In a sign of how far the forces of enclosure have come, the US Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Monday that re-using seeds that are patented, knowingly or not, amounts to an act of piracy.  Of course, re-using seeds has been the tradition in agriculture for millennia, just as re-using songs and text is an essential element of culture. 

No matter.  The masters of "intellectual property" hold the whip hand, and they don't want us to re-use and share seeds as the natural course of things. If you think that a farmer ought to be able to use the seeds from one crop in the next season, you are entertaining  illegal ideas. (Just be happy that Google doesn't have access to your mind yet -- although Google Glass may be a leading gambit!)

The Supreme Court case involved 75-year-old farmer Hugh Bowman, who bought bean seeds from a grain elevator and planted them in his fields.  Since nearly all soybeans are now genetically engineered to be pesticide resistant, Bowman suspected, correctly, that the beans he bought might also be Roundup-resistant like the earlier generation of seeds.  It turns out they were – and so Bowman grew them several seasons, using the next generation of seeds each time.  But here’s the catch – the original generation of seeds are patented, and he didn’t pay Monsanto for the right to use the second-generation of seeds for planting.

This amounts to an act of intellectual property theft, according to the Court, because farmers should not presume to have the right to re-plant seeds from prior harvests.  Companies like Monsanto now hold property rights in seeds, and they don’t like the competition from the commons.  The commons is the radical idea that the abundance of nature (self-reproducing plants) ought to be shareable. 

Denis Postle on the psyCommons

“All professions are a conspiracy against the laity,” George Bernard Shaw famously said.  But what is the laity to do about it?  In the context of psychotherapy and related fields, Denis Postle, an independent practitioner of humanistic psychology, thinks that we need to recognize and honor the “psyCommons.”

For Postle, a Brit, the psyCommons is the realm of the informal, the customary and the local – the social spaces in our lives that are largely exempt from bureaucratic or legal control, the spaces where people can negotiate their own shared understandings of intersubjective reality.  The psyCommons is the great reservoir of human wisdom and power that we “create, renew and replenish every day as we learn from experience, make choices, befriend, support and confront each other,” he writes. 

Reading Postle, I could not help but think of renegade sociologist and social critic Ivan Illich, who referred to this zone of life as “the vernacular.”  As Illich put it in his 1981 book Shadow Work, the vernacular domain evokes a “sensibility and rootedness…in which local life has been conducted throughout most of history and even today in a significant proportion of subsistence-and communitarian-oriented communities.”  The vernacular consists of those “places and spaces where people are struggling to achieve regeneration and social restoration against the forces of economic globalization,” Illich wrote. 

Like Illich, Postle bridles at the professionalism and guild mentality that psychotherapy and other “helping professions” have come to embody.  These professions are determined to set therapists apart as a class of “experts” that control the wisdom of the psyCommons.  They regiment and bureaucratize the process of emotional healing, often setting up barriers to authentic human relationships.  They can sometimes expunge the somber realities of the human condition, including a sense of the tragic.

In effect, psychiatry, psychology, psychotherapy, counseling and coaching have enclosed the psyCommons, says Postle, by treating people’s problems as personal “deficits” and “mental illness.”  The prestige and livelihoods of the professions are maintained through “an imposed technocratic monoculture of regulatory control,” he charges.  Professional licensing, certification and reimbursement rules put the coercive power of the state behind certain types of approved practitioners and therapeutic techniques – while marginalizing all the others. 

Six months after the print edition was published by our good friends at Levellers Press, I’m happy to report that the anthology of essays, The Wealth of the Commons:  A World Beyond Market and State, is now available online at http://www.wealthofthecommons.org

A hearty thanks once again to the commons activists, academics and project leaders from more than 25 countries who contributed the 73 essays in the book.  You can review the list of contributors and their essays here.  

The volume describes the enormous potential of the commons in conceptualizing and building a better future.  My colleague Silke Helfrich edited the German edition with the Heinrich Böll Foundation, which was published in Germany in April 2012.  Silke and I then edited a separate English edition published by Levellers last November. 

The five sections of the book give a good idea of its themes:  “The Commons as a New Paradigm”; “Capitalism, Enclosure and Resistance”; “Commoning – A Social Innovation for Our Times”; “Knowledge Commons for Social Change”; and “Envisioning a Commons-Based Policy and Production Framework.” 

The book chronicles many ongoing struggles against the private commoditization of shared resources – while documenting the immense generative power of the commons.  It explains how millions of commoners are defending their forests and fisheries, reinventing local food systems, organizing productive online communities, reclaiming public spaces, improving environmental stewardship and re-imagining the very meaning of “progress” and governance.   

We’re hoping that the online access to the book will help increase its visibility and readership – along with sales of the printed version.  I invite you to spread the word about book in your spheres of influence. 

It’s been said that the fate of any great movement is to be cannibalized by the mainstream or to die.  I’d like to suggest two others paths:  zombiehood and courageous re-invention.

Zombiehood is a mode of living death in which people mindlessly repeat old advocacy forms that clearly aren’t working.  This is the fate of much environmentalism today – a professionalized, bureaucratized sector that is afraid of taking risks, innovating or defying respectable opinion.

It is refreshing, therefore, to recognize a notable departure from zombie-environmentalism, the Great Lakes Commons, a new cross-border grassroots campaign catalyzed by On the Commons to establish the Great Lakes as a commons.  Here is a bold idea with the nerve and intelligence to strike off in some new, experimental directions without any assurance that it’s all going to turn out.

For the past 40 years, environmental activists have looked to legislatures, regulators and international treaties to “solve the problem.”  Guess what?  It’s not working.  Governments are too corrupt, corporate-dominated, bureaucratic or just plain stalemated.  The Great Lakes Commons is an attempt to launch a new narrative and activist strategy based on some very different assumptions.  It’s trying to organize people in new ways, through commoning, and to imagine new forms of governance that will actually protect the Great Lakes.  It doesn’t just want to raise money and collect signatures for petitions.  It wants to nurture new types of human relationships with this endangered regional ecosystem.

As the Great Lakes Commons website points out, Great Lakes policies are biased toward private and commercial interests.  The political management regimes do not reflect ecological realities.  And the people living near the Lakes are treated as bystanders who have little power to affect government decisionmaking.  For all these reasons and more, the ecological health of the Great Lakes has deteriorated over the past several decades, and now there are new threats from hydro-fracking, radioactive waste shipments, copper-sulfide mining and invasive species. 

In a crazy twist of Italian politics – in a nation known for its zany political life – the Roman lawyer, scholar and commoner Stefano Rodotà unexpectedly became the presidential candidate of the Five Star Movement in Italy, the rising political force there.  The amazing thing is, he nearly won!         

Rodotà is a kindly, clever, fiercely intelligent and straight-shooting left-wing legal scholar and politician.  Now nearly 80 years old, Rodotà is a something of a grey eminence in Italian politics.  He has served four times in the Italian Parliament and once in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.  He helped write the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.  He has taught at universities in Europe, Latin America, the US and India.

The recent success of the Five Star Movement (M5S) in the February 2013 elections abruptly opened up this opportunity for Rodotà and the commons.  M5S was launched in 2009 by a comedian and activist, Beppe Grillo, to focus on five key issues – public water, sustainable transportation, development, connectivity and environmentalism.  The movement is less of a real party than a cultural vehicle for voters to express resentment, frustration and hostility toward the political class in Italy.  M5S is generally populist and libertarian in orientation, sometimes with a right-wing flavor (anti-immigrant policies). But Grillo is a showy amateur as a politician and not exactly a small-d democrat (he gives no press interviews and doesn’t welcome debate within M5S).

Still, the movement's issues and profile are compelling enough that M5S won more than 25 percent of the vote in the February 2013 elections – second only to the Democratic Party, which won only a fraction more votes.  Forming a government in a country with dozens of political parties can be a difficult proposition, however, especially when personalities, political history, ideology and various odd circumstances are thrown in.    

I recently wrote the following essay with John H. Clippinger as part of the ongoing work of ID3, the Institute for Data-Driven Design, which is building a new open source platform for secure digital identity, user-centric control over personal information and data-driven institutions.

As the Internet and digital technologies have proliferated over the past twenty years, incumbent enterprises nearly always resist open network dynamics with fierce determination, a narrow ingenuity and resistance.  It arguably started with AOL (vs. the Web and browsers), Lotus Notes (vs. the Web and browsers) and Microsoft MSN (vs. the Web and browsers, Amazon in books and eventually everything) before moving on to the newspaper industry (Craigslist, blogs, news aggregators, podcasts), the music industry (MP3s, streaming, digital sales, video through streaming and YouTube), and telecommunications (VoIP, WiFi).  But the inevitable rearguard actions to defend old forms are invariably overwhelmed by the new, network-based ones.  The old business models, organizational structures, professional sinecures, cultural norms, etc., ultimately yield to open platforms.

When we look back on the past twenty years of Internet history, we can more fully appreciate the prescience of David P. Reed’s seminal 1999 paper on “Group Forming Networks” (GFNs).[1] “Reed’s Law” posits that value in networks increases exponentially as interactions move from a broadcasting model that offers “best content” (in which value is described by n, the number of consumers) to a network of peer-to-peer transactions (where the network’s value is based on “most members” and mathematically described by n2).  But by far the most valuable networks are based on those that facilitate group affiliations, Reed concluded.  When users have tools for “free and responsible association for common purposes,” he found, the value of the network soars exponentially to 2– a fantastically large number.   This is the Group Forming Network.  Reed predicted that “the dominant value in a typical network tends to shift from one category to another as the scale of the network increases.…”

Gavin Andresen, the lead scientist for the Bitcoin Foundation (and one of its only two staff members) sat down with a few of us at the UMass Amherst Knowledge Commons meeting on Wednesday.  Having read so much hype and misinformation about Bitcoin over the past few months, I was excited to have a chance to talk to someone directly connected with this brilliant experiment in algorithmic institution-building.  Bitcoin is, of course, the digital currency that has been in the news a lot recently because of its surging value among traders – and its dramatic crash.  

For months the dollar value of a Bitcoin fluctuated between $20 and $50….but in mid-March the conversation rate soared to around $250 before crashing last week to $140 and then $40 yesterday.  (Today it was back up to $95.)  This kind of stuff is catnip to the mainstream press, which otherwise doesn’t know much or care much about Bitcoin.

Andresen, a self-described geek in his forties with a pleasant manner and trim haircut, strolled into the small conference room in his black rugby shirt and jeans.  Six of us proceeded to have a wide-ranging, fascinating chat about the functional aspects of Bitcoin, the political and social values embedded in its design, and some of the operational challenges of making Bitcoin a new kind of universal currency. 

For those of you who want a quick primer on Bitcoin, I suggest the New Yorker profile  by Joshua Davis in the October 10, 2011, issue; a terrific recent critique by Denis Roio (aka Jaromil), a Dutch hacker who is working to code new sorts of digital money; or the Wikipedia entry on Bitcoin

Bitcoin is of special interest to me for its remarkable success at solving a serious collective action problem – how to create a digital money so secure and authenticated so that no one can steal its value and ruin it as a stable, trusted currency? 

The problem that Bitcoin solves as a matter of algorithmic and cryptographic design is the “Byzantine General’s problem,” which has been described as “the problem of reaching a consensus among distributed units if some of them give misleading answers.”  As one reference describes it, the problem has been compared to the problem of various generals deciding on a common plan of attack:  “Some traitorous generals may lie about whether they will support a particular plan and what other generals told them. Exchanging only messages, what decisionmaking algorithm should the generals use to reach a consensus?  What percentage of liars can the algorithm tolerate and still correctly determine a consensus?” 

Bitcoin solves this classic problem of achieving coordinated action without reliable communication or excessive (or any) defections.  Much of this success stems from the startlingly solid cryptography of the system.  The other safeguard, Andresen explained, has been Bitcoin’s “get big quick” strategy.  If enough Bitcoins can be put into circulation quickly, then it becomes much harder for any faction to corner the market in Bitcoins or to compromise their integrity.  This is important because the viability of any currency depends upon the ability of the issuer to prevent counterfeiting or theft -- a kind of free riding on the social trust that any community invests in its currency. 

The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund has been doing pioneering work for many years in trying to protect the rights of communities against corporate enclosures, especially in its home state of Pennsylvania.  This work is impressive for trying to blend civil disobedience and law at the municipal level:  a bold, creative strategy to forge new legal standards to protect the environment and the rights of communities.

The executive director of CELDF, Thomas Alan Linzey, recently published a powerful piece about a landmark ruling by a Pennsylvania judge holding that corporations are not “persons” under the state constitution. The litigation revolved around a claim by Range Resources, a gas extraction corporation, that it has a constitutional right to privacy under the Pennsylvania Constitution.  The corporation had tried to prevent the public release of a sealed settlement agreement between it and a family in western Pennsylvania that said its water had been contaminated by fracking. 

But Judge Debbie O’Dell-Seneca of the Washington Court of Common Pleas denied the request, saying that “in the absence of state law, business entities are nothing.”  If corporations can claim independent rights, she held, then “the chattel would become the co-equal to its owners, the servant on par with its masters, the agent the peer of its principals, and the legal fabrication superior to the law that created and sustains it.”  It turns out that Range Resources and other corporations had paid out $750,000 to settle claims of water contamination caused by fracking.

A story on the front page of the New York Times a few days ago cleverly smeared open access scholarly publishing as somehow responsible for the rise of low-quality, pseudo-academic conferences and OA journals.  

The piece noted a mini-trend of hustlers announcing conferences and open access journals that trade on the names of respected conferences and journals – and then charging academics high fees to participate in a process of dubious scientific value.  Such scams represent “the dark side of open access,” according to the article by Times science reporter Gina Kolata.

There is no question that such phenomena exist.  But the idea that the Public Library of Science and other OA journals are somehow responsible for these scams is absurd.  As Michael Eisen, a UC Berkeley biologist and a cofounder of the Public Library of Science suggests in a recent blog post, “suggesting, as the article does, that scam conferences/journals exist because of the rise of open access publishing is….the logical equivalent of blaming newspapers like the NYT for people who go door-to-door selling fake magazine subscriptions." 

“The real explanation for the things described in the article,” said Eisen, “is that it’s insanely easy to create conferences and journals and to send out blasts of emails to thousands of scientists hoping a few will take the bait.  It’s science’s version of the Nigerian banking scams – something far more deserving of laughter than hand-wringing on the front page of the NYT.”

If there is one good outcome from the wreckage of the Google’s effort to digitize the world’s books, it is the push that it gave to librarians like Robert Darnton to find a better way.  Google had wanted to build a search service for an enormous number of books, and it went to the trouble of digitizing more than 30 millions of them into a vast database. 

The only problem is that the whole enterprise was something of a betrayal of the public domain.  The world’s leading university research libraries were providing millions of books for free to Google, which was then planning to sell search subscriptions to these libraries to access the very same books via the Internet. Google also planned to sell the books at whatever prices it wished to set. One can easily imagine a new giant monopoly with a hammerlock on the digitized knowledge of the past century and beyond.

A number of parties, including Robert Darnton, the University Librarian at Harvard, opposed the Google Books project for locking up knowledge on terms set by Google, rather than allowing it to flow freely, without restriction, as is customary in scholarly commons.  The Google digital library project was essentially scuttled in March 2011 when a federal court struck down a settlement that had been negotiated among authors, publishers, Google and others.  The court held that it contained too many unlawful, unacceptable provisions. 

The good news is that some of the leading research universities in the US have risen to the challenge of creating a better, more accessible knowledge commons.  On April 18, the Digital Public Library of America will be launched as a way to make the holdings of US libraries, museums and archives freely accessible to anyone via the Internet.  The project represents a grand coalition of collaboration among leading university libraries, foundations and scholars.  DPLA describes itself as “an open, distributed network of comprehensive online resources that would draw on the nation’s living heritage from libraries, universities, archives and museums in order to educate, inform and empower everyone in the current and future generations.”  Darnton explains the planning, rationale and future of the DPLA in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books

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