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Some people have obviously figured out how to enjoy their lives without feeling the urgent need to help fix everything that is so desperately wrong—even the life support systems broken so badly that every light in the cockpit is flashing red and every klaxon screaming. The rest of us have to make our way with the pain of knowing how utterly ineffectual we have been, are, and appear for the foreseeable future to continue to be, at making anything different.

Pain is worse when we can’t imagine any way out of it. So what hope do you hold out for yourself? How can you foresee a future sufficiently different from the present that life can become sustainable on this planet?

For a brief time when I was young, I thought there would be a revolution, and after the revolution everything would be different. A little more experience, however, seemed to teach that:

1. People couldn’t even get together on what kind of revolution it should be.

2. If we ever did manage to seriously destabilize the system, all the sincere, good-hearted people would be quickly shoved out of the way by the meanest thugs with the most guns (cf. "October Revolution").

3. There’s not much chance of it ever happening, anyway. The people who run things may not be very good at very much (and they may be terrible at all the things that matter the most), but they’re pretty damned good at staying in power.

Once you give up on the possibility of the revolution, what is left? Many of us have made an effort to work within the system. This effort quickly sorts people into two categories:

1. People who will keep compromising until they have compromised every principle they ever said they stood for; and

2. People who never accomplish anything.

The people who own things have arranged the system to give some appearance of openness, without ever exposing anything structural to the possibility of serious change. So what do you do? Most people I know try not to think about it very much. As we head into 2004, though, I find myself, for the first time in probably thirty years, able to clearly envision the possibility of change. Consider:

In the 1930’s, about the same time as the Progressive Movement that once promised to completely remake the American political system finally ground down into nonentity and nostalgia, a drunk named Bill got a few friends together to form a support group. They wrote down twelve steps to guide them in their work. Sixty years later, it is no exaggeration to say that Twelve-Step groups have changed the world. They have directly affected millions of people, and indirectly many mutipliers more, providing a vocabulary that did not previously exist, and ways of thinking about our existence, but also a new entity, something that never existed before. A.A. is, in its way, as big as Chrysler. Yet:

1. Twelve-Step exists almost entirely outside the economic system. It owns essentially nothing, it has no outputs or inputs measurable in the Gross National Product.

2. Twelve-Step also exists almost entirely outside the political system, neither receiving nor requiring any government support.

3. Twelve-Step has no "leaders," no hierarchy that can be bought off, co-opted, killed, or neutralized.

If you were inventing a structure for a revolution, could you improve on that? Even better, while creating what is in some ways the largest challenge ever posed to our addictive consumer society, this movement has somehow managed to avoid being perceived as a threat.

Or consider the open-source movement in software. The primary excuse given for handing the management of everything on earth over to the greediest competitors is that "it works." The profit motive, the argument goes, focuses attention and effort, and thus provides us with more and better goods and services than you would get from any freer contribution of efforts. Yet compare Microsoft Windows and Linux. One operating system is the central focus of one of America’s biggest corporations. The other is built by unpaid volunteers in their spare time at home. A lot of people think that one is better. But however you would vote on that issue, the fact is, the operating system made by volunteers is sufficiently effective that it now poses what Microsoft’s president calls "a competitive challenge for us and for our entire industry."

I have worked on computer operating systems, and I can attest that they are complex creations. If a gathering of unpaid volunteers can create as good an operating system as one of the world’s richest corporations, then there is nothing a collection of volunteers can’t accomplish. Indeed, the open-source movement is spreading far beyond software. An on-line encyclopedia built by volunteers now gets more hits than Encyclopedia Britannica. The Open-Source Textbook Project is attempting to create a body of curriculum materials to which everyone in the world can have free access. Thomas Goetz suggests in Wired that "as technology reduces the costs of replication and distribution to nearly nothing, the open source approach could catalyze stagnant sectors of the economy—or, better yet, create new economic sectors."

While it is naïve to believe that technology by itself can threaten existing power structures (remember, the one thing power structures are best at is maintaining power, and they have lots of experience in incorporating new technologies once considered potentially disruptive), it is nevertheless true that the Internet breaks through barriers that have always existed, and it provides people with an unprecedented ability to find one another, to discover areas of common interest, to exchange information rapidly and freely, and to work together to build things that were not previously possible.

A little journal like ours will never have a measurable impact on the course of history. But we would be pleased if you would count us as one drop in an awesome wave. We try to provide a place for people to gather and share literature. We bring writers, editors, and readers together in what we try to make a mutually supportive exchange. Everyone involved in that exchange is volunteering. Nobody but the printer gets paid. (And if you can’t afford to help us pay the printer, you can find the contents of our journal free here on our web site.)

Thank you for joining us. What you create today has the potential to help lift someone else out of the general despair tomorrow. And if we all keep passing that spirit around, we just might make it through.


—L.A. Heberlein

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