The latest issue of Boston Review has a lively forum on the growing power of network-based businesses such as Amazon, Uber and Airbnb.  These companies may not be monopolies in the strict conventional sense of the law, but they nonetheless use their market dominance and network platforms to extract all sorts of advantages from competitors, suppliers and consumers. 

K. Sabeel Rahman, a professor at Brooklyn Law School, presented his assessment of the situation, and then nine people of various persuasions (including me) responded.  Rahman stated the problem succinctly:

The kinds of power that Amazon, Comcast and companies such as Airbnb and Uber possess can’t be seen or tackled via conventional antitrust regulations.  These companies are not, strictly speaking, monopolies; Urban and Airbnb, in particular, do not engage in the kind of price-fixing or market dominance that is the usual target of antitrust regulation today.  These companies are better understood as platforms or utilities:  they provide a core, infrastructural service upon which other firms, individuals and social groups depend.

The problem is that conventional antitrust regulation isn’t really equipped to deal with information economy platforms, which tend to connect buyer and sellers in more efficient ways while offering very low prices. What’s the problem with that? Well, the problem is open networks paradoxically result in "power law" outcomes in which a minority of players tend to dominate the universe of users. Some companies have used this network-based advantage to limit competitors' access to the market, impose unfair conditions on consumers or producers, and evade consumer and labor-rights laws. 

Rahman calls for a re-purposing of Progressive era policies from a century ago that tamed large monopolies like railroads by subjecting them to public utility regulation. Is this the way to go? Juliet Schor of Boston College agrees that there is a problem, but considers the regulatory approach nostalgic and unimaginative. She argued: 

“Peer-to-peer structure and peer ownership of capital undermine the argument for private ownership of platforms and, by extension, for the public utility model.  This is not to say there isn’t a strong public interest in this sector – there is.  But the compelling feature of these entities is that most of the value in the market is produced by the peers, not the platforms.  This suggests that platforms can and should be owned and governed by users.  If they are, we can worry less about rent extraction, concentrations of political power, and the other concerns Rahman raises.”

Not so long ago, the language of “intellectual property” (IP) was the only serious way of talking about creative works and inventions.  Copyright and patents provided the default framework for explaining how someone’s bright idea grew into a marketable product, and how that in turn contributed to economic growth and human progress. It was a neat, tidy, reassuring story.  It had an irresistible simplicity – and the endorsement of the ultimate authority, government.

And then…. the pluriversal realities of life came storming the citadel gates!  Over the past fifteen or twenty years, the monoculture narrative of IP has been attacked by indigenous cultures, seed activists, healthcare experts, advocates for the poor, the academy, and especially users of digital technologies.  It has become increasingly clear that the standard IP story, whatever its merits on a smaller scale, in competitive industries, is mostly a self-serving, protectionist weapon in the hands of Hollywood, record labels, book publishers, Big Pharma and other multinational IP industries. 

We can thank the authors of a new anthology for helping to explain how the standard IP narrative is profoundly flawed, and how an array of challengers are showing how knowledge-creation so often emerges through social commons.

Free Knowledge:  Confronting the Commodification of Human Discovery, edited by Patricia W. Elliott and Daryl H. Hepting, provides a refreshing survey of the many realms in which corporations are enclosing shared knowledge -- and a sampling of commons that are democratizing the production and control of knowledge. (The book is published by University of Regina Press, and is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND license.)

Harvard law professor Yochai Benkler gave attendees at the World Economic Forum in Davos a dire warning about future instability if the “Uber-ification of all services” continues.  In his intense six-minute talk, “Challenges of the Sharing Economy,” Benkler notes how open networks and collaborative production models have led to the “destabilization of the firm," and ultimately threaten to bring about “the potential reorganization of the entire services sector.”

In light of this epochal shift, he declares, the critical question is: “Will [this shift] allow embedding economic production in the same kind of social solidarity trust models that we saw with the emergence of Wikipedia? Or will the externalization of risk onto the people formerly known as employees create severe disruption?” 

The big challenge today, he argued, is that the social and the political have diverged, as demonstrated by the Occupy movement. And this leads to worrisome social pressures that the political system is disinclined to address.

I realize that Benkler must have been under a strict time limit -- he was talking quite rapidly for this talk -- but it sure would be nice to hear his proposed solutions for re-integrating the social and the political in functional ways, and how he proposes moving that agenda forward.  But at least the Davos crowd was alerted to this fundamental political challenge. Whether they will deign to recognize the issue and move beyond their adulation for the Uber, Airbnb and other lucrative forms of network monopoly is another matter.

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.  

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.

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.

Creative Commons has just issued a report documenting usage patterns of its licenses.  It’s great to learn that the number of works using CC licenses has soared since this vital (and voluntary) workaround to copyright law was introduced twelve years ago, in 2003. 

According to a new report, the State of the Commons, recently released by Creative Commons, the licenses were used on an estimated 50 million works in 2006 and on 400 million works in 2010.  By 2014, that number had climbed to 882 million CC-licensed works.  Nine million websites now use CC licenses, including major sites like YouTube, Wikipedia, Flickr, Public Library of Science, Scribd and Jamendo.  The report includes a great series of infographics  that illustrate key findings. 

For any latecomers, CC licenses are a free set of public licenses that let copyright holders of books, films, websites, music, photography and other creative works choose to make their works legally shareable.  The licenses are necessary because copyright law makes no provisions for sharing beyond a vaguely defined set of “fair use” principles.  Copyright law is mostly about automatically locking up all works in a strict envelope of private property rights.  This makes it complicated and costly to let others legally share and re-use works.

The CC licenses were invented as a solution, just as Web 2.0 was getting going.  It has functioned as a vital element of infrastructure for building commons of knowledge and creativity.  It did this by providing a sound legal basis for sharing digital content, helping to leverage the power of network-driven sharing.

Is it possible to imagine a new sort of synthesis or synergy between the emerging peer production and commons movement on the one hand, and growing, innovative elements of the co-operative and solidarity economy movements on the other? 

That was the animating question behind a two-day workshop, “Toward an Open Co-operativism,” held in August 2014 and now chronicled in a new report by UK co-operative expert Pat Conaty and me.  (Pat is a Fellow of the New Economics Foundation and a Research Associate of Co-operatives UK, and attended the workshop.) 

The workshop was convened because the commons movement and peer production share a great deal with co-operatives....but they also differ in profound ways.  Both share a deep commitment to social cooperation as a constructive social and economic force.  Yet both draw upon very different histories, cultures, identities and aspirations in formulating their visions of the future.  There is great promise in the two movements growing more closely together, but also significant barriers to that occurring.

The workshop explored this topic, as captured by the subtitle of the report:  “A New Social Economy Based on Open Platforms, Co-operative Models and the Commons,” hosted by the Commons Strategies Group in Berlin, Germany, on August 27 and 28, 2014. The workshop was supported by the Heinrich Böll Foundation, with assistance with the Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation of France. 

Below, the Introduction to the report followed by the Contents page. You can download a pdf of the full report (28 pages) here. The entire report is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (BY-SA) 3.0 license, so feel free to re-post it.

As one of the countries hardest hit by austerity politics, Greece is also in the vanguard of experimentation to find ways beyond the crisis.  Now there is a documentary film about the growth of commons-based peer production in Greece, directed by Ilias Marmaras. "Knowledge as a common good: communities of production and sharing in Greece” is a low-budget, high-insight survey of innovative projects such as FabLab Athens, Greek hackerspaces, Frown, an organization that hosts all sorts of maker workshops and presentations, and other projects.

A beta-version website Common Knowledge, devoted to “communities of production and sharing in Greece,” explains the motivation behind the film:

“Greece is going through the sixth year of recession. Austerity policies imposed by IMF, ECB and the Greek political pro-memorandum regimes, foster an unprecedented crisis in economy, social life, politics and culture. In the previous two decades the enforcement of the neoliberal politics to the country resulted in the disintegration of the existed social networks, leaving society unprepared to face the upcoming situation.

During the last years, while large parts of the social fabric have been expelled from the state and private economy, through the social movements which emerge in the middle of the crisis, formations of physical and digital networks have appeared not only in official political and finance circles, but also as grassroots forms of coexistence, solidarity and innovation. People have come together, experimenting in unconventional ways of collaboration and bundling their activities in different physical and digital networks. They seek answers to problems caused by the crisis, but they are also concerned about issues due the new technical composition of the world. In doing so they produce and share knowledge.”

George Papanikolaou of the P2P Foundation in Greece describes how peer production is fundamentally altering labor practices and offering hope:  “For the first time, we are witnessing groups of producers having the chance to meet up outside the traditional frameworks – like that of a corporation, or state organization.  People are taking initiatives to form groups in order to produce goods that belong in the commons sphere.”

Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis have just published a new book that offers a rich, sophisticated critique of our current brand of capitalism, and looks to current trends in digital collaboration to propose the outlines of the next, network-based economy and society.

Network Society and Future Scenarios for a Collaborative Economy is a scholarly book published by Palgrave Macmillan. If you’d like to look at a working draft of the book, you can find it online here.

Bauwens is the founder of the P2P Foundation, and Kostakis is a political economist and founder of the P2P Lab. He is also a research fellow at the Ragnar Nurkse School of Innovation and Governance at Tallinn University of Technology, Estonia. 

Kostakis and Bauwens write:

The aim of this book is not to provide yet another critique of capitalism but rather to contribute to the ongoing dialogue for post-capitalist construction, and to discuss how another world could be possible. We build on the idea that peer-to-peer infrastructures are gradually becoming the general conditions of work, economy, and society, considering peer production as a social advancement within capitalism but with various post-capitalistic aspects in need of protection, enforcement, stimulation and connection with progressive social movements.

The authors outline four scenarios to “explore relevant trajectories of the current techno-economic paradigm within and beyond capitalism.” They envision the rise of "netarchical capitalism," a network-based capitalism, that sanctions several types of compatible and conflicting forms of capitalism – what they call “the mixed model of neo-feudal cognitive capitalism.”  There are variations that are possible, including "distributed capitalism, resilient communities and global Commons."

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