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Ahead of the Times


Micah Sifry and I have gone back and forth on this topic so it feels a little bit like overkill to call attention to the New York Times’ attempt to classify political parties by their software preferences. But hey, you can never have too much clarity on these things.

The Times would prefer to associate the open source movement – that’s software where anyone with the appropriate skill can understand the mechanics and subtleties at work in a particular program – with the Democratic Party. Closed source – that’s Microsoft and corporate behavior – generally is associated with Republicans.
Yes. Well. First thing you learn covering the computer business: Stereotypes – which most of its leaders have suffered and chaffed against for years – are unwelcome. Second thing: Learn the details. Open source is open to those – and only to those – who can read and understand code. Meaning it ain’t exactly “little-d” democratic; not everybody can join. By my history book, anyway, that’s not exactly Big D politics. And, believe me, corporate think is alive and well in the software community; just try talking to anyone who’s got a venture capitalist and an investment banker waiting in the wings. There may be a lot of talk about not doing evil but there’s not much about conversation about not making money.
Steve Lohr, the Times reporter, is, however on to something. Of course, it’s not exactly news to regular reader of this site. But yes, the tech community – specifically the individual, iconoclastic stand-alone programming elements of the tech community – is getting more involved in politics. And, well, stereotyping, as Linus Torvalds warns, isn’t a good start. Geeks are coin operated – they move as ideas move them, as they get a new cause, a new fascination. They can not be tied down to a company, let alone a political party.
Torvalds, who knows a thing or two about making money off open source (he did well, very well at the tail end of the Bubble) warns the Times that individualism, not party affiliation is what’s at work. That makes the tech community more Libertarian than anything else. Danny Weitzner, a long-time observer of this scene who, as it happens, owes me a phone call (he was at the Electronic Frontier Foundation before it decided that changing Washington was best done – for better or worse – from outside the Beltway), notes that open source is Populist in nature. And that makes them reformers. Now, Populism got watered down and eventually supplanted by the Progressive movement which was a businessman’s political compromise between a whole series of warring factions, all set upon one another by the urbanization and industrialization of the U.S.
This new group of what I have started calling Progressive Libertarians are their heirs in many ways. They want to change the world, of that we can be sure. But, like the Progressives of the turn of the last century, they want change on their terms – no one else’s. That’s why, above all they are not party loyal. It is why they are – cautiously – interested in what California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has to offer, particularly when it comes to his stress on bipartisanship and governmental efficiency. The stress on individual ability and individual resources is a sentiment and sensibility that is making it way through our culture as more and more people realize what the Geeks – the hardcore coders – have always known: In this “new” economy, it’s up to you – and you alone. The smartest and fastest and most clever win and contempt isn’t well hidden. The rest, well, they’re road kill. And, when it comes to politics that can mean loyalty is both fleeting and, well, illusory.

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