Archive for June 19th, 2007

In part of my never ending efforts to get out of the house for more than my daily exercise, last night I went to a meeting of the local Linux Users Group at the new Free Geek warehouse just off Main Street in Vancouver. I went away more convinced than ever that Free Geek is one of the more innovating activist groups about town.

Free Geek Vancouver, whose origins I’ve written about professionally, is the first Canadian implementation of an idea that originated in Portland, Oregon. Basically, the idea is to combine the recycling of computer equipment with education and the promotion of free software. For a nominal fee, the group will recycle computer equipment, taking care that it is disposed of ethically – and not just dumped in landfill or shipped to a developing nation where recovery of the raw materials becomes a health hazard to those who undertake it. Higher end computers are refurbished and loaded with free software like Ubuntu and OpenOffice.org and sold or donated to charities and other needy groups. Volunteers can also work with Free Geek for a set number of hours in order to get a computer of their own.

Officially, the group is run by consensus. However, if David Repa and Ifny LaChance, the two Free Geekers to whom I’ve talked the most are typical – and they seem to be — I’d say that it’s equally fuelled by apparently limitless supplies of enthusiasm and energy – to say nothing of a talent for principled promotion. Recently, for example, the group turned down coverage in a national newspaper because the journalist wanted to do a stereotypical article focusing on poor people who had benefited from the group’s services. Believing the story would violate the confidentiality in which they pride themselves, the group refused. Of course, with the coverage they are getting in the local media, they hardly needed the exposure, but many groups wouldn’t have resisted the temptation to compromise for the sake of publicity.

And the group is resourceful, too. What other group would turn having one of their members stopped with a bicycle cart full of computers on the way back from a client into an opportunity to enlist the local police department as supporters?

At the same time, the group is far from humorless. So far as I’m concerned, a group that claims to prefer “catalyst” and “primordial ooze” instead “founder” is refreshing in its refusal to take itself too seriously. The same humor is found in the movement’s slogan, “Helping the needy get nerdy since the beginning of the third millennium.”

Besides the resourcefulness and outlook of the people involved, what I like best is the way that Free Geek combines two activist groups that traditionally have little contact. Too often, social activists never think to apply their convictions to the software they use, and geeks never think of applying their equally high ethical standards outside of computing.

For over a year, I’ve been writing about the Free Software Foundation’s efforts to bridge these gaps, and I’ve even made some attempts to help in this effort myself, notably in an article called “Free software!” for the New Internationalist. Now, in Free Geek, I’ve found another group interested in doing the same.

I’ll need to think about it, but I’m seriously thinking that one of the ways I’ll be getting out of the house more is as a volunteer. At the very least, I’ll be sending a cheque once I recover from the shock of paying taxes on my sole proprietorship.

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