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Editor's Note: What is There Besides Money?

Mar 26, 2010, 23:04 (46 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Carla Schroder)

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by Carla Schroder
Managing Editor

This modern world values money above all else, which is a limited and stifling measure of real value, and it has a corrosive effect on nearly everything it touches. So what is there besides money?

There are few things that have the impact of watching friends live on a monthly income not much higher than my mortgage payment. In my little corner of the US we barely notice a nationwide recession, because it's always a recession here. Unemployment is always in double-digits, and family-wage jobs are scarce. Families get by on $24,000 per year, or less, with both parents working.

Observing how people get by on so little money is a real education. I spent a good chunk of my misspent youth being dirt-poor, so this is familiar territory. There is a thriving barter economy that values many forms of non-money exchanges. People do household and yard chores for each other, watch kids, fix things that most folks would throw away, drive neighbors to doctor appointments three hours away, teach skills, share knowledge...you name it, the local economy is divese far beyond a money exchange. You can even bank favors and save them up for a future need.

My county lives and dies by volunteer labor. If we didn't have so many generous, far-sighted volunteers filling key positions we'd be in sorry shape. The fire departments are all volunteer, and they are required to have the same training and skills as big-city paid departments. Search and rescue, sheriff's reserves, home health care and hospice, and on and on and on...all of these jobs that are ordinarily paid positions are capably filled by skilled, committed unpaid volunteers.

Sound familiar? It is true that a lot of FOSS development is paid, but a sizable amount is still done by unpaid volunteers. The value of diverse, open development and distribution should speak for itself, given its long and successful history, and yet one of the biggest unanswered questions is how can a person make a living from FOSS? Those folks who are quickest with answers like "give away the code, sell service and support" are people who have jobs with paychecks, and have never tried it.

This mirrors similar dilemmas in other parts of society. In the US we have the double-whammy of the dollar is king, but there isn't all that much correlation between skills and paychecks. If it doesn't earn money it's not worth anything. And so we have an extreme imbalance in valuing citizen's contributions to society. The more you look, the more unpaid or poorly-paid contributors you find: musicians, stay-at-home parents, artists, actors, musicians, philosophers, researchers, dog doo picker-uppers, mentors, parenting coaches, citizen journalists, community organizers, book exchange, community gardens, computer geeks, and on and and on...what does it all count for? Little more than a warm glow, because there are no mechanisms to translate these contributions into some way of contributing to making a living, or banking these wonderful contributions against future need. This is a huge shortcoming in a supposedly advanced society.

Even worse, it leads to dangerously skewed values. I don't need to remind anyone of all the abuses perpetrated in the name of chasing the dollar, do I? Or rant against idiotic billionaire worship? Whether it's a Gates or a Shuttleworth, admiring someone because they are able to amass a huge fortune is the dopiest form of idolatry.

I wish I were wise enough to figure out and propose something concrete, at least as it could be applied to FOSS. Because I think it is dangerous to rely too much on corporate support, advertiser support, or allegedly benevolent billionaires. That's not the core value of FOSS anyway; FOSS is meant to give power and control to individuals, and to provide a strong mechanism for enabling cooperation, not to abdicate responsibility to the very entities that are already making a big hash of the world.

Bright ideas, anyone?

I hope you've been following the Maker series published on the Tyee; eight parts have appeared on LT so far. It is related to this topic, and I think it is interesting and inspirational. Thank you to Barbara Irwin for finding and submitting these stories.