Over the past twenty years, there has been such a proliferation of computers, smartphones, digital devices, surveillance cameras, maps, mobile applications, sensors and much else – all of it networked through the Internet, wireless and telephone connections – that an unimaginably vast new body of personal data is being generated about us, individually and collectively.    

The question is, Can we possibly control this data to serve our own desires and purposes?  Or will we be modern-day techno-peasants controlled by the neo-feudal masters on the hill, Facebook, Google and Twitter and their secret and not-so-secret partners in the US Government?

Finding an effective response to this worsening situation is not going to be easy, but one brave initiative is attempting to start a new conversation about how to build a new, more socially benign data order.  The Ubiquitous Commons, a project launched by Italians Salvatore Iaconesi and Oriana Persico, seeks to find new technological, legal and social protocols for managing the sheer ubiquity of networked information, and for assuring us some control over our digital identities.  Their basic idea is “to promote the adoption of a new type of public space in which knowledge is a common," which they describe as "ubiquitous commons."

Iaconesi and Persico believe that vital public and personal information should not be controlled by large proprietary enterprises whose profit-driven activities are largely hidden from public view and accountability.  Rather, we should be able to use our own data to make our own choices and develop “ubiquitous commons” to meet our needs. 

Why should Facebook and its social networking peers be able to control the authentication of our digital identities?  Why should they decide what visual and textual works shall be publicly available and archived for posterity?  Why should their business models control the types of insights that can be gleaned from “their” (proprietary) Big Data based on our information -- while government, academic researchers and the general public are left in the dark? 

I remember how Google crowed that its search results could make better, more timely predictions about the flu and other contagious diseases than the Centers for Disease Control.  I don't see this type of unaccountable, god-like power over social information as so wonderful and benign, especially when lucrative business self-interests may selectively govern what gets disclosed and what is used for private strategic advantage.  

People in tech circles often talk about the “attention economy” with knowing nonchalance.  Instead of things being scarce, they note, the real shortage these days is people’s attention.  Hence the ferocious drive to capture people’s attention. 

This analysis is true as far as it goes.  What it fails to address is that the “attention economy” is not really an “economy.”  It is a predatory invasion of our consciousness. Sellers are using every possible technique to colonize our minds and emotions at the most elemental levels in a relentless attempt to prod us to buy, buy, buy.    

Author Matthew B. Crawford made an eloquent case for the “attentional commons” in an opinion piece, "The Cost of Paying Attention," in Sunday’s New York Times (March 8).  “What if we saw attention in the same way that we saw air or water, as a valuable resource that we hold in common?" he asks.  "Perhaps, if we could envision an ‘attentional commons,’ then we could figure out how to protect it.”

Crawford recounts a series of all-to-familiar intrusions upon our attention:  ads on the little screen used to swipe credit cards at the grocery store…. ads for lipstick on the trays at airport security screening lines…. “endlessly recurring message from the Lincoln Financial Group” along the moving handrail on an airport escalator….the ubiquitous chatter of CNN and TV ads in the airport lounge. 

“The fields of vision that haven’t been claimed for commerce are getting fewer and narrower,” Crawford writes.  He concedes that you can put on headphones or play with your smartphone – but the point is that neither of these strategies prevent a shared social space from being destroyed. Without such spaces, we are deprived of the opportunity to develop certain types of attitudes and relationships.  Our inner imagination and ability to reflect atrophy.  Such subtle, inner virtues that pale in the face of cold, hard cash!

How can you protect a commons of software code from free riders who attempt to take it private for their commercial gain? 

The traditional answer has been copyright-based licenses such as the General Public License, a legendary legal hack on copyright law that ensures the perpetual “shareability” of all licensed code. The GPL requires that third parties make any derivative software programs freely available to everyone and that they use the same license, thus ensuring that all future downstream uses of the code will also remain shareable. 

But what happens if a company simply ignores the GPL and continues to free ride?  We are about to find out. 

After a long period of alleged non-compliance with the GPL, the software firm VMware is being sued by the Software Freedom Conservancy, a nonprofit home and infrastructure for free, libre and open source software projects. Most companies respect the GPL and other open source licenses, which is why this lawsuit is a rare enforcement action. 

The Software Freedom Conservancy reports that it attempted to reason with VMWare, a $36 billion company traded on the New York Stock Exchange, before finally realizing that the company had no intention of complying. The last straw came when VMWare demanded that that lawyers sign a nondisclosure agreement just to discuss settlement terms.

Bitcoin has taken quite a beating for its libertarian design biases, price volatility due to speculation, and the questionable practices of some currency-exchange firms.  But whatever the real or perceived flaws of Bitcoin, relatively little attention has been paid to its “engine,” known as “distributed ledger” or “blockchain” technology.  Move beyond the superficial public discussions about Bitcoin, and you’ll discover a software breakthrough that could be of enormous importance to the future of commoning on open network platforms.

Blockchain technology is significant because it can validate the authenticity of an individual bitcoin without the need for a third-party guarantor such as a bank or government body.  This solves a vexing collective-action problem in an open network context:  How do you know that a given bitcoin is not a counterfeit? Or to extend this idea:  How do you know that a given document, certificate or dataset -- or a vote or "digital identity" asserted by an individual -- is the “real thing” and not a forgery? 

Blockchain technology can help solve this problem by using a searchable online “ledger” that keeps track of all transactions of all bitcoins. The ledger is updated about six times an hour, each time incorporating a new set of transactions known as the “block” into the ledger.  What makes the blockchain so revolutionary is that the information on it is shared by everyone on the network using the Bitcoin software. The ledger acts as a kind of permanent record maintained by a vast distributed peer network, which makes it far more secure than data kept at a centralized location. You can trust the authenticity of a given bitcoin because it’s virtually impossible to corrupt a ledger that is spread across so many nodes in the network.

What does all this have to do with the commons? you might ask. A recently released report suggests that blockchain technology could provide a critical infrastructure for building what are called “distributed collaborative organizations.”  (One variation is called “decentralized autonomous organizations.”)  A distributed organization is one that uses blockchain technology to give its members specified rights within the organization, which are managed and guaranteed by the blockchain.  This set of rights, in turn, can be linked to the conventional legal system to make those rights legally cognizable.

What would it be like if city governments, instead of relying chiefly on bureaucratic rules and programs, actually invited citizens to take their own initiatives to improve city life?  That’s what the city of Bologna, Italy, is doing, and it amounts to a landmark reconceptualization of how government might work in cooperation with citizens.  Ordinary people acting as commoners are invited to enter into a “co-design process” with the city to manage public spaces, urban green zones, abandoned buildings and other urban issues.

The Bologna project is the brainchild of Professor Christian Iaione of LUISS University in Rome in cooperation with student and faculty collaborators at LabGov, the Laboratory for the Governance of Commons.  LabGov is an “inhouse clinic” and think tank that is concerned with collaborative governance, public collaborations for the commons, subsidiarity (governance at the lowest appropriate level), the sharing economy and collaborative consumption.  The tagline for LabGov says it all:  “Society runs, economy follows. Let’s (re)design institutions and law together.”

For years Iaione has been contemplating the idea of the “city as commons” in a number of law review articles and other essays. In 2014, the City of Bologna formally adopted legislation drafted by LabGov interns. The thirty-page Bologna Regulation for the Care and Regeneration of Urban Commons (official English translation here) outlines a legal framework by which the city can enter into partnerships with citizens for a variety of purposes, including social services, digital innovation, urban creativity and collaborative services. 

Taken together, these collaborations comprise a new vision of the “sharing city” or commons-oriented city. To date, some 30 projects have been approved under the Bologna Regulation.  Dozens of other Italian cities are emulating the Bologna initiative.

A New Alignment of Movements?

In September 2014, the Commons Strategies Group convened a three-day workshop in Meissen, Germany, of 25 policy advocates and activists from a variety of different economic and social movements.  The topic of the "deep dive":  Can leading alt-economic and social movements find ways to work more closely together?  Can there be a greater convergence and collaboration in fighting the pathologies of neoliberalism? 

The activists hailed from movements devoted to the Social and Solidarity Economy, Degrowth, Co-operatives, Transition Towns, the Sharing and Collaborative Economy, Peer Production, environmental justice, and the commons, among others. While most came from Europe, there were also participants from Canada, the US, Brazil, Ireland and the UK. The workshop was organized by the Commons Strategies Group, which gratefully acknowledges the indispensable support of the Heinrich Böll Foundation (Germany) and the Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation (France and Switzerland).

Before this workshop, roughly a dozen of the same participants had deliberated on the topic of "open co-operativism" a few days earlier at a separate gathering in Berlin. The report synthesizing those conversations, "Toward an Open Co-operativism," were released three weeks ago and can be found here. 

Below, the Introduction to the report, "A New Alignment of Movements?" which synthesizes the salient points of discussion from the Meissen workshop. The 39-page report, by David Bollier and Pat Conaty, can be downloaded as a pdf file here.  

Despite the deepening crisis of neoliberalism in Europe, no clear alternative critiques or philosophical approaches have emerged that could catalyze a united response or new convergence of movements. Indeed, the traditional left has not only not profited politically from the ongoing crisis, but, with a few exceptions, its popularity has actively declined. With the notable exception of the Greece, recent European elections have shown a marked move to the radical right among major segments of the European electorate.

But if the classic political expressions of resistance may be wanting, that does not mean that there have not been positive developments.  Amongst these are the “growth”of the degrowth movement and other ecological/sustainability oriented movements; the emergence of a commons orientation amongst political groups in countries like Italy; the creation of thousands of alternative solidarity mechanisms in Greece and Spain; a revival of co-operativism as an economic and social alternative; ongoing work by the Social and Solidarity Economy movement; and movements ranging from Transition Towns to “shareable cities” to local food.

Interesting political expressions include the massive mobilisations of youth around the 15M “real democracy”platform in Spain, the success of left parties with a transformative agenda such as Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, the emergence of parties expressing digital culture such as the Pirate Parties (in more than two dozen nations), and platform parties calling for direct democracy like the Partido X in Spain. These efforts have been accompanied by many constructive efforts by precariously employed youth to create alternatives for their livelihoods, also expressed in the emergence of the “sharing economy.”

Is it possible to imagine a convergence of movement practice and goals – blending constructive, social and political movements –in ways that advance the idea of “unity in diversity”? Is it possible to imagine the reconstruction of socially progressive majorities at the local, national and European level?

Last week I gave an opening lecture at Hampshire College at the launch of its new center for civic activism, the Leadership and Ethical Engagement Project. It was a wonderful opportunity to reflect on how colleges and universities could engage more directly with changing the world -- and how the commons could help open up some new fields of thought and action.  Scholarship has an important place, of course, but I also think the Academy needs to develop a more hands-on, activist-style engagement with the problems of our time.

I enjoyed the perspectives of LIz Lerman, a choreographer, performer, writer and founder of the Dance Exchange in Washington, D.C., who shared her hopes for the new center.  We shared an interest in the limits that language can impose on how we think and what we can imagine.

Below, my talk, "To Make Hope Possible Rather Than Despair Convincing," a line borrowed from the British critic Raymond Williams.  My talk introduced the commons and explained why its concerns ought to be of interest to the new Hampshire College center.

Thank you for giving me the honor of reflecting on the significance of this moment and this initiative.  It is not every day that an academic institution takes such a bold, experimental leap into the unknown on behalf of social action and the common good. 

I come to you as a dedicated activist who for the past forty years wishes there had been something like this when I was an undergraduate at Amherst College in the 1970s. I have always admired the image of what the French call l’homme engagé. I guess the closest American equivalent is “public intellectual.”  But neither of those terms quite get it right – because they don’t really express the idea of fierce intellectual engagement combined with practical action motivated by a passion for the common good. That’s the archetype that we need to cultivate today.    

We stand at a precipice in history that demands that the human species achieve some fairly unprecedented evolutionary advances. I don’t want to get into a long critique of the world’s problems, but I do think it’s safe to say that humankind now faces some fundamental and unprecedented questions. These include questions about our modern forms of social organization and governance, and questions about our planet-destroying system of maximum production and consumption.

The dark menace looming over us all, of course, is climate change – an incubus that has been haunting us for more than a generation even as our so-called leaders look the other way.  That is surely because to confront the sources of climate change is tantamount to confronting the foundations of modern industrial society itself.  Climate change is simply the most urgent of a long cascade of other environmental crises now underway – the massive species extinctions, collapsing fisheries, soil desertification, dying coral reefs, depleted groundwater, dead zones in the oceans, and so on.  Our species’ impact on the planet’s ecosystem is so pervasive that it now qualifies as a separate geological era, the Anthropocene.

All attention in Greece and global financial circles has been understandably focused on the new Greek Government’s fierce confrontation with its implacable European creditors. Less attention has been paid to the Government’s plans to help midwife a new post-capitalist order based on commons and peer production. 

A commons colleague, John Restakis, wrote about this possibility a week or so before the January 25 elections. Now, speaking to the Greek Parliament last week, the new Deputy Prime Minister Gianni Dragasakis explicitly stated that Greece will develop new sorts of bottom-up, commons-based, peer production models for meeting people’s needs.

Dr. Vasilis Kostakis, who works with the P2P Foundation’s P2P Lab based in Ioannina, Greece, has been following the situation in Greece closely.  Kostakis, a research fellow at the Ragnar Nurkse School of Innovation and Governance in Tallin, Estonia, writes:

Syriza seems to be adopting policies and reforming certain laws in a fashion that resembles the Partner State Approach practices, with regard to education, governance and R&D. To mention a few:  

· opening up the public data;

· making openly available the knowledge produced with tax-payers’ money;

· creating a collaborative environment for small-scale entrepreneurs and co-operatives while favoring initiatives based on open source technologies and practices;

· developing certain participatory processes (and strengthening the existing ones)  for citizen-engagement in policy-making;

· adopting open standards and patterns for public administration and education.

Feb
12

Keynote Talk at Hampshire College

Launch of LEEP project, Franklin Patterson Hall, 4:30 pm.

André Gorz on the Exit from Capitalism

In an amazingly prescient essay, “The Exit From Capitalism Has Already Begun,” journalist and social philosopher André Gorz in 2007 explained how computerization and networks are causing a profound crisis in capitalism by making knowledge more shareable. He argues that shareable knowledge and culture undercuts capitalist control over the global market system as the exclusive apparatus for production and consumption (and thus our "necessary" roles as wage-earners and consumers). 

The essay, translated by Chris Turner, originally appeared in the journal EcoRev in Autumn 2007 and was reprinted in Gorz’s 2008 book Ecologica. It’s worth revisiting this essay because it so succinctly develops a theme that is now playing out, one that Jeremy Rifkin reprises and elaborates upon in his 2014 book The Zero Marginal Cost Society. 

Let’s start with the conundrum that capital faces as computerization makes it possible to produce more with less labor.  Gorz writes:

The cost of labor per unit of output is constantly diminishing and the price of products is also tending to fall. The more the quantity of labor for a given output decreases, the more the value produced per worker – productivity – has to increase if the amount of achievable profit is not to fall. We have, then, this apparent paradox: the more productivity rises, the more it has to go on rising, in order to prevent the volume of profit from diminishing. Hence the pursuit of productivity gains moves ever faster, manpower levels tend to reduce, while pressure on workers intensifies and wage levels fall, as does the overall payroll. The system is approaching an internal limit at which production and investment in production cease to be sufficiently profitable.

Over time, Gorz explains, this leads investors to turn away from the “real economy” of production, where productivity gains and profits are harder to achieve, and instead seek profit through financial speculation in "fictitious" forms of value such as debt and new types of financial instruments. The value is ficititious in the sense that loans, return on investment,  future economic growth, trust and goodwill are social intangibles that are quite unlike physical capital. They depend upon collective belief and social trust, and can evaporate overnight.

Still, it is generally easier and more profitable to invest in these (fictitious, speculative) forms of financial value than in actually producing goods and services at a time when productivity gains and profit are declining.  No wonder speculative bubbles are so attractive:  There is just too much capital is sloshing around looking for profitable investment which the real economy is less capable of delivering.  No wonder companies have so much cash on hand (from profits) that they are declining to invest. No wonder the amount of available finance capital dwarfs the real economy. Gorz noted that financial assets in 2007 stood at $160 trillion, which was three to four times global GDP – a ratio that has surely gotten more extreme in the past eight years.

Syndicate content