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Freedom to be Equal

Freedom to be Equal:
The Myth of Freedom in an Age of Equality

There is a persistent myth that we are living in an era of great freedom. The reality is that ours is a time of unprecedented equality.

Outwardly, we have greater choice of more and more things. Yet more and more things are increasingly less and less different from each other. Freedom of choice is mixed with a commonality of the products available to be chosen. Greater choice leads to greater equality.

One shopping mall looks like another shopping mall. One suburb looks like another suburb. One television show looks like other television shows. One Web site looks like other Web sites.

We can choose to go to different malls or live in different suburbs or watch different television shows or visit various Web sites. But in the end, there is an underlying commonality of destination resulting from all our actions.

The paradoxical symbols of freedom and equality have been at the heart of the American ideals since they were written into the American Constitution as founding ideals. Two more opposite and more paradoxical concepts have never served as the foundation for one nation.

Over the years this grand paradox has been embodied in our two political parties. There is the Republican ideal of economic freedom. And, there is the Democratic ideal of social equality.

Neither symbol has dominated American history. Rather each has demonstrated cyclic swings back and forth between them.

The early centuries of America were dominated by the symbol of freedom. It was a genre of freedom’s symbol which centered around separation from the British "mother." It was a freedom that saw expression with the growth of the new nation and its expansion into the western frontier.

But the twentieth century saw an "escape from freedom" into the equality of mass culture and large-scale social and totalitarian political movements. During this period of time (lasting through the 1960s) mass culture was dominant. America watched the same television shows, drove the same cars, read the same magazines.

In the latter decades of the twentieth century, the ideas of freedom and equality have constantly "knocked heads" in the arena of the relativistic pluralism of postmodernism. The symbol of freedom was fueled largely by the demise of American mass culture and the growth of a segmented culture. In The Clustered World, Michael Weiss observes that America is now a nation of various demographic "clusters." In the early years of the new millennium, America is in a nation of 270 million people, 100 million households, 260,000 Census Block neighborhoods and 62 economic clusters and 15 social groupings based around the Prizm System.

This cultural segmentation symbolizes a type of isolated "bowling alone" type of freedom. There is no longer one network television show watched by a majority of the nation. Rather, there are hundreds of cable channels watched by hundreds of niche segments. There is no longer one magazine read by a majority of readers. Rather there are thousands of niche magazines and market segments.

Yet, this freedom is little more than a grand myth hiding a vast sea of collective equality. At the beginning of a new millennium, it is becoming increasingly clear that this new subtle and subliminal type of "meta-narrative" of equality has gained dominance over the political and propagandistic myth of freedom.

Part of the problem is that even cultural criticism has taken on a particular equality. In this way, it has merged in form and content with that which it sets out to criticize. To paraphrase Pogo’s famous words, "Critics have mingled with the enemy and have sold out to them." Similar to the choice of products, there are more and more pundits and critics of culture. And all of them increasingly say more and more the same thing.

Rather than maintaining a type of perspectivistic freedom, owing allegiance to no one, criticism has become a homogenized stream of never-ending promotional pabulum. Pundits, analysts and reviewers once were an angry bunch of cultural outsiders. But now they are smooth-talking happy-faced "insiders" with long-term contracts and "affiliate relationships" from the institutions and products they are supposed to criticize.

An myth of freedom of expression has developed in the same manner as the myth of freedom of consumption. The myths are both illusions.

A few cultural observers have been able to break away from the herd and have not bought into this myth of freedom. They come from a wide variety of outposts far away from the glittering lights around the paparazzi and celebrities of the fashions and fads of popular culture.

Their common message is that America is becoming homogenized into a bland sameness. Through media. Through food, chain stores and franchising operations. Through suburban architecture. Through our education system. Through a surrounding, ubiquitous cyberspace. Through a "virtual reality" resulting from our hyperspace world.

In Rich Media, Poor Democracy, Robert McChesney points out the ominous trend towards media consolidation. Outwardly there is the appearance of more media choices. But underneath, more media is controlled by fewer and fewer giant media conglomerates. The result is that local newspapers no longer create their own content but rather "stream in" reversioned content from large mass equalizers like the New York Times and CNN. Local reporters disappear with the ascendance of syndicated media services.

Eric Schlosser explores the homogenization of American fast food in Fast Food Nation. This is not all that surprising for many of us. Yet Schlosser argues that the effect of fast culture has gone far beyond the golden arches of McDonalds. He suggests that fast food has been the main culprit behind the equalization of American business ideas in the guise of franchise systems and chain stores.

Yet the homogenization of America into a bland equality goes far beyond our restaurants and media. It extends to the architecture of our everyday life. The new movement among architects and urban planners termed New Urbanism points this out. The leaders of the New Urbanism Movement are architects Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. Their manifesto is contained in cities like Celebration, Florida and their book Suburban Nation.

The Columbine tragedy was a warning that our bland, unfeeling suburbs of sameness sow the seeds of violence and alienation even as much as television programming from Hollywood. In effect, the suburbs are types of media themselves programming a particular type of "content" into American minds.

The architects of New Urbanism meet Internet techno-enthusiasts in the Smart Community movement led by San Diego professor John Eger. Here the battle line is drawn between the homogenizing equality of cyberspace and the possibility for the distinctiveness of local place and an Internet promoting cyberplace rather than cyberspace.

So far, the Internet has concerned itself (as well as its serious business models) with cyberspace. However, the Smart Community movement argues that a new freedom and power will emerge when the Internet maintains a local focus rather than a national or global submergence. To activists of the Smart Community movement, cyberspace is little more than a distraction from the all-powerful medium of everyday physical locality.

In the background of all of these few "pointing fingers" at the reality of American equality in the midst of the propaganda of a grand myth of freedom, are those zeitgeist ubiquitous "wallpaper" theories of media and technology.

These are the media theorists that argue the equalizing nature of electric media. At the forefront of these theorists was probably Marshall McLuhan and his arguments that electronic media would equalize the entire world again into one great "global village." Under these conditions, everyone might be equalized into one body. In the 1968 McLuhan Hot & Cool, he wrote "the Christian concept of the mystical body - all men as members of the body of Christ - this becomes technologically a fact under electronic conditions."

Extensions of McLuhan can be found in the "virtual reality" theories of Jean Baudrillard. Culture has become a culture of reference via such Internet inventions as hypertext links. Is the freedom of making new creations being exercised less and less today when it is easier and easier to refer or pull analogies up by reference?

Contemporary American culture offers up once again that grand historical battle between freedom and equality.

The modern "poster child" of current freedom in America is the Internet. Over the past few years, there has been the rising mantra chanted by the likes of Madison Avenue and techno-enthusiasts that the Internet provides consumers with a bold new interactive freedom.

While most have been entranced with the myth of freedom of information on the Internet, a few have broken away from the herd to gaze under the "hood" of the new technology. The analogy to consumer culture has been apparent. On the surface, the Internet has created millions of new Web sites and a vast amount of information content. But just a little under the surface, things have a scary homogenized sameness. Venturing down below the Internet surface is somewhat like moving down into the grass with the camera during the opening scenes of the movie Blue Velvet.

One of the key things one finds "under the hood" of the Internet is the controlling software code. In his 1999 book Code And The Other Laws of Cyberspace, Stanford Law School professor Lawrence Lessig argued the underlying software code controlling the Internet was becoming more and more homogenized, controlled by fewer and fewer copyright and patent holders. AOL may spawn more sites but in the end they have that homogenized sameness of suburbs of one great cybercity.

Many believe the grand historic battle between equality and freedom is fought among our two political parties. But in many ways it is really coming to a showdown on the Internet between proponents of the new Peer-To-Peer technology and those mega-media Internet content providers like AOL/Times Warner. The advocates of P2P are being called "pirates" and "communists" and "hippies." One would expect this from the propaganda machine of the powers that be. In fact to be called these names seems an indication of their effectiveness as a "thorn in the side" of Madison Avenue or Washington. Almost a type of "Badge of Honor."

Ground zero of the P2P movement might be that little "nuclear free zone" town of Sebastopol just an hour north of San Francisco. Sebastopol is the headquarters for computer book publisher O’Reilly Associates. O’Reilly founder and CEO Tim O’Reilly is a type of modern Paul Revere or Thomas Payne sounding a "wake up call" that the last great stronghold of freedom - the Internet - is in serious jeopardy of becoming another outlet for homogenized equality.

O’Reilly has been a long-time proponent of the open source software movement, precursor to P2P technology. In February of 2001, O’Reilly sponsored the first major P2P conference in San Francisco which brought together the major technologists and activists in the area of Internet freedom. A book served as the basis while at the same time the documentation of this historical conference.

The book from O’Reilly Associates is Peer-To-Peer:Harnessing the Power of Disruptive Technologies. Edited by Andy Oram, it may very well be one of the more important books ever published about the Internet - not to mention the idea of freedom for modern America.

The book is a collection of chapters written by leading advocates of the growing Peer-to-Peer (P2P) movement. Their argument is that P2P offers the promise of the early inventors of the Internet. In effect, it is the promise of a true democracy and freedom in our era of increasing equality.

The real but largely invisible battle is really between P2P technology and the homogenized equality needed for the growth of corporate America. On the outside it is a battle between those "pirates" at Napster and those "benign" protectors of artists known as Hollywood and New York media moguls. Outwardly, it is clothed in the garb of artists’ freedom of expression. Underneath, though, it is really about the freedom of expression of the American people. In fact, Peer-To-Peer has been renamed People-To-People by a number of P2P activists.

In the spirit of P2P, the early drafts of the new P2P book has appeared in "beta" form on the O’Reilly site (www.oreilly.com). While the entire book is offers a wealth of information and direction for those attempting to navigate towards more freedom on the Internet, perhaps the key chapters are Chapter One and Chapter Six.

Chapter One "A Network of Peers Peer-to-Peer Models Through the History of the Internet" provides a foundation to the important arguments that appear through the book. The authors of Chapter One are founders of Popular Power (www.popularpower.com) Nelson Minar and Marc Hedlund.

They argue that "The Internet started out as a fully symmetric, peer-to-peer network of cooperating users." But over time, it became increasingly client-server "with millions of consumer clients communicating with a relatively privileged set of servers."

The change was not at first the result of a conscious attempt to equalize content on the Net and centralize power. Rather it was more of an attempt to patch together a quick solution to the growing "gold rush" online. Minar and Hedlund write "As the Net has grown to accommodate the millions of people flocking online, technologies have been put in place that have split the net up into a system with relatively few servers and many clients." The problem greatly intensified in the middle 90s.

Since 1994, the general public has been racing to join the community of computers on the Internet, placing strain on the most basic of resources: network bandwidth. And the increasing reliance on the Internet for critical applications has brought with it new security requirements, resulting in firewalls that strongly partition the Net into pieces. Through rain and snow and congested Network Access Providers (NAPs), the email goes through, and the system has scaled vastly beyond its original design.

By the new millennium, Minar and Hedlund argue something began to change. Power began to shift from central servers to home computers. The shift came as home computers became more powerful in both increased information capacity and megahertz processing power.

Through the music-sharing application called Napster, and the larger movement dubbed ‘peer-to-peer,’ the millions of users connecting to the Internet have started using their ever more powerful home computers for more than just browsing the Web and trading email. Instead, machines in the home and on the desktop are connecting to each other directly, forming groups and collaborating to become user-created search engines, virtual supercomputers, and file systems.

The result of these recent changes is that many are beginning to return to the original use of the Internet. As Minar and Hedlund note, "The current crop of peer-to-peer applications is using the Internet much as it was originally designed: as a medium for communication for machines that share resources with each other as equals."

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Copyright © 2001 John Fraim