Too Busy For Words - the PaulWay Blog

Mon 15th May, 2006

The Middle Ground of social responsibility

I met a nice lady while having my lunch today. She's a Tibetan Chinese lady that works in one of the other labs here; unfortunately I didn't follow her accent enough to pick out either what her name was or where she worked. She's here doing her PhD for six months, and then its back to China to do some field studies.

It's fascinating to talk to someone from a different culture, to find out how similar and how different things are. We both live in societies that have compulsory voting, but for people from Tibet the issue can be simply being able to read the Chinese names of the candidates, let alone trying to find out what they stand for or even what they look like. I can't begin to comprehend what it was like to have the Long March or the Great Leap Forward happen, let alone imagine what it would be like to have them happen in Australia, but we could both look at the One Child policy of the Chinese Communist Party and see this as the only sensible policy to get the world population down to a sustainable level.

Imagine if you couldn't even read the words on your screen now. How useful would Linux be then, if you were unable to read or write at all? Imagine if a computer was an alien concept akin to having a flying car for its expense and availability. How useful would Linux or Free Software be then, if you were barely able to afford to keep yourself fed and clothed? These are real situations, and even the One Laptop Per Child project won't solve these issues if it can't get into the countries that need them or the devices you're gleefully donating to a country are being sold on the black market far from their intended destination.

Between the rigid social control of Communism, and the hedonistic "everything's available if you've got the money" attitude of Capitalism, there must be a middle ground. Somewhere where the people are informed about the issues and vote sensibly without either being manipulated by the media or simply being told what's good for them. Somewhere where no-one attacks or exploits another, not because its too expensive or against the law or they'll be killed by the army if they do so, but simply because they know that it's the Right Thing To Do. A place where ideas are shared freely, not because of some Party rhetoric or because God told them to or because people who don't share are labelled as social outcasts, but because each person is personally and independently convinced that societal altruism works.

My main concern with Australian, and in general Western, society is that any attempt at enforcing social standards is seen as Government Telling Us What To Do, and for that reason 'inherently' bad. This, to me, ignores the responsibility of the members of society to uphold the standards that they want. If the Government should not tell us what standards to maintain, then either we maintain them ourselves (and acknowledge that responsibility) or we are merely small-a anarchists, bent only on achieving our own ends without regard to the society we live in.

None of this is particularly new, but in an age where politics seems to be increasingly polarised, I feel it's important for all of us to seek a middle ground. Open Source Software people already practice some of these ideals - in particular, I think we're more conscious that doing the right thing by other people takes an effort but is always payed back in what others do for us. If the Distributed Republics that Neal Stephenson suggests in "The Diamond Age" - where membership is not a matter of physical location but of a state of mind that is constantly tested and informed - actually existed today, I'd join one straight away.

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