Free Society = Read-Write Society: A Culture of Openness and Free Collaboration

What made and makes the development of free software, free content and free infrastructures – alternatives to centralized systems of knowledge distribution and development possible? What made and makes the system of the many in contrast to the system of the few and powerful possible?

The Internet is an important factor, but indeed it is much more the culture of openness and free collaboration that constitutes the basis for free layers. It is a cultural change that took off in the aftermath of the peaceful revolutions in the world and the fall of the Berlin wall 1989. A short time when people took politics in their own hands and when “the end of history” was proclaimed by Francis Fukuyama. Many criticized him and regarded this statement as invalid proven by the aftermaths. Looking at what happened at a level far apart from daily superficial politics – how people started to create free layers – I find it rather valid, if it is slightly rephrased to “the end of old history”.

In the times before 1989 few people were able to take part in the production of content and culture. Afterwards more and more people simply safeguarded their rights and started collaborating on the most different topics. This is not only a change of how people behave but indeed this changes the way reality is perceived. The production of content and free publication is a lively way to write our own history.

The people’s history is completely opposite to the way history “was made”, or often we could even use the word “fabricated”, before. It includes all its facets and different opinions of people involved and enables a look closer to the actual happenings of a time than any historian could possibly allow us to see. The many different views and descriptions are presented directly and indirectly. The observations, ideas and intentions of producers can be directly observed in the actual content they produce, like in the articles of Wikipedia, or in the way software programs function, like Linux. Indirect conclusions about the world we live in can be drawn through the transparency and openness of the productions processes in free layers, e.g. the version history in Wikipedia or the documentation, the open sources and versions in the free software production.

The openness of free layers allows everyone to be a historian. “In the old days” to be a historian was a profession limited to a few. Until today historians were the historians of the powerful, the ones that provided them with the opportunities to work or simpler said with food and shelter. They wrote down what the future world would know of a time. Isn’t it therefore mostly the history of the winners that we quote today?

It changes in the aftermath of the freedom movements in 1989 and the growth of the free Internet (“as in freedom”, Stallman). This is “the begin of a new history”, where people write their own history in blogs, forums, mailing lists and wikis – the (his)stories of the many not the few.

In the Read-Write Society (Lawrence Lessig) people create their own content, own software, own infrastructures, own hardware. And thus they create their own realities, their own truths, their own society. More and more label their productions as free – free software, free wireless networks, free music, free videos, free texts and whole free encyclopedias. Free licenses allow people to copy and redistribute their work and the works of others freely to and by anyone and sometimes even to change and to sell it – the start of completely free layers.

Nevertheless looking at the real number of people actually participating in creating these free layers – publishing content or producing free software, it is still a small number of people. However many more already profit from this information and knowledge gathering. Wikipedia is one of the top sites on the Internet. Imagine what else can be achieved through this culture of freedom.