Inside or Outside the Movement

John Wilbanks

Working in the free knowledge movement may mean working in a space that is better fitted to contemporary technology, but it also means working against several dominant themes in contemporary society and regulation. Most of our societies prize fences, whether through copyright or patent or contract or just simple withholding of secrets. Investors prefer fences, and universities reward them too. As a result, working in free knowledge is often a fundamentally transgressive act, politically and economically. And transgression against dominant social concepts comes with so many different costs.

There’s a cost to explain free knowledge, because it has to start with what’s wrong with closed knowledge. That comes at a cost of having friends or family understand the job, with questions like “why do you keep working on this when you could make so much more money somewhere else?” There’s a cost to always being the outlier in a “normal” room of professionals, working against the gravity that defines normal for everyone else. There’s a cost in constantly looking for funding when the dominant capital systems don’t reward or pay for freedom. There’s a cost in always feeling weird, always feeling like the power systems want you to lose.

It’s not unlike being in a startup religion, except there’s actually evidence for the benefits of free knowledge.

There’s also a cost within the movement, one we don’t talk about much. When we do actually all get together, and for once we’re not transgressing against the “rest of the people in the room,” we have a nasty habit of judging each other, fighting each other over details that the rest of the world doesn’t even recognize. I’ve been guilty of this in the past. It’s just so wonderful to be able to debate our work with others who agree with us that it’s easy to get into the details, and all the passion we bring to changing the dominant social system suddenly is focused on those who we agree with the most.

This isn’t an unusual cost. In fact, it’s one of the most common costs of any social change movement. But it’s the highest one, for me. The only advice I have is: we’re in this together, those of us who care enough, those of us who see enough. It’s easy to take that passion and turn it against ourselves, but that’s a target that only helps the closed knowledge system maintain itself.

I’ve worked on recognizing that all of us, from the most strident backers of the public domain to those who embrace non-commercial licenses, from a total open commons to a network of managed commons, have way too much in common to subscribe to a purge mentality within free knowledge. I’m a lot less strict about applying definitions of freedom to people – those definitions are for knowledge objects! And I’m a lot more inclusive of different opinions within the free knowledge movement than I used to be. It means that at least I’m no longer paying the cost within the movement, and I’m reserving all the resources for the costs outside the movement.