Monday, March 31, 2008

The Real Netroots Revolution


What is the Netroots Revolution? The Netroots is about creating tools that make organizing easier. It's also about a greater democratic spirit and true equality, no matter someone's age, sex, location, sexual orientation, ethnicity, class or credit score. So, it kind of got to me lately that I've fallen behind on my ability to use some of these fine tools that truly open access to everyday citizens that want to get involved in new and exciting ways (be it politically, or not), but may not have the megabucks to be able to afford the expensive technical tools that are often necessary to do anything meaningful with a computer.

I guess it all started for me when I needed Microsoft Excel badly about 2-3 years ago, for around a week, so I could grade some papers as an International Relations TA. The semester was ending and I had truly delayed the inevitable, leaving a lot of the grading to the last minute. Knowing that it was finals week and the computer labs would be swamped, I decided to just download Excel as a trial version. Huge mistake. The trial version was a complete trial of Microsoft Office - it installed a new version of Word, erasing the copy of the program I already had - which was the one Microsoft program I continually relied on other than Windows.

Consequently, I've been completely without Word for more than 2 years, and had to scrape by with Word Perfect on my (now broken) laptop. Word Perfect is such a terrible program that I found it nearly unusable - and started to do most of my written work in those extremely busy computer labs. Only recently, maybe in the summer, did I find out about OpenOffice - which has a word-like utility included in its suite of programs that's finally restored most of the things I missed from Word. Except, not only do I now have that program, but I also have an alternative to Excel, Access (which is crucial in my line of work), Powerpoint and other programs - and OpenOffice includes the feature to save files in any of Microsoft Office's formats and more, making them completely compatible with virtually everything. It's not always quite as pretty (I wish the bullets and numberings had prettier fonts), but it certainly gets the job done in ways that Word Perfect never could.

That made me investigate what other options are out there online, and I've since found quite a few. First off, I already listed some of OpenOffice's other great quality tools, but that's not the only option out there that's taken on Microsoft in a major way. Google Documents offers many of the same programs (and they also save files in most any format, from word to pdf), albeit even more basic in presentation - but it comes with an added bonus: they're not only free, but files are saved online and can be set to be group projects, or viewable by anyone given permission. That's such a powerful tool, I've even used it on political campaigns. Imagine what anyone could do with it - allow friends or peers to help edit work, work on a group project together at school, work on a civic project as a team - and all from any computer with internet access. Or, need to access your paper from the computer lab at school - but you don't have a flash drive with a saved version? No problem. Not to mention, you'll never have to worry about backing up your data again: Google not only saves the content online, but you can restore to any point of change you made on the documents, ever.

It almost goes without saying that I now use GMAIL, because it's by far superior to hotmail, aol and others available - and includes many of the functions one would normally use a Microsoft Outlook for (such as forwarding all email accounts to one page, with the ability to write an email from any account on that same page), plus it comes with some added bonuses: a fantastic way to search for old emails, a great spam-catching folder and the ability to label emails. (For example, I label my emails so that when they come in my inbox, I can see what email account they were emailed to - but you could set a label to catch all emails that include the word "Ryan" if you wanted a quick way to filter for emails sent by me, or "BSG" to filter the emails sent to you that say anything about my favorite TV show.) All of these are important tools that people are starting to use en masse, and all of these tools are making the progressive/netroots movement stronger, even if it's by osmosis.

***

It seems most people who talk about netroots and think about web applications think about blogs, internet forums and email groups. But, really, even if those are what we traditionally think of as being the core "netroot tools," they're only a tiny piece of the puzzle. The ultimate tools that are being advanced today are the tools that bring professional caliber resources into the hands of citizens for free, or next to nothing.

Youtube has certainly been powerful, but how much more powerful would it be if people had more - free - resources to edit their projects? Microsoft and Apple have added some things into their base operating systems, but a lot of them leave out core functionality. Imagine an open-source internet program that could allow users to edit and paint moving video, create professional-quality music, animate objects or create special effects? Well, that's what Jahshaka is starting to do, and will only get better at as the future moves on. Soon, every citizen will be able to create a documentary as entertaining and worth watching by a wide audience as Michael Moore's often humorous, but important, pieces.

Then what about editing digital images? Adobe Photoshop costs hundreds upon hundreds of dollars, even for the scaled down version geared toward a more general public. GIMP has most of the functionality of Photoshop and is perfect for anyone that doesn't need Photoshop for commercial printing. Soon, when it supports a format that would allow it to be useful to most commercial print shops (CMYK color formatting), it may even start to become useful to printing and design professions - especially with the fact that they'd save hundreds or even thousands of dollars for a program that does virtually the same thing. Heck, there are lots of professionals who already use it - I don't know if this is a credit or a detriment, but the same folks who made Hulk the movie used an offshoot of GIMP for its video editing. Did I mention that GIMP edits videos, too? Well, it does. That's one of the beauties of open-source: the programs cater to those who would use it most, creating features that everyone needs in the process.

Furthermore, just because it's open source, doesn't mean it's necessarily underfunded, or has to be underfunded - because it does take money to make these things and keep them relevant, after all. There are plenty of corporations that stand to benefit by helping fund these projects because ultimately it may be a helluva lot cheaper to help a few people design these programs than pay for the licenses to buy twenty million copies of Microsoft Office, or tens of thousands of copies of Photoshop. In doing so, they can help fuel the development of software that'll help them, and everyone, do exactly what's needed at a far more reasonable price. It has the added bonus of helping people have access to professional quality tools to boot. If open source programs made a stronger appeal to find some corporate sponsors, they could hasten the development of new features and better programming even faster.

But, Ryan, how will Microsoft and Apple keep making the big bucks? In the end, the only people who won't benefit from Open Source programming is going to be people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Few will feel guilty about it because we're only getting to a point now where we should have been from the beginning. That's right, software like Microsoft Office should have been inexpensive all along: if people can buy and sell used copies of books, cars and homes with little government oversight, why should we have to pay for the *license* to operate a computer program, with no ability to ever reuse that license again - be it selling an old copy to a friend, or using the same copy on the next computer you buy? Sure, it may be fair to have some limitations, but there's no reason that people shouldn't be able to sell their copy of Windows XP when they finally buy a new computer and would no longer use the program, at the very least. (Literally, when someone buys a copy of Windows, of any other expensive software, with their new computer, they don't actually buy the program - the buy the rights to use the program).

Open source programs are a way of finally getting around the software laws that were written way before the Internet 2.0, when it would have been possible for a movement to coalesce around preventing the software giants from creating licensing law that benefited solely them. Those same laws are the ones that directly spurned the need many people found themselves having to find alternatives to paying the thousands of dollars it would take to add those tools to their computer. Would these programs have been pirated had the laws been different? Definitely not to the same extent, but it's getting to the point where pirating will (hopefully) tail off since there are free, open source programs out there that at the very least compete with the software giants at almost any level, and will soon be far superior to them because of the very nature of open source programming.

So what does this all mean? The internet is finally making good on truly leveling the playing field. The consequences aren't always good - free does occasionally have a cost (for example: I probably couldn't ever make a living blogging, which is very unfortunate) - but at least we're coming to a day and age when it isn't even necessary to pirate the big and expensive programs online, and it's surely true that the number one reason why people pirate software like Photoshop is because they have a need for it, but can't afford it. So, in a day and age when there are alternatives to those kind of programs that are better, equal or at least perfect for the vast majority of users, we're finally reaching a new order in society, and almost certainly a better one. This, more than anything else (blogging, forums, free MSM news online, social networking sites, etc.) represents the true scope and potential of the netroots movement: we can do anything they can do, and better. It's these kinds of programs that can truly make a difference in lives of most citizens across the country, whether that's trying to influence public opinion or state legislators, or just finishing your twenty page thesis paper without the need of an expensive program. It's all happening, right now, in the midst of the Netroots Revolution.

11 comments:

Ari Fertig said...

Have you tried Zoho? (http://zoho.com/)

I find that it does all of the basic functions you're talking about a lot better than google docs, and has quite a bit to offer. I can't believe that anybody used Word Perfect in 2008.

Ryan Adams said...

It was so horrible! I have nightmares from it.

(for starters, it RUINED one of my 25 page papers so badly that I had to completely redo all of my footnotes, etc - which took a full freaking 6 hours to do, I kid you not.)

It's kind of weird being born in 1984 - I was young enough not to miss the tech revolution (unlike my sister, who was born in '78 and has awful computer skills), but I was old enough to start to grow a little too old for some of the more innovative aspects... and thus have had to make a conscious decision to learn about all of them (because, at base, I am a geek LOL).

I'll give Zoho a look, but it'll take a solid bit to pry me away from google docs, only because I have so many files on it.

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Anonymous said...

Microsoft office has been inexpensive throughout its development. It has increased productivity in this coutry immeasureably and the developers should be and are being rewarded (as were Henry Ford, Thomas Edison etc.). If the marketplace is now developing more tools at a cheaper cost all the better.

Ryan Adams said...

Anon,

Hundreds of dollars for a program that allows me to write on my computer isn't 'inexpensive.' Furthermore, as they bundle the services in more and more ways, they make each consumer forced to pay more and more - including consumers that may want a specific program, as opposed to the others. For example, I don't have a need for Powerpoint, but I do use Access a lot... but to get Access, I would have to get Microsoft's most expensive bundle.

Furthermore, there's no reason why I shouldn't be able to buy a program and then, if I got a better one or got a new one with a new computer, sell my old copy as a used product. It shouldn't be treated much differently than any other product - and almost everything in this country can be sold second hand. That would go a long way toward letting the "market" set the prices of these products.

Finally, no, the market hasn't changed the way things are - PEOPLE have. Regular people. People who said 'enough is enough' and designed their own stinking programs. They offer many of those programs online for either free, or at a very reasonable rate. It obviously didn't have to be that way: if Microsoft and the other software giants didn't make sure the laws were written solely in their favor, then the products would have been much more affordable and accessible to every day people.

Anonymous said...

Although Google is convenient, I can't share your enthusiasm because it has an atrocious record on privacy. Backing up all your stuff on Google might be easy, but I'm not sure to what degree it will remain "your" stuff.

Anonymous said...

You (or anyone else who wanted to spend the time learning) could have written code to run programs in basic,fortran etc. Some people did and when they realized others would find their hard work useful they decided to cash in. Do you get cable, they bundle channels I'm not interested in, but I could get rabbit ears or read a book. Buy a Mac, maybe that would be better. A few hundred bucks for what it can do is cheap for software, it depends on your perspective. I never go to Starbucks for $4 coffees I think that's ridiculous, brew my own and take it to go. But I think the computers and software available is cheap.

Anonymous said...

Ryan, when you go to 10 different libraries and do research for one of your term papers, and spend a lot of time writing it, do you share that information with your classmates before you turn it in? Or do you write the paper and know that since you spent more time and effort you should get a better grade than your roomate who spent his time partying and wrote a terrible paper the night before. You should share the information, since the edification of the class as a whole is the purpose of your schooling isn't it?

Ryan Adams said...

Anon 6:49,

Nice attemp there at a straw man, but I'm not engaging in it. Under no circumstances do I think software companies shouldn't be compensated for their work. Nor do I support pirating - I haven't pirated so much as a song on my computer in around 4 years. I just think that the ways that laws are written (because the software companies made sure they were written that way) don't a) aren't fair and b) don't benefit society. Authors have to deal with the fact that their books can be resold; builders have to deal with the fact that most people don't buy brand new houses.

I don't see why someone shouldn't be able to sell a Adobe Photoshop, for example, if they're finished with the program (ie I don't think they should be able to keep the program and sell the disc - that wouldn't be fair). How do authors and builders compensate? They write new and special editions, and build better, more efficient, nicer homes - and cater to clients that want something new. In the end, software companies have shot themselves in the foot - as more and more programs become open source (and free), none of them will make any money: they've directly fed into their downfall. If they kept programs reasonable, or allowed the second-hand sale of them, then I don't think open source programs would have either arisen as quickly or maybe even at all.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't sell your Microsoft stock, I think they'll be around for a while.

Ryan Adams said...

of course they will.

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