Sunday, December 28, 2008

Toss Pot Wanker

The image is a T-shirt design available at Fuctup, an online retailer in the UK.

On a thread I was participating the other day concerning Obama House Parties, a commentator queried:
just a thought guys... have you ever considered you might all just be a bunch of middle aged old toss pot wankers who just talk a lot about the "issues"...
Okay deliberately didn't post a link, questions like that are ripe for piling on. One of the responses seemed to take offense at the "old" bit. I suspect that's because he'd never heard "toss pot" directed at him. I hadn't either, so consulted the Urban Dictionary an invaluable online reference site. Hum, it seems "toss pot" essentially means "wanker," so added as an intensifier.

I didn't respond to the comment on the thread. If I would, I suppose it would follow along the lines of: "What's wrong with wanking?" Heavens knows I've seen plenty of similar comments more or less directed at me, so it seems worth my while to come up with some sort of come back. I never seem to manage one. Here's my problem: On one horn I am really jazzed about commons-based peer production. On the other horn, I sure do a lot of talking--writing--and other than that it's hard to point to doing much else.

The Urban Dictionary is a good example of what can be done by peer production. It's remarkably complete and accurate all from the distributed gifts of content from many users of the resource. Consider a single entry for the word jagoff. I strongly associate the word with my locale and its charming local dialect. The definitions note the geographic use of the term, but also suggest alternate entomologies and word histories. One of the subtleties of the term's meaning is not just a jerk, but a mean jerk.

When President Bush visited Pittsburgh on Labor Day 2002, I went to greet him. At the time I thought that with enough public outcry, the nation might avoid another Iraq War. One of the signs I took, with wording specially crafted by a friend read:
Hey Bush
We Scoff
After a full afternoon behind a tall fence and police cordon, one of those infamous "Free Speech Zones," it became pretty clear from insults hurled from the other side of the fence that my high hope for avoiding war were rather too lofty. And I wonder now just who was the bigger jagoff that day? Yep, I've still got the sign to prove it.

It's too easy to be a mean jerk on the Internet. Lisa Derrick is cool. I mean I really like what she says on her blog most of the time; I don't really know her. Friday night she did a piece about the One Laptop Per Child. She wrote:
They'd like folks to donate to provide kids everywhere with a computer. Which is real nice, except potable water, food and vaccines are a more pressing concern for kids in under-developed and developing nations.
The "real nice" part got under my skin. I've read and written a lot about the One Laptop Per Child effort over the last couple of years. I think it's a project that deserves more careful attention. So I left a comment, and suggested Derrick was self-righteous. I could search the Urban Dictionary for just the right word to fit my asshatiness, but I'll go with jagoff because it's local.

After my impertinent comment at La Figa--Derrick's blog--I headed over to Daisy's Dead Air, one of my favorite reads. Daisy had just posted Part 1 of a two part post Feminists on High Horses. Two problems with the comment I left there: 1) too long and 2) my asshatitude.

There must have been something wrong with me that night. I've done far worse. The remarkable thing about publishing on the Internet is stuff you put up sticks around, maybe forever. If I ever feel too full of myself I know just were to find evidence of me being a jagoff online--sorry no links. In part 2 Daisy picks up on the subject of people being accountable. I'm so math challenged that "accountable" isn't one of my favorite words, but I agree with what she says. When we're out there online, we're accountable in more ways than people of my age, i.e. people who for most of their lives there was no Internet, tend to anticipate.

There's a lot going on in Daisy's post, but there's a part in it I want to bring up. Daisy is working class. When she was younger she was part of "very rigorous political collective." It turned out that the collective was dominated by rich kids. During one of their meetings she asked: "[W]asn't it impossible for rich kids to have the proper class consciousness?" For that she was thrown out. Going out on a limb here, I'll suggest that Daisy feels some resentment about it. She's quite dispassionate in making the point that it's not so strange really that the children of the rulers of the world would presume to be rulers in every setting they find themselves in.

I don't know if Daisy would call it resentment. Over all, especially Part 1 is a bit scathing. But her language about the double bind that the rich kids' presumptions present is quite cool. Because wealth is a factor in the issue which provoked the post in the first place, it seems to me she's tried to lay out this aspect of the discussion in a calm and rational way. But, you know, it feels really bad to be put down like that and the feelings really matter.

I'm a white middle-aged white guy, even if I consider myself poor, I've got privilege that I take for granted. Over the last few years I've tried to collaborate with a couple of friends in Uganda. This is an important part of my life, but a part I find surprisingly hard to tell about.

This afternoon I was chatting with one of my Ugandan friends online. I'd written an email to him, which after I sent it worried some of my privileged presumption was showing. The good thing is we've been corresponding for years, and have developed strong regard for one another, so I didn't worry too much. What he told me in our conversation really moved me, but it's hard to relate because it's got to the feelings part of the double binds created by unconscious privilege.

He talked about how years ago he worked as an organizer in Kenya. He said people really listened to him there. A big part of the willingness to listen to him came from his being from a different place. Then he talked about hearing tributes to Christina Jordan of Life in Africa and that part of that respect came from something like what he'd experienced in Kenya; she wasn't from there. It's hard to relate a conversation, but the meaning I felt from what he wrote was how discouraging it feels when you are poor and put down over an over in little things everyday. My friend is courageous, but told me he felt fear. The fear comes from being told in so many ways you're no good. And his point was how hard it is to organize among people who feel the same way.

I've read lots of what Christina Jordan has put up online over the years, and participated in online social networks she's participated in too. She has been enormously transparent in all she's done. My friend has heard me mention Christina, but doesn't have the same experience of knowing what she's written over time. I hope he comes to see that the Ugandans who are running Life in Africa are confident and competent. Nevertheless, the point my friend was making about the sort of paralysis poverty causes in people is something not lost on those who've worked long and hard with Life in Africa. Getting over the hurdle of people thinking they have nothing to offer is tough.

Sometimes I despair that my online collaboration with my Ugandan friends has yielded not much. I can't dismiss it because, if nothing else, there are genuine bonds of affection. Still there's precious little tangible to show for it.

I turned 53 on the winter solstice. I think Daisy is younger than I am, but I've seen her use the word "old" to describe herself. I prefer the word "experienced." I know Daisy is experienced. Over the past year of reading her posts, I see she's adept at naming her fears and thereby conquering them. I felt my friend was taking a big step in revealing to me the fear he sometimes feels. We all know about fears, it's part of being human. Unfortunately it's probably also a part of being human to exploit the knowledge that we've all got fears. Some people are masters at it and most of us clumsy and unthinking at one time or another.

All of us can create something good. Every one of us has something important to give. What any one of us has may be small, but taken together it's a large amount.

Too many of us live lives in dire need of the essentials. Buckminster Fuller liked to say we live on Spaceship Earth. We've got to find ways for every person here to have enough while recognizing the confines of our little blue planet. Fuller demonstrated doing more with less in so many different ways. Designing ways to create value, to provide us with what we need, by doing more with less is one way. And it's an approach that fits nicely with a confidence in the creative capacity of everyone. But the most popular way of looking at needs in a limited world, one Spaceship Earth, is to imagine that it's fundamentally a problem of distribution. At least here in the USA the plan follows: making yours so the other are left without. There are so many reasons to think that the zero-sums strategy of taking yours before everyone else gets theirs ultimately leaves everyone the loser, but that's a whole other post.

For the purposes of this post I'll just say the zero sum game feels bad. Of course people feel all sorts of ways, so many ways that our feelings often seem unruly. What makes World Wide Web so engaging is we're reading and writing, both consuming content created by others, and making content of our own available. It's pretty hard not to have feelings or not to let our feelings show. A thick skin helps to negotiate around the world, especially around the online world. Ultimately I suspect a compassionate heart is better. Far from getting in our way, feelings can guide the way. It's better if "we give a fig" as Lisa Derrick suggests.

You remember Lisa Derrick? She's the blogger I accused of acting self righteously in re her opinions about One Laptop Per Child. Did you click any of the links to the Urban Dictionary? Maybe you've been there before, or already know our language is rich in words to ridicule. It seems pretty clear the Internet is speeding up the creation of new words to ridicule others. We're making our feelings known online and perhaps that's not so bad. Maybe the engagement with others can help us develop a more evolved emotional intelligence. Maybe we'll learn that our happiness isn't something we can take from others for ourselves, but rather something we can have only by creating it with others.

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