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Community Television, Free Software, and Maker/Hacker Communities: Aspirations of Freedom

Below are my remarks from the 2014 Science for the People conference.


Growing corporate control of media, software, and consumer products over the past 50 years has led to three largely separate movements to preserve the ability of ordinary people to access the means of production of mass media, computer software and, most recently, the technological hardware of modern culture. The movements share an aspiration that transparency and community participation are fundamental to democracy and an egalitarian society. Understanding their history and the reactions to these movements can provide insight into current and future efforts to secure freedom.


I was unaware of the activities of Science for the People at the time. Being 6 or 7 years old, I was probably busy watching Captain Kangaroo. Looking back, however, I perceive that there is a common thread running through a number of other communities, or movements, that have shared similar goals, strategies, and aspirations. Looking back at Science for the People through the lens of these other movements may offer some insights. Charting the successes and failures of all of these movements may help us find common ground and look for ways that we could unify these struggles around common principles leading to greater success.


The printing press, film, radio, and television all offered means to disseminate information widely: to create a mass market for ideas. Throughout history, a constant tension has existed due to the capital that has been required to utilize these tools. This has consistently created an environment which favors ideas palatable to the owners of capital.

In the late 1960s, Sony introduced the Portapak — a portable video camera recorder system — which dramatically reduced the costs for producing television programming. A number of video collectives, such as the Raindance Foundation, sprang up with the goal of creating alternative forms of communication.

George Stoney, a documentary film-maker and professor at New York University, co-founded the Alternative Media Center with Red Burns which, in turn founded the National Federation of Local Cable Programmers (today the Alliance for Community Media) which lobbied for government regulation to support community access.

Stoney said that "cable access" was about more than access. “We look on cable as a way of encouraging public action, not just access,” he said. “It’s how people can get information to their neighbors, and their neighbors can get out on the streets to organize.”

The transition to cable television provided an opportunity for communities to require cable franchises to offer resources for public access. In 1969, the FCC included language that first encouraged public access and by 1971, required providing Public, Educational, Government (PEG) facilities and channel capacity. In 1984, the Supreme Court struck down the FCC regulations, but Congress passed legislation that rescued public-access television, allowing franchising authorities to require public access.


At exactly the same time, Richard M. Stallman quit his job at MIT to begin writing software for what would become the GNU project. Stallman had benefited from a software community where people freely shared code and he had seen how this dramatically increased productivity. Then companies began requiring programmers to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDA) in order to get access to the source code. And began to file patents on algorithms.

Stallman believed that, as a matter of freedom, users must have access to the source code of the technology systems they use and the ability -- indeed obligation -- to pass that right on to others. He realized this when the lab got a new printer. Previously, he had modified a printer's software to notify people when their jobs printed -- or to broadcast an alert when the printer was jammed. But the new printer was closed source and, although a colleague had the source code, he was not allowed to share it with Stallman due to an NDA.

My personal experience was similar: I wrote an application for my doctoral thesis using a piece of commercial software and, just as I was about to graduate, the company went bankrupt and a new version of the operating system broke my application. The company ultimately resuscitated enough to get out a new version that fixed the problem -- and I was able to show my work and get hired -- but the experience taught me that one should never base anything important on software where you can't inspect and modify the source code yourself -- a principle I live by today.

Stallman began building an operating system, which he called "GNU" for "Gnu's Not Unix". Little by little, with contributions by many authors, the project assembled a compiler and utilities for a Unix-like toolchain. Ultimately, Stallman established the Free Software Foundation to support the GNU project. But not everyone agreed with his moral position regarding freedom.

Eric S. Raymond initiated a competing movement around "Open Source" which created an alternate conception of software freedom, which was friendlier to commercial interests. The ultimate effect was to coopt much of the community and mindshare. Open Source ultimately subverted the moralistic goals of the Free Software movement for what has operationally been wider success.

But the GNU project might not have been able to gain a foothold at all, but for the fact that the owners of Unix, AT&T, had been enjoined from entering new markets due to a Department of Justice consent decree in 1956. This resulted in AT&T distributing Unix source code without support which in turn, created the ecosystem where patches, fixes, and extensions were exchanged openly that Stallman had experienced.

Similarly, the Internet and the World Wide Web would never have been created by commercial interests. Corporations would have been much more likely to build something like cell networks -- and the past 10 years has seen a concerted effort by those interests to stuff the genie back in the bottle. Cory Doctorow has called it a War on General Purpose Computing.

My iPhone seems like a computer -- like my computer -- but in fact I have limited control of how I can use it. The only software I can install has to be approved by Apple. I can't even copy files to or from its filesystem. And, although it has both a cell chip and a wifi chip, I can't share my cell connection to users over wifi unless I agree to pay a third party money. It's not really my computer anymore at all.


The Maker movement is a reaction to this trend to increasing corporate control over the products of consumer culture. The goal is to enable people to make products for themselves, so they can control all of the affordances of the product. The Maker movement includes more than just computer code, but the hardware, the enclosure, and everything. So Maker culture is also about prototyping and using 3-D printing to build physical objects. Or using a lathe. Or knitting and weaving.

Maker culture is a reaction to runaway capitalism. In his book "Makers", Cory Doctorow writes:

Capitalism is eating itself. The market works, and when it works, it commodifies or obsoletes everything. That's not to say that there's no money out there to be had, but the money won't come from a single, monolithic product line. The days of companies with names like 'General Electric' and 'General Mills' and 'General Motors' are over. The money on the table is like krill: a billion little entrepreneurial opportunities that can be discovered and exploited by smart, creative people.

Maker culture sees itself fostering those smart creative people and providing a landscape where they are free to rework, remix, and reuse basic fundmental elements to innovate and Make things.


Science for the People acted on the conviction that science is inevitably political and, without oversight, offers tools to those who would exploit and oppress people. Technology has empowered the exploiters, but also the people as well — probably more than anyone expected. All three of the movements described here represent attempts to strike a balance that preserves some measure of Freedom for the people. Of the three, only Community Television found a political solution -- or minimally -- an accommodation.

Many of the benefits that Workers were able to extract from Capital during the early part of the 20th century, were due to fears of Communism. The suppression of Communism (McCarthyism, etc) and the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union emboldened Capital and enabled a neoliberal shift, especially in the US, that has disempowered workers and let wages stagnate for 30 years, while returns to Capital continue to grow. Loss of revenue, due to growing inequality and tax cuts for the wealthy have limited the ability of government to counterbalance the power of corporations and monied interests. The public narrative has shifted substantially to the right since the 1970s.

Community Television leveraged connections in the political system to extract a revenue stream to fund access to the tools of mass communication. An ongoing threat to community television, however, is the shift from television and broadcasting to streaming and unicasting. The revenue stream, as currently embodied in legislation, is tied to broadcasting and may not persist going forward.

The Free Software Movement remains a small part of what is a thriving market for open source software. Linux is the dominant server platform and Free Software is at the heart of the internet and nearly every commercial operating system. But the Open Source movement has enabled commercial interests to parasitically capture many of the benefits of Free Software without necessarily having to participate in -- or contribute back to -- the development community.

The Free Software movement has led directly to an Open Hardware movement, which is providing a fertile ecosystem of tools and resource for Makers. Maker culture draws from the Agile development process: rapid prototyping and early release of beta products, and focuses on not simply making a product, but also creating "instructables" that explain how someone else could make one. There is a growing library that new Makers can draw from in trying to create new projects.

Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder of Reddit who is a passionate advocate of entrepreneurship, spoke here at UMass recently to promote his new book "Without their Permission". He pointed out, "You Have No Choice But To Be Entrepreneurial." The jobs that people trained for don't exist anymore. We are all free… to be unemployed — provided we're not in debt and have the education and technical skills to be creative and find capital. Unfortunately, without some new economic arrangement that empowers people to avoid becoming endebted wage-slaves of the system, I very much fear the Maker movement will be a genuine path forward only for privileged elites.

Ohanian disagrees. He admits that you may have a number of failures before you succeed. But you only need succeed once and then you're set. Who knows who might create the next Facebook or Snapchat? I was reminded of the ad for the lottery: You can't win if you don't play!

Still, as the demotivator says, "Quitters never win, winners never quit, But those who never win AND never quit are idiots."

Technology has enabled direct communication among people (monitored by security agencies) more so than anyone had previously imagined. Repressive regimes that have tried to shut down this communication have failed, due to what Ethan Zuckerman has called the "cute cat theory of digital activism". You might be able to shut down just activists, but if you try to block social media generally (and the resident lolcats), then ordinary people will get annoyed, rise up, and overthrow you.

Unfortunately, although social activism on the internet may be good for pulling things down, it's not yet shown that it's effective at building stable institutions. And that is our challenge going forward.


Doctorow, C. 2012.

Lasar, M. 2011. The Unix revolution—thank you, Uncle Sam?

Olson, W.D.S. 2000. The History of Public Access Television.
Ohanian, A. 2013. Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will Be Made, Not Managed. Business Plus.

Stallman, R. 1985, 1993, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010. GNU Manifesto.

Starr, I and Venman, B. 1988, 2005. Amherst Community Television: History and Cable Advisory Committee PEG Programming, Organization, and Management.

Vitello, P. 2012. George C. Stoney, Documentary Filmmaker, Dies at 96

Zimmerman, B., Radinsky, L., Rothenberg, M., Meyers, B. 1972. Towards A Science For The People.

Zuckerman, E. 2008. Cute Cat Theory: The China Corollary.