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Smells Like Team Spirit: The Punk Movement as a Paradigm for Justice Tech and DIY Legal
This past weekend, I took a road trip with my wife and 15 year old daughter to Seattle. It had been several years since we visited the home of Starbucks, Microsoft and grunge due to the pandemic and we were excited to get away. We stayed several blocks from Pike Place Market in the heart of downtown. My daughter suggested we visit the Museum of Pop Culture, situated next to the Space Needle, and since we had never been before, my wife and I happily agreed.
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As it turns out, MoPOP has a Nirvana exhibit, which was equal parts a draw for me and my daughter. As a Gen-Xer who was in college in the early 90’s I was of course a big fan of Nirvana and coincidentally my daughter, 30 years later, is one too. She also loves Foo Fighters, Smashing Pumpkins, the Smiths, the Cure and a bunch of my old faves. It makes me happy to share this rare common interest with her. She’s also learning to play my old electric guitar!
Anyway, I digress. The Nirvana exhibit is tucked away in a space that feels too small to contain its boisterous spirit and long-lasting impact; a sign outside reads: “Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses.” Which reminded me that, back in the day, there was a much clearer line between alternative and mainstream music. Punk and goth felt underground even, like a secret society with a secret handshake and passcode.
When you walk through the exhibit and view band photos and memorabilia, a documentary plays, describing the punk movement with input from X lead singer Exene Cervenka and Black Flag lead man Henry Rollins. In it, they explain that the punk movement was a place for thise who believed in producing and distributing ideas and art without the interference of major corporations or having to seek permission from an authority figure.
“The ethical domain of D.I.Y. punk culture can be summarized as something that is fundamentally made by fans, for the fans.”1
This DIY culture is a hallmark of the punk rock movement, where musicians and fans alike take it upon themselves to create and distribute music, merchandise, and other media without relying on traditional gatekeepers. Similarly, the access to justice movement seeks to empower individuals to take control of their legal issues without relying on traditional legal institutions.
One of the key tenets of the punk rock movement is a rejection of mainstream culture and its associated norms and values. This rejection often takes the form of a DIY approach to music and art, where individuals create and distribute their own work rather than seeking validation from established institutions. Anyone could pick up a guitar, learn a couple of chords and start a band. A venue could be a garage or anywhere fans would gather to listen. Songs could be recorded to audio cassettes and distributed. Flyers hand drawn and Zines with subculture news and stories copied and circulated. Because this was pre-internet, you had to know someone who knew someone to get the latest dish on what was happening.In this way, punk rockers are able to take control of their creative output and bypass the gatekeepers that would otherwise determine what is considered valuable or worthy of attention.
Similarly, the access to justice movement seeks to empower individuals to take control of their legal issues. Traditionally, legal services have been expensive and inaccessible to many people, especially those from marginalized communities. The DIY approach to legal issues involves educating oneself on the law and legal processes, and taking advantage of tools and resources that are available to individuals without a legal background. This might include using online resources and templates to draft legal documents, representing oneself in court, or advocating for one's own rights in other legal contexts.
A lesson to be drawn from the punk scene is the power of community. “In order to participate in the D.I.Y. principles, it is necessary to make contacts with others in order to accomplish tasks. Networking within the punk subculture has changed drastically after the advent of electronic communication. Online fanzines, music sharing sites, and email enable virtually any punk to connect with other punks and bands within the subculture… [and] has strengthened the D.I.Y. networking system by allowing access to scenes around the world.”2 Similarly, legal aid exists as grassroots organizers with stakeholders in the communities to be served. They also have the domain expertise and access.
Both the punk rock and access to justice movements share a common goal of empowering individuals to take control of their own lives and creative output. In both cases, this is achieved by challenging the status quo and questioning established institutions and power structures. By rejecting the idea that one must rely on traditional gatekeepers to achieve success, individuals are able to take control of their own lives and shape their own destinies.
Just as Nirvana was able to translate punk to the mainstream and broaden everyone’s musical palette with its raw emotional power, I believe someone or some company will succeed in translating access to justice to the mainstream with the aid of artificial intelligence. Whether using ChatGPT, generative AI generally, or some future incarnation, AI promises to put the power of legal knowledge in the hands of the people, maybe for the first time.
“[Punkers] viewed their decision to become involved in the D.I.Y. punk subculture as a life-changing event. D.I.Y. provides people with the knowledge of what humans are capable of producing on their own, as well as with each other.”3 For me, being involved in the legal tech community has been largely a similar experience and ethos: supportive and promoting the exchange of ideas, common purpose, and camaraderie among us.
Visiting the Nirvana exhibit brought all of these ideas together for me and, if only for a brief moment, I got to feel young again and share the excitement about Nirvana and the grunge scene with my daughter.
Ian P. Moran, Punk: The Do-It-Yourself Subculture, Social Sciences Journal, Vol. 10, Issue 1, Article 13, Western Connecticut State University(2010), page 62.
Id at 63.
Id. at 65.