Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Open Source Alternatives

Chronicling the supervillainy of the era would not be complete without discussing methods of countering it. Trying to work within the system for positive change nowadays is mostly a the soul-crushing labor and sisyphean task, given the extent of regulatory capture by the corrupt interests. This is by no means limited to Russia, China, and the third world. The US, UK, and EU are rapidly closing the 'corruption gap.' The future of the world seems to be one giant neofeudal oligarchy or kleptocratic banana republic, the pattern of most of human history.

Add in fossil fuel depletion, more crazy climate events, widening inequality, and diminishing resources, and you've got a recipe for disaster. Not merely one or two disasters, but a chain of epic failures that governments and institutions will muddle through without an idea. They are highly centralized, fragile behemoths, but their downfall could drag down much of the infrastructure we depend on for power, food, water, and other essentials. This is what Kunstler called "The Long Emergency," in his book of the same name. He posits many of our technologies may stagnate or be lost, at least under the current consumerist model of technological development.

As resources decay, feudalism returns, and things fall away, is there an alternative? Are we condemned to live as indentured servants, subsisting on the whims of our drone-wielding neo-feudal overlords? There are some in the works now, using an ethos that should be familiar to most hackers and geeks: open source. Open source is for more than just software, and is being applied to everything from hardware development to architecture to small arms design.These designs can be produced at low cost and using mostly local resources. Even if global supply chains break down, there's still plenty of rare materials that could be gained from salvage and old landfills.

I believe the mega-slums of the third world offer a more apt picture of the future than pre-industrial agrarianism (although local food production would definitely be back). Of course, the Internet infrastructure itself is weak in many areas, but local wireless networks are fairly viable. Even with diminished energy resources, the generation of electrical power itself could be changed to a local scale (backyard mini-turbines, rooftop solar cells, even century old designs based on 'water-wheel' style electric turbines in streams could work). Of course, those methods would be unable to power a regular American style McMansion filled suburb in the middle of summer or winter, but you would probably not need that much power for these machine shops (AKA hackerspaces or makerspaces). These machines would be built to last, rather than built to break down after a year. There are more engineers, scientists, technicians, and hackers alive today than any other point in history, so even if there's a mega-disaster, some are statistically likely to survive.

That said, open source hardware and software is one of the best things for a free market. A constantly improving free system provides a baseline from which competition can occur. Many 'less complex' machines I refer to have had their patents expire decades ago. This means more manufacturers can make parts or their own variants on old designs. Take the firearms market, for example. In the USA, the M1911 pistol (that classic century-old .45 ACP design by John Browning) and the AR-15 (based on Eugene Stoner's AR10) are common amongst shooters. This is because the patents have expired, and there is a veritable market of custom parts and specialized models for every conceivable niche. From concealed carry firearms to sporting ones to military and police versions, the possible combinations and permutations on those designs are limitless. And let's not forget the most common "open source" firearm, the AK47, which is still manufactured in Russia as well as in caves with a box of scraps. AKs are built pretty durably, one reason they'll probably outlive many of the people using them. While many an internet forum has had flame wars on the AR15 vs. AK47, there are now enough after-market parts and custom variations to essentially make stereotypes about both obsolete.
There are already promising signs of this relocalization of life, but they're off the radar of the mainstream media and most politicians. They want to preserve the globalized, corporate socialist world they've built for themselves. They still have the power to do great harm, mostly in the form of trying to delay the inevitable and destroying alternatives at birth. This is not due to malice, but rather incompetence. Most politicians are concerned with staying in power (whether they were elected or not), and would rather not shake the boat so much, so to speak. The truth is, we don't need them. True change comes from bottom up, not some corporate or government policy (like there's much difference between them any more).

A decentralized, democratic group of citizens are probably one of the best defenses against such neo-feudal kleptocrats taking over. That was Thomas Jefferson's vision for the US (self sufficient, educated civic-minded citizens), ironically enough. Looks like that has to be relearned the hard way. If you want to get involved in building this new future, I recommend seeing if there's a hackerspace near you. I also recommend John Robb's excellent Resilient Communities site. Learn to code, fix something yourself, maybe grow a garden. You won't be totally self sufficient, but that's not the point. You're diversifying your own skills to better prepare for your future. Don't go gently into the long night. 

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