is an enormous, ubiquitous power that influences everything and everyone. And like the proverbial axe that can be used to chop firewood or to chop off an arm, this power can be used or abused.
What’s changed in the past few years specifically is that we’re seeing increased awareness of how technology impacts our lives and what this means for us as individuals, as citizens, as employees, as communities, and as nations. Maybe 2011 will in the future be seen as the year when a lot of big paradigms started to shift and new structures and dynamics started to emerge. It’s early days for seeing the impact of movements such as the Arab Spring, or Occupy Wall Street. We don’t know yet what effect Wikileaks will have long-term on transparency and accountability. It’s possible that government censorship, surveillance, and erosion of privacy will not slow down but instead accelerate. If that happens, our civil rights and democracy itself will be undermined further.
One thing is clear though: The “real” world and the internet world are converging. They are not two separate spheres any more, but have become one and the same. As a citizen and as a social human being, it’s almost impossible to opt out of the latter completely. Internet-rights issues are becoming mainstream, and moreover, are now simply human-rights issues. There’s not just a “digital divide”, but simply an ever-growing divide in our society. We don’t need more media literacy, but more literacy. And so on.
The upshot of this convergence is that more and more people are understanding how technology affects their world. They realise that thanks to the internet we have more possibilities than ever before. At the same time, our freedoms and rights to use this technology are increasingly under threat from corporate interests, paranoid governments, and misguided decision makers in positions of power.
People are getting concerned, and they want to do something. In New Zealand, a month before the election, many voters wonder who will understand and appropriately represent their concerns in the next parliament and government. Anyone who watched our elected officials’ recent performances, for example in the now (in)famous Skynet debate, would be hard-pressed to find any cause for confidence that future net-related issues will be treated responsibly and with knowledge.
So, what can we do? How can we as individuals and as communities make a difference? Here’s our answer: Retake the Net.
Retake the Net is an initiative that connects people with concrete projects to help keep the net free and open. We founded Retake the Net in mid-2011 because we wanted to stop lamenting and do something concrete to take back the internet from corporate and government control.
Our projects encourage people to use, create, and share free and open tools, content, and infrastructures. Current projects include a tool to browse the web anonymously, a computer hub set up in an inner-city soup kitchen, as well as projects related to free software, a platform for policies, and open culture. What connects all these projects is that we are about positive change and creation, and using the power of the network and technology to establish meaningful connections between humans.
Big goals. Why does it matter?
It matters because it shows that we don’t have to sit back and just be good consumers who only watch television and wait for instructions from on high. It’s up to us to do something and make a difference. Moreover, it shows that we can do things right here, in and from New Zealand, and have an effect beyond our shores.
The Kiwi spirit is about getting things done. Our small population enables access to decisions makers and direct communication with those in power (we forget how special this is). The strong communities already active in various areas related to internet freedom form an ideal basis for initiatives such as Retake the Net. And the internet allows us to connect what we’re doing to the world.
We’ve just started, but it’s been humbling and exciting to see the interest and support from inside and outside New Zealand. Everyone we’ve talked to has been encouraging - from community groups to local and central government people to activists to just about anyone who cares about internet freedom and rights.
Retake the Net is not about protest. We are about creation. Creation of an internet that we can be proud of. There is a special attitude here in New Zealand that can translate to us being a nation of producers, not just consumers.
More information and contact details for Retake the Net can be found at http://retakethe.net. People can also follow us on Twitter at @retakethenet.
We still have some spots left for the Retake the Net barcamp, an all-day conference on 29 October 2011 in Wellington Town Hall. Anyone keen to join this event should register on our wiki at http://wiki.retakethe.net.
Retake the Net is an ongoing initiative, and we’re always welcoming people who want to get involved in one our projects: http://retakethe.net/projects.
Sibylle Schwarz is a German-ex-American-Wellingtonian who has been working with the net since the days of the first browser wars. Brian Calhoun is a new Kiwi with an American accent who’s trying to recreate the best parts of San Francisco in Wellington. They co-founded Retake the Net to help keep the net free and open.