The Cultural Commons: From Open Land to the Open Internet

"We have fallen heirs to the most glorious heritage a people ever received, and each one must do his part if we wish to show that the nation is worthy of its good fortune."  ~ Theodore Roosevelt

I just spent the most amazing weekend in the backcountry of the Klamath National Forest. Located just west of Mt. Shasta, one of the tallest mountains in California, I found myself walking amidst beauty that no words can properly explain. To be out in nature, free from all civilization, is a gift.

Long ago, this was the way of the world. All our land was open and free. Cultures moved from one place to another, following the herds of bison, or the warmth of the sun. Like birds, humans were able to explore, hunt and move with the seasons. All land was shared and the idea of owning a tree or a lake was absurd.

Until approximately 12,000 years ago, when farming began. Soon land became someone’s domain to care for and till. A tribe would share a plot of land, but not with other tribes. This gave way in time to kings owning lands and soon hunting was prohibited to commoners. Only the royals, and their court, could roam the land freely and enjoy its wonders. Where land once was sustenance, killing the animals now became sport. Fast forward to today, where virtually every single piece of land is plotted, owned and private. Walking across the nation without the use of roads is impossible without trespassing in some way. Indeed, what was once considered insane is now our reality: every tree is owned. Every part of nature is a commodity.

None of this was lost on me as I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail with my husband, knowing that this part of land was mine to cross, if only for legislation that made it so. I have Theodore Roosevelt to thank for this opportunity to explore the valleys, mountains and rivers of the Mt. Shasta region. In 1883, Roosevelt arrived in the badlands looking for some game to hunt. Unfortunately for him, he was too late. The last herds of bison were gone, having been decimated by hide hunters and disease. As he spent time in the region, he was alarmed by the damage that was being done to the land and it’s wildlife. He also knew that it was only due to privilege that he had access to the most beautiful places in our country. Thus, when he became president in 1901, he used his authority to protect wildlife and public lands by creating the U.S. Forest Service. During his presidency, Theodore Roosevelt protected approximately 230,000,000 acres of public land.

Thanks Teddy, I needed that.

In our day, these commons are important. They are places where we can be free with nature and ourselves. They provide a space where all are on common ground and wealth and politics mean nothing. But these are not the only commons worth protecting.

The digital world is also a cultural commons. We’re at the beginning of this age, creating and making a virtual world where at the moment, the playing field is open. All who can gain access to this commons are welcome to express themselves and share their content. The internet is a virtual commons similar to the national forest system, which is our natural commons. At the moment, we’re like natives, roaming freely within the digital world we’re creating.

But our freedom within the digital commons is threatened. Miners, farmers, kings and elites all want a share. They want to own the hardware that provides the broadband, control it, and give it rules and fees that they can make their own. What is now open and accessible to all is slowly being eroded by business interests, not unlike the business interests that cordoned off the land, rendering it unavailable to those who once used it for food and solitude.

The time has come once again for a president to step up and use his power to protect a most glorious heritage. The internet, and all the technology springing forth from it, is an inheritance and we must act to show we’re worthy of it as a nation. Like Roosevelt, President Barack Obama could create legislation that keeps net neutrality in tact. He could protect it from pure economics and instead see the use of the internet as more than yet another aspect of our world to turn into a commodity.

Like nature, the internet surrounds us and provides us with an opportunity to share ourselves with others. It’s a cultural commons, a place where stories live and news is reported. Allowing businesses to own it and turn it into only commerce is like logging a virgin forest—we can do it, but we loose a bit of ourselves in the process. If we had no free, open land, we’d be nothing more than caged animals.

If we have no free, open internet, we’ll loose yet another frontier for human expression. Roosevelt saw businesses in his day ruining the land he so loved, changing its landscape and virtually destroying entire species of animals. I don’t think it’s a leap to say that something similar could happen with the digital landscape if economic needs are the only ones we cater to.

If Roosevelt protected 230,000,000 acres of public land during his presidency, how many gigabytes of public bandwidth could Obama protect?

For the good fortune of our nation, and the cultural commons we need in order to share in our humanity, I think it’s time our leaders stepped up conservation efforts in the digital landscape. For if they don’t, business will claim every byte, and soon trespassing will become a virtual problem for all.

Book Review: The Transhumanist Wager by Zoltan Istvan

Finally, after two months of summer parenting duties, I’ve found time to review another independent author’s work. This time around I’ve chosen, “The Transhumanist Wager” by Zoltan Istvan. I had the pleasure of meeting Zoltan at a Transhumanism conference near Berkeley, CA. In general, he’s a staunch advocate of the Transhuman movement and his blogs on the Huffington Post often get a rise out of people. To put it simply, Zoltan is passionate about his work and he doesn’t mind stepping on a few toes to get his message out there. As a matter of fact, the more toes stepped upon, the more people discuss his blog, which in the end is a good thing when you’re trying to get people to think about the future.

The parallels between Zoltan and his main character, Jethro Knights, are not lost on anyone who’s followed him. Yet Jethro is indeed his own man in many, many ways. A young college co-ed at the beginning of the novel, Jethro Knights prides himself on his perfect ability to reason. His love and devotion to logic are obvious, to the point that any conclusion that considers human emotions is silly and meaningless to him. He views humanity through a lense that makes him an outcast at best. No one could possibly ever understand such a detached human being. Many have compared Istvan’s work to “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand but I would disagree. Jethro Knights is not John Gault at all. “The Fountainhead” would be the more appropriate Rand analogy to "The Transhumanist Wager"-- Jethro Knights is Howard Roark, purely devoted to his craft, without the sado-masochistic love relationship.

Disgusted by the religiously biased current in his curriculum, and the government as a whole, Jethro leaves the university, after pissing off some very important people, and makes his way around the world on a sailboat he’s rebuilt by hand. During his sojourn, the United States government invests in a War on Transhumanism, fighting against science and any gains it might make to improve human life.

While overseas, in a surprising moment of weakness for this otherwise emotionless man, Jethro meets Zoe Bach, and falls in love with her, despite his own war on irrationality that he’s been waging his entire life. Some have said this love story is unreasonable, for nothing is more irrational than falling in love, but I find Zoe, and her relationship with Jethro, to be one of the most delightful, and insightful story lines in the book. While her presence in the story is too short, her impact was lasting for me. It was Zoe’s take on life, which she accurately calls “Quantum Zen,” that showed the most obvious path to immortality. Much more than Jethro’s avid atheism, which is just as narrow-minded as the Christian doctrines his antagonists carry with them, Zoe’s outlook on life, aging and death were engaging, interesting and full of potential.

Which brings me to the narrow-minded Christian antagonists-- they’re developed slowly within the storyline, and we don’t actually get to see them in full action until Jethro returns to the US and takes up his mantle as the new face for the Transhuman Movement. At that point Jethro becomes Enemy Number 1 of the state, and enter Reverend Belinas, your typical sleazy televangelist. The kind of Christian that makes you go, “Yuck.” On many fronts, Istvan is accurate in describing the zealous nature that drives Belinas to commit crime in the name of the Lord. Belinas is exactly the reason we need the separation of Church and State—people like him often throw out Christ’s entire message of peace and love for the one line in the Bible where the prophet declared, “Only through me shall man enter the kingdom of heaven,” thus giving Christians the right to manipulate politics to their dogma, since that’s the only way to get to heaven.

“The Transhumanist Wager” tackles this aspect of our society in a scathingly honest way. I have no doubt that the reason our governments spends .65 of every tax dollar on the war machine rather than on infrastructure, technology and education, is to further zealous idealisms like the ones Reverend Belinas supports. This sort of intrusive thinking is also what limits technological research and fuels the anti-science movement we’re witnessing. From the tone in this novel, I can see that Istvan is very concerned about this religious-political environment and how it will affect his dreams of living forever. Jethro Knights likens it to genocide of sorts-- that denying people the right to radical life extensions due to religious fears is a form of murder on the part of those in power.

Overall, the technology in “The Transhumanist Wager” is fun to think about. Transhumania, the sea city Utopia Jethro is forced to build in order to invest in Transhuman technologies without government intrusion, is every libertarian's dream.

But there’s a glaring hypocrisy I simply cannot ignore-- Jethro Knight’s relentless belief that his way of life is the only way of life feels very similar to Reverend Belinas’ worldview. One places his belief in an unseen God while the other places his in an unproven science. It's ironic when atheists, or those who believe only in science, use the same language as a religious zealot to justify their choices. To be against any way of life other than yours is simply intolerance, whether religious, racial or technical. There’s a scene in the novel where the Reverend is torturing Jethro, ready to kill him, in order to protect the evolution he thinks humanity should take. In that moment I of course sided with Jethro; I don’t believe that killing others to support my way of life is justified. Yet only a few chapters later, when Jethro is released and back on his heavily armed floating city, he issues an ultimatum to the world that is so eerily similar in language as Belinas, I had to laugh at the hypocrisy.

True, Jethro wasn’t calling all Christians to evangelize the world. Instead, he was calling all of those who were willing to produce and work hard for an immortal future to evangelize the world. If you didn’t agree with him, or perhaps were just lazy, then you weren’t needed. You were expendable. Yes, perhaps even murderable. For in the future according to Jethro Knights, only the capable are needed. The rest are nothing to him and taking up resources. Best to simply kill them off.

To me, this is the polarization that has kept humanity back for centuries. As long as we look at one another as either with us or against us, we’ll be limited in our growth. As long as we see our technology as either evil or good, we’ll never make the next great leap. True, we’ll keep inventing interesting stuff to control or kill one another, but to great destruction and unnecessary expense.

In my opinion, “The Transhumanist Wager” let me down at the very end not because it’s written poorly, nor because I don’t agree with the fantastic vision that Istvan has for our future when it comes to technology, but because Jethro Knights is just another bully forcing his philosophy upon the inhabitants of the world. There’s nothing novel about a tyrant. We’ve been there, done that, over and over again.

Life shouldn’t have to be either/or anymore. We can rise up and be both/and. Philosophers call it, “neutralizing the binaries.” I like that idea. When we can move from a binary way of thinking, to a more quantum view of life, then anything becomes possible.

Alas, perhaps Istvan has hidden the key to our future in this book after all, in the form of Zoe Bach’s “Quantum Zen.” Follow her, rather than Jethro Knights, and the singularity, as well as world peace and tolerance, might just be around the corner.