Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Commodification of Fear

Posted by Kim Klein

I was recently in another state to give a keynote address on fundraising. I had dinner with the organizers the night before. We were a group of ten women, mostly white, mostly 50 and up. Someone was talking about a recent raid on a methamphetamine lab which led someone else to talk about the rise in burglaries by meth addicts. We then talked about what could be done to address the problem of meth addiction. I was thinking we would talk in more policy terms but the conversation really focused on personal safety. In what was a great surprise to me, half of the women said they had a handgun, and two had their handgun with them in their purse! Someone asked how much these guns cost and someone else told her the cheapest place to buy them legally. One person said she did not own a gun because she didn’t think she could really use it. But she had recently contracted with a local hardware store which offers discounts to people wanting to make their homes burglar proof. They sell various kinds of locks, security cameras, motion detectors and the like and she has made her home “a fortress.” The conversation went on until someone who hadn’t spoken said, “There is a lot of money in fear.”


I thought back to this conversation after the most recent mass shooting in CT. The debate by the pro and anti-gun control forces is an important one and I am certainly completely on the side of people who want to bring back the assault weapon ban as the least we can do to begin to address gun violence. But we also have to address the marketing of fear which make many normal nonviolent people (my colleagues at this dinner) decide to own a gun.

A fundamental premise of a commons based society is that the people living in it feel physically secure: they feel safe as they go about their lives. People living in the United States don’t feel that and from our giant military budget (larger than the next 15 most militarized nations combined) to our local hardware store, we see the money to be made from exploiting that fear.

In the Christian tradition the time leading up to Christmas is called Advent, from the Latin word for arrival. We await the arrival of Jesus. Similarly, in much more ancient traditions, we await the arrival of the Winter Solstice, when the northern hemisphere begins to get more light every day. These images: the arrival of a few minutes extra daylight or the arrival of a baby are hopeful and joyful . Fear is not present. It is not a coincidence that the command which recurs most often in the Bible (from the Hebrew testament to the Christian testament) is “Do not be afraid.”

In a commons based society, this command would not be addressed to each person: “Stop feeling afraid, you wimp” but is addressed to the society as a whole, “Do not be afraid to build a society in which fear is not a commodity.”

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Private Ownership in a Digital Age

Posted by Caitlin Endyke

In our last post we touched on the issue of privacy and the commons- specifically, what information should and shouldn’t be publicly available, given a commons frame.  In the modern Internet age, this question of privacy is a common one.  With so much of our lives online, how do we monitor what we share with one select group of people and what we share with the rest of the world?  And who owns that information?

Our last post turned out to address a timely question, given a new development in the online privacy debate that has gained considerable traction in the news cycle today.  This morning, the popular photo-sharing app Instagram released a new set of terms and conditions that has many of its users up in arms.  Part of the new agreement, revised because Facebook recently gained ownership of the application (read this post on CNN for more background on the story), states that once the new terms go into effect on January 16th users give up all claims to ownership of the photos they post through the Instagram system, and their usernames and the content that they create can be used freely by outside advertisers.  What this appears to mean in practice is that sponsors advertising on the site can use your name and information to promote their products, and that Instagram can use your photos in whichever way they see fit, all with no compensation or even notification to the user. 

The video from the ACLU that we posted on last week joked about the possibilities of what would happen to your personal information when privacy protections are ignored. But this idea- that social media companies can essentially own your information and that which you create online- takes it a step further.  Now, with the threat of private ownership ever-expanding, it appears as though even our digital lives are at risk.  

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Privacy and the Commons

One of the more interesting and at the same time, vexing, questions for people who care about the commons is the issue of privacy.  What should be public information?  What should be completely private?  What should be shared with some appropriate parties but not made widely available?  If we are to take care of each other and really live commons lives, we have to know about each other and share both our joys and burdens.  But what if what we can know about each other becomes part of the burden?  In this funny but provocative video, the ACLU mockingly explores what could happen when the right to privacy is disregarded.  We suggest watching it and then discussing the perameters of privacy in the context of a commons life.

Click here to watch the video