Monday, May 09, 2005

Where are the revolutionaries?

Can anyone tell me what ever happened to the revolutionaries? I'm not talking about terrorists like those who attended the Boston Tea Party during the American Revolution, but small groups of free thinkers, gathering in cafes to talk about new ideas and deciding to change the world because they could make it a better place. We know them as The Impressionists or The Beats, and they changed the world by changing the way we think. They didn't do it by force of arms or law, but by appealing to our imaginations, made fertile by living too long with the status quo, yet lacking the insight or creativity to do something different ourselves.

Social and political structures see change like nature sees a vacuum; they abhor it. Those in power stay in power by making sure the infrastructure that put them there stays in place. Rich people don't want new monetary systems, and CEOs don't want public ownership of companies; politicians don't like term limits unless they keep other politicians from grabbing too much power, and campaign finance reform is to keep up-and-comers from being elected, not to keep incumbents from keeping their seats.

Chances are good that the political structure we have in the United States isn't going to change dramatically any time soon. As far as I can tell, even the 1920 decision to allow women to vote was more of an admittance that Congress had been reading the law wrong for over 130 years rather than any real change in the structure of the system. Sure, women finally got the right to vote, which was huge for every voter, but it just ended up adding one more facet to the body politic; one more group for the politicians to address on the campaign trail.

So I could go on musing for many long paragraphs about how we should abolish the electoral college, limit legislative bills to directly-related items and elimiate riders, or make the office of President a non-partisan position (oh, wouldn't that spin some hats?), but I would feel like I was wasting my time and yours, because those in power have a vested interest in keeping those institutions in the condition they're in, and you or I are not going to get them changed. Instead, I'm on about revolutions of a different sort, though ones just as sorely missed or missing.

In discussing this topic with a friend of mine, I brought up that the Internet has become the Paris of the Impressionists, and all the messageboards and e-mail servers are the cafes we gather in to bandy about heady ideas, grouse about whatever is wrong with our corner of the world, and while away the hours as the world goes by outside. If only we could order coffee and a pastry, we might never leave. The ideas, though, seem to be nothing more than talk, with most people waiting for someone else to take action so that they can cheer them on or deride them for not doing it "the way it should have been done," depending on the observer's particular point of view and the outcome of the attempt.

My friend pointed out that SourceForge has become ground zero for one kind of revolution; it's changing the way people think about the way software is created and distributed, and the status quo is certainly being upset. But, however much I like and support the concept of Open Source Software, I have to wonder just how much of society the OSS movement can affect. If, in some far distant future, the likes of Microsoft and Oracle have all gone the way of the dodo and everyone is running community-developed software on their portable supercluster hiptop computers, what will have really changed? Will Joe and Jane User really realize or care about the license attached to the OS they're running? The number of people using bootleg copies of Windows indicates no. Most people are oblivious to that aspect of computer systems, and are just happy if they can get their e-mail, play video games and surf the Web.

Of course, that's where the real revolution has happened. A dozen years ago, most people hadn't heard of the Internet, nor could they access it if they wanted to. Now people go into withdrawls if they have to go more than 48 hours without checking their e-mail box for messages from people they've never met in person; the English language (and possibly several others) has been altered by the insertion of a new verb, to google, referring to use of the search engine Google to lookup information; and firewalls are no longer solely a part of building construction.

But what of the rest of the world? Maybe, in that far distant future, Joe and Jane will casually check the Net for information on an off-world vacation. With Mars at opposition, it's too far to go during their break, so they'll be limited to Earth orbit, possibly the moon. They'll think back wistfully (and with pity) to our time, when no one but professional astronauts could go to orbit, and a few small-time revolutionaries came together to change that.

Mabye I'm complaining about a problem that doesn't exist. Maybe revolution is going on all over the world, and I, right in the thick of things, can't see the forest for the trees. It's likely that, in Paris in the early 1870s, lots of people sat around in cafes, talking about what ought to be done to change things, but never got out of their chairs to do something. Many of them sneered at anyone who actually tried to do something, saying how it would never get past the well-entrenched establishment. Maybe the layer of cream on the milk jug is just thinner than I would like to see it. And maybe, just maybe, I should find something to go do rather than writing about what's not being done.

Someone get me a cup of coffee, I've got a revolution to join.


Stickystacky said...

Your observation that the revolutionaries were doing something seems like it's pointing in the right direction. Look for the people who espouse a significantly different world-view and are doing something.

I've got my eye on the Baha'i Faith.

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