Imagine All the People
Two nights before my trip to the free-software lab, I attended a free-software rally at the same youth camp. Really. A rally. I arrived with Minister Gil and John Perry Barlow. The place was packed. There were hundreds inside the tiny tent; there were many hundreds more huddled outside. We were seated near the front, the only three with chairs. The evening began with some lectures, then followed with some music.
You can’t imagine this scene. Or at least you can’t imagine this scene as a rally for free software. I’ve seen free-software rallies in the U.S. They’re populated by geeks with ponytails. This was something very different. The tent was divided evenly between men and women. Geeks were in the minority. Most of the people at the rally were astonishingly beautiful, and amazingly articulate. They were young and intensely passionate. And they were chanting free-software slogans. It was Woodstock without the mud and squalor, and with a penguin in the middle of the room.
For a bit, I was terrified a riot would break out. There was no room to move. We were physically squeezed on all sides. I tried to imagine Donald Rumsfeld in the same situation. One or two police stood at the back, just in case. But the crowd was peaceful, just jubilant.
Just as Gil started to speak, however, a handful of masked protesters appeared out of nowhere and positioned themselves right up front, brandishing posters. They were attacking the government. They were attacking Gil. They were supporters of pirate radio. They wanted a third layer of freedom – free radio spectrum, in addition to free software and free culture – and the government had resisted them. It was hypocrisy, they screamed. I was sure it would turn ugly – until Gil did something unimaginable in U.S. political culture. He stopped, and he engaged them. He argued with them. He listened to their arguments. A deputy joined Gil in the argument. They paused to listen to the protesters argue back. They then responded again, and Gil slowly whittled the opposition down. Midway through all this, a kid wearing a white T-shirt stood up just in front of us. Emblazoned on the back was the slogan “This is what democracy looks like.” Eventually the crowd rose in Gil’s support. They wanted more music. The protestors yielded. Gil was asked to sing some songs.
By the end of his performance, the crowd was in a euphoria. Imagine a mix between RFK and John Lennon, and you have a sense of this man’s power and charisma. As we left, the crowd left with us – mobbing Gil. Teenage girls wanted him to sign their backs. Men and women gave him anything they had to sign. He was grabbed again and again. If people disagreed with him, he would stop and engage them. He argued, but always with respect.
We were finally pushed onto a golf cart and then into a government car, so he could escape. But even here, when someone knocked on Gil’s window, he rolled it down and continued arguing. He yelled out his final words as his driver (a man with less patience than Gil) sped away. When the window was closed, and after a moment of silence, I tried to explain to Gil just how extraordinary that scene appeared to American eyes. I said that I could never imagine the equivalent in the United States, with anyone actually in power.
“Yes, I know,” he said, smiling. America, he explained, has “important” people. “Here, we are just citizens.”
These “citizens” are building something. We won’t notice it until it is big enough to see from America. But if it gets that big, nothing will stop it. Just as the free-software movement has built an economy of free software, the Brazilians – and others around the world – will have built an economy of free culture, competing with, perhaps displacing, but no doubt changing the proprietary culture that finds itself dominant now.
Lawrence Lessig is a professor of law at Stanford Law School. He is the author of The Future of Ideas and Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace. His most recent book, Free Culture, was released in paperback this spring and is available as a free download at www.free-culture.org.