Too Poor Not to Care

Ben Dablo

I am writing about free culture from the perspective of someone who uses free software and consumes free culture because it’s the only thing I can afford. Although I pay a heavy opportunity cost, the alternative is supporting proprietary regimes that are actively making the world worse.

At the risk of my future social and economic mobility, I have a confession to make: I don’t have much money. I’m one minor disaster from being completely reliant on the generosity of others again. Poor is the common way of putting it, but I try to avoid self-labeling as such since that would invite further disadvantage. Why I don’t have money is a personally well-trodden topic, but for many reasons I won’t discuss, it’s a common state for many people. Despite having little capital in a society that places so much emphasis on capital, I consider myself fortunate.

I have the privilege of writing these words using free software on a (mostly) free operating system. My computer isn’t even modern enough to run a currently supported proprietary OS. Much of my education and character can be traced back to free culture sources. The novel “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom”, by Cory Doctorow, introduced me to a world where the alternatives to closed systems could win, where one could even thrive without the motivation of securing as much private ownership and IP as possible. It was released under a Creative Commons non-commercial license that inspired me to write, freed from the assumption that I must always choose between success and my principled opposition to proprietary regimes.

That’s how I felt over ten years ago as a student, but a decade on, I wonder if the cost has been worth it. Perhaps I’d be financially secure if I went with Microsoft products in the developer space instead of the LAMP stack. Maybe I’d be a successful musician if I had spent my meager funds on proprietary music production software instead of struggling with free software packages that were often incomplete by comparison. Of course, all my unrealized potential could simply be attributed to my own shortcomings as a developer, musician, and writer. But what about everyone else, the young people that may someday be asked to choose between free culture values and success?

I would tell them without regret that I would choose the same path. Success at the price of one’s principles is really an ethical failure framed the wrong way. In the past such a statement could be interpreted as melodrama; being forced to pay a small fee to consume old entertainment media is hardly the most pressing issue, but today the costs of closed systems and proprietary regimes are plainly manifest on a global scale. In the human rights space, free software contributors build tools used by dissidents, activists, and whistleblowers. Proprietary vendors, when they’re not busy adding backdoors to their software at the behest of governments, largely ignore those groups. In the environmental space, free knowledge contributors make educational videos and texts freely available to millions, while traditional publishers print books on established topics that are bound from birth for the landfill as next year’s edition will supersede this year’s. Duplication of effort on a massive scale to get around someone else’s intellectual property has become yet another unnecessary source of carbon emissions.

Freedom has many costs. It might even prevent you from ever being materially wealthy. However, sacrificing our ideals when so much external to ourselves depends on them is a cost we can no longer afford.

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