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July 13, 2003


by John Clay, editor-in-chief

When the sky is overcast and my day passes in that dimly filtered remnant of sunlight, I find myself saying "Today is a dark day". Today. What a total and comprehensive word. In fact, other todays just a few time zones away, offset by an hour or two or three but still this very same day, are bright. Some are partly sunny, and some are blazing sun in an empty, all-blue sky. Within my own time zone the same variety is likely, some distance to the east or west and certainly on the long north-south line of longitude. "Today is a dark day." I was thinking the same thought one day earlier this year, not of weather but of the political and economic shadow which was cast over America on that terrible day, November 5, 2000, when the tree of liberty was cut down and a Bush planted in its place.

I was mired in the thought that the shadow has only darkened, when I received an email from France for Bhag. Yvon Chatelin, scientist and author of a recent biography of John James Audubon, which already is the authoritative French-language account of Audubon's life and soon enough might be the authoritative account in any language, had submitted a short memoir for publication. A meditation on moments of Chatelin's own career in Africa and America and France, the essay lifted me out of my own darkened place and time and gave me a view to the horizons all around, some clouded, some clear.

American marketing and media culture calls this type of experience an "escape". They say escape is the only reason people see movies and read books and party together. But I think that only those who cling to an imagined status quo could describe it this way. For those who see constant change all around—good change and bad change, because change is only as good or bad as its effect—the better description is "prospects". Knowing what people are feeling and doing in another place, in reality or in fiction, opens our eyes to prospects, to what we can see for the future. Thank goodness for France. Thank goodness for Germany, for Japan, for Pakistan and Italy and Canada and Iraq and Nigeria. And thank goodness for America and for all the places and peoples of the world. Every event is local, in place or in time. Today is dark or bright, windy or calm in the sky above every person living, and we remember it when we talk to them—across the river, the plain, the mountain, the ocean, the street. Open voices yield open horizons. Open horizons are open sources for new life. Open sources require open access, for exchange and participation.

Political and corporate extremists (the Bush neo-conservatives, Microsoft, and Comcast come to mind) are restricting access everywhere they can. For the sake of consolidating power and profits, they seek control instead of exchange. The Bush regime, by means of immigration regulations and government secrecy, is restricting the flow of people and information on which democracy and innovation rely. American corporations like Microsoft, in the name of proprietary software and "digital rights management" protections for corporate copyrights, are restricting the software and hardware compatibility and interchangeability on which productivity, innovation, and free markets rely. Microsoft users might one day forget that other softwares exist. Neo-conservative Americans might one day forget that other nations exist, if they haven't already. But there is another America and another kind of technology user out there, alive and open to a future as free and unpredictable as the weather.

If it seems funny to keep mentioning technology, it isn't. Technology is now one of the great battlefields in the fight between control and democracy because technology runs on the flow of information. The movement for technological compatibility, for open source sharing of ideas and for easy interchange between different technologies, could easily become the next civil rights movement. Ethnic civil rights and technological civil rights are all about freedom of participation and association. The two movements can strengthen each other by sharing metaphors and strategies. On June 23, 2003, the US Supreme Court upheld affirmative action procedures at the University of Michigan law school because the court saw a compelling public interest in maintaining ethnic diversity and interchange. If we make our voices heard, US courts might one day recognize that the same compelling public interest holds for technological diversity and interchange. Microsoft might one day be remembered as an anachronism, an enslaver of networks and users.

Because we don't control it all, we don't know exactly what will happen, but we do know there is a multitude of possibilities. I still remember years ago reading a Japanese psychologist who called uncertainty the foundation of hope. Open prospects mean a chance of sunshine.

© 2003 John Clay

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