When working for reform or abolition of the copyright or patent monopolies, things can sometimes feel a bit uphill, even though the eventual abolition of these protectionist monopolies seems inevitable. To get energy for activism each day, it helps to understand the Overton Window.
Nobody ever changed the world without making enemies. If you’re not pissing anybody off, you’re probably not doing anything useful to make the world a better place to live in.
There’s an important corollary to that observation, and that is that when participating in activism, nobody should fear criticism from the privileged. Those people like things the way they are, with them in the seat of the privileged, thank you very much. Therefore, changing the world with a passion for justice has always drawn opposition from the powerful.
But powerful ideas, such as the immense benefit to society of having freedom of knowledge and culture, have a tendency to take on a life on their own. Once they gain enough momentum, they tend to snowball.
It’s quite a bit like when you’re riding a rollercoaster in the rearmost car in the train. You know when the train climbs a steep slope, and it’s all uphill, uphill, uphill? Then, the first car in the train passes the crest, and the whole train starts going a little bit easier. Shortly thereafter, the train’s center of gravity passes the crest, and pulls the rest of the train past the crest along with it. At that point, you’re still in the rear car, you’re still going uphill, but the built-up momentum of the train as a whole is enough to take you past the crest and into the realm of the downhill.
There’s an observation that when powerful ideas like the idea of free knowledge and culture hit 10% of a population, they snowball and become reality in short order. You just need to make sure they spread to one in ten people. As we all know, that’s completely doable. It’s not the Tim Kuiks, the Chris Dodds, the Jack Valentis, and the Henrik Ponténs we need to convince. Heck, they’re paid well to not understand a word we’re saying. Never mind the copyright industry lobby. Our goal is talking to everybody else.
There’s a guy named Joseph Overton who worded this as the Overton Window. It describes how the range of politically acceptable ideas in a society is a fairly narrow window, and that what’s considered sensible or acceptable can slide in both directions in and out of this window.
In short, an idea can move along a scale of unthinkable, impossible, heretical, radical, possible, acceptable, plausible, sensible, popular, and policy. Removing these inhumanly unjust monopolies – monopolies that keep medicines out of bloodstreams of the poor, education out of the hands of the needy, food away from the bellies of the hungry, songs away from the singers, and technology away from the supposedly subservient – doesn’t need to be taken all the way to “policy” to succeed as an activist.
(I saw somebody calling these monopolies today’s economic equivalent of the 16th century slave trade. I don’t think that’s particularly far off the mark, to illustrate just how harshly I think the future will judge these protectionist monopolies.)
It’s enough to push the train of the rollercoaster to get its center of gravity past the crest. It’s enough to take the idea from “unthinkable” – which was the case just a decade ago – to somewhere between possible and sensible, and it will happen.
That’s why working as an activist is always uphill, figuratively pushing that rollercoaster train from behind. Once the idea snowballs under its own power, the activist’s work is practically done – at that point, the effort goes into maintenance mode from its previous startup mode.
For myself, I founded the world’s first Pirate Party on January 1, 2006. It was unthinkable that a self-declared pirate could get elected legislator. Absolutely impossible. Under my leadership, the party showed the world in 2009 that it was possible as we put two people in the European Parliament – a huge move on the Overton Window.
As an activist, you will always get flak and harsh words for trying to make the world a better place. Challenging the status quo in unthinkable ways is always met with hostility. But frequently, it’s enough to argue well enough to take a reform from “unthinkable” to “possible” – and we all know that’s in our power.
The reward is in the results.
Change the world.
And have fun. Have fun making defenders of the status quo angry. That’s important. Having fun is reward in itself, too.
(I write a lot more about this in my upcoming book, Swarmwise – The tactical manual to changing the world. You can read the first chapter here. Do let me know if you think the book sounds interesting, as that will make the book get published faster.)