Commentary
9/6/2005
03:56 PM
Commentary
Commentary
Commentary

Can't Touch This

The open-source community has, in the midst of the past week's horrors, already contributed in countless ways to the relief and rescue efforts. And while the coming week promises nothing except more of the same, I want to look, however briefly, past the current madness and towards the New Orleans region's future. It's a question that will concern the survivors, or course, as it will myself and other NOLA natives.Yet it also matters to anyone who values that region as a source of cultural wealth



The open-source community has, in the midst of the past week's horrors, already contributed in countless ways to the relief and rescue efforts. And while the coming week promises nothing except more of the same, I want to look, however briefly, past the current madness and towards the New Orleans region's future. It's a question that will concern the survivors, or course, as it will myself and other NOLA natives.Yet it also matters to anyone who values that region as a source of cultural wealth our country simply cannot afford to lose.How do any of you figure in preventing that loss? Financial donations are vital, of course; rebuilding will cost untold billions of dollars on top of the cost of short-term relief efforts. Yet as a recent blog post by David Freeman, general manager of New Orleans legendary community-supported radio station WWOZ, so clearly attests, no amount of money can rebuild a culture, or a sense of place, or a way of life.

I'll say this as plainly as I can: If the French Quarter is fated to serve as just another sanitized tourist attraction, then it's already dead.

We can rebuild a city; given enough money, raw material, and engineering talent, it's a done deal. What we lack is the first damned clue how to rebuild New Orleans, or Metairie, or Arabi and Chalmette, or any of the other places where simply putting the physical pieces back together is worse, in some ways, than leaving them as they are today.

To do any better, we will have to trust the region's surviving residents (or at least those who can bear to return) to lead the way; to give them whatever support they need, whenever they need it; to have the grace and good sense to know when to get the hell out of their way -- and to remind every bureaucrat with a say in the process that a "business as usual" attitude will end their careers just as surely as you can find a good, stiff drink on Decatur Street whenever the spirit (ahem) moves you.

The open-source community has, by its very existence, already contributed to this endeavor: Every blog entry, every wiki, every Web site devoted to assisting the survivors, to reuniting families and neighbord, and to telling their stories is a contribution of greater value than many of you will ever suspect. The same is true for the thousands of Free Software-powered servers and applications that enabled people to do so much good so quickly, even when the people using this technology no longer own so much as a clean pair of socks or have a penny to their names.

Yet as much as these things matter, the attitude and outlook that created them matters even more: Those of us who count someone we know among the thousands of dead and missing have seen precisely what relying on the status quo and standard procedure will get you when it's the only game in town. So I hope you'll understand my point of view when I say that bureaucracy does, indeed, kill -- and given the chance, it will snuff out Southeast Louisiana's cultural identity, without regret, hesitation, or a hint of sentiment.

People who participate in an open-source community -- whether as developers, testers, end-users, bloggers and wiki contributors, or in any other way -- have their brains wrapped around a way of thinking that could help the survivors ensure this doesn't happen. You know what it means to take the word "no" as an invitation to do something anyway, to do it yourselves, to do it right, and above all, to share your tools with anyone who carest to travel the same route.

That's not to say most Americans aren't plugged into a sense of community -- they are, at least some of the time. Yet it has also become far too easy for many of us to accept as truth that you really can't fight City Hall; that a corporation's first obligation is always to its shareholders; that a person's net worth is somehow a better standard by which to measure their success than, say, their shoe size. The open-souce movement has exposed each of these lies for exactly what they are -- and it has done the job while also capturing the spirit of entrepreneurship at its chaotic, creative, money-making, nose-thumbing best.

We can't change what happened last week. We can prevent yet another senseless casualty: 300-plus years of history, art, music, food, language, lagniappe, and the other cultural treasures that New Orleans and Southeast Louisiana represent. So much was lost, first to the wrath of nature and then to a lethal mix of ignorance, arrogance, apathy and, yes, malice. Can the open-souce community find ways to help Katrina's survivors rebuild their own communities, in the most important sense of the word?

As you read David Freeman's blog post, keep that question in mind. Then, in the weeks and months to come, choose carefully where, how, and on whose behalf you direct your financial contributions to relief and rebuilding efforts. And above all, keep asking yourselves how we can direct the open-source movement's collective energy and ingenuity towards an effort to restore something none of us can touch -- even though it touches us.

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