Control Freaks: Modding and the Clash with Law
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Why Is Modding Powerful?

Why do people spend so much time and money on something that will probably bring neither fame nor fortune? There must be other reasons to turn to modding.

The kind of exuberance and play we see in modding is usually thought to be associated with times of peace and prosperity. But such playfulness has also turned up in periods of mounting anxiety and suffering, such as Weimar Germany.

The U.S. and many other economically advanced countries are just wrapping up a time of peace and prosperity, which laid the groundwork for modding. (Among other things, it created the software tools and cheap physical components that bring modding within reach of a lot of people.) But inhabitants of these countries are also conscious or semi-conscious of upcoming anxiety and suffering. Whether or not they speak of it, they face the risk of:

  • A race to the bottom economically, and even a world where a majority of people see no hope of employment.

  • Increases in unpredictable mass violence, with even a good chance that a nuclear device will hit one of the world's cities in the next decade.

  • Serious ecological crises, particularly regarding climate change and water shortages.

  • The moral descent of humanity, as a result of these pressures, into brutality like that seen in Haiti or the Sudan.

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The spiritual effect of the last item will perhaps be worse than the physical effects of all of the rest put together.

The direct way to deal with these risks is to study them and take action, but we can see why few people do. It's a tough job, and none of the major institutions of society support this kind of questioning and forthright advocacy.

Mass media--they can't stand it. Their business rests on a consumer society, and they're already panicking over how to keep their audience sitting still long enough to shove an ad at them.

Governments--they couldn't tolerate it, because activism would impinge on their everyday role of distributing wealth to the powerful. Ultimately, legislators and regulators would have to explain what they're doing, which would be an embarrassment at the very least.

Even educational institutions--they'd be challenged by it, as much as they'd like to encourage it. Teachers already have trouble keeping order in the classroom. And the more these institutions are judged by rigid, measurable outcomes (whether test scores or job placement), the harder it is to embrace the joys of individual action.

Don't consider me a pessimist. I don't think change is beyond our reach. Hard, yes, but not unattainable. Governments can and do meet public needs. Media outlets do report facts and trends. Schools and colleges turn out people who can think and evaluate these facts and trends. People of integrity exist in these institutions and sometimes make themselves heard. But there is resistance all along the road.

The resistance can't help but change the behavior of millions who possess a natural creativity and an urge to get control over their lives. Blocked from acting on the risks and larger factors in their lives, they turn their creativity and desire for control to something playful, and perhaps practical.

I admit we're in the realm of seance here. I'm dealing in total speculation--but luckily, you don't have to accept this particular point to appreciate the rest of the article. I'm just suggesting a reason for the strength of the urge to mod.

So modding is full of vitality. And I think this vitality comes from powerful, even desperate, urges. That should be a warning about how to deal with it--don't try punitive discouragement.

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