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
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
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
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.