Internet

Shortly after I posted this, the State of Minnesota changed its mind, as reported here.  Nice to know that officialdom can change its mind in the face of the blazingly obvious.

In a sign of just how deeply rooted cultural prejudices against free culture truly are, the State of Minnesota has banned Coursera, the free online course website, from offering its courses to Minnesota citizens.  As reported in Slate magazine (itself drawn from the Chronicle of Higher Education), “Free Online Education Illegal in Minnesota.”  Coursera is a website that partners with Stanford, Columbia, the University of Michigan and other top universities around the world to offer some of their courses online for free. 

Why is this so objectionable to the state of Minnesota?  Technically, the state wants to enforce its right to approve anyone that offers educational instruction within its borders. It is especially concerned with preventing fly-by-night schools from bilking people with worthless degrees.

But if the courses offered are for free, and if no degrees are being offered, what’s the problem?  The state official in charge of enforcing the law told the Slate reporter that Minnesota residents could be wasting their time by taking the courses.  So it's come to this:  state regulators are worried about our frittering away our time on free courses like “Principles of Macroeconomics” and “Modern and Contemporary American Poetry.”

The tech world frequently talks about open source software as a collaborative endeavor, but it is less apt to use the word “commons,” let alone engage in rigorous empirical analysis for understanding how software commons actually work.  The arrival of Internet Success:  A Study of Open-Source Software Commons (MIT Press) is therefore a welcome event.  This book is the first large-scale empirical study to look at the social, technical and institutional aspects of free, libre and open source software (often known as “FLOSS”).  It uses extensive firsthand survey research, statistical analysis and commons frameworks for studying this under-theorized realm.

While most people may associate open source software with Linux, there are in fact tens of thousands of open source projects in existence.  Many consist of no more than two or three participants, and may have only an irregular existence.  However, many thousands of others attract a small but spirited team, and still others are huge, robust social ecosystems in their own right.

The authors of Internet Success, UMass Professor Charles M. Schweik and consultant Robert C. English, looked at the large universe of FLOSS projects hosted on SourceForge.net, a website that functions as a kind of clearinghouse for over 260,000 FLOSS projects (as of February 2011) and 2.7 registered software developers.  The site provides most of the tools that developers need to find colleagues and build a new FLOSS program – a Web repository of code, bug-tracking utilities, online forums, email mailing lists, a wiki, file downloading services, etc. 

While SourceForge is not the only such site for FLOSS projects, it is the largest and arguably representative of the universe of such projects.  With support from the National Science Foundation, Schweik and English set out to study the pool of software development projects on SourceForge to try to determine why some succeed, why others fail and why others simply languish.  They explain in excruciating technical, social science detail how they assembled and analyzed their datasets, which originate in a vast collection of SourceForge data on more than 130,000 projects as well as their own survey questionnaire of programmers.  

Harvard Joins the Open Access Revolt

The publishers of research journals don’t get much attention because their products are not very exciting.  Mentions of Science or Nature do not exactly quicken the pulse.  But that doesn’t mean that the publishers of academic journals aren’t as predatory and profiteering as any Fortune 500 bank or oil company. 

It now appears that the major universities that generate so much of the world’s research (only to buy it back from publishers at huge mark-ups) could be getting ready to fight back.  Harvard University is publicly urging its faculty members to avoid publishing in journals that require paid access, and to publish instead in open access journals.  Open access literature can be defined as works that are digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions.

As the Guardian (UK) reports, the Harvard Faculty Advisory Council has sent a memo to 2,100 professors and researchers informing them that “major periodical subscriptions, especially to electronic journals published by historically key providers, cannot be sustained: continuing these subscriptions on their current footing is financially untenable. Doing so would seriously erode collection efforts in many other areas, already compromised.”

Now here’s something that doesn’t occur very often:  a respected Internet expert bravely explains to the U.S. foreign policy establishment why open networks are important to an open society – and why Anonymous, Julian Assange and other networked-based protesters are not terrorist threats. 

Harvard law professor Yochai Benkler’s essay, “Hacks of Valor,” in the April issue of Foreign Affairs, faces down some of the demagogic smears that are now being leveled at defenders of an open Internet.  He questions the moral authority of a government to go after Anonymous with such vituperation when it has itself normalized lawless activity such as detentions, torture and targeted assassinations, and refuses to bring the powerful past and present culprits to account. 

Keith Alexander, the general in charge of the U.S. Cyber Command and the director of the National Security Agency, has warned that Anonymous could “bring about a limited power outage through a cyberattack.” Vice President Biden has called Julian Assange a “high-tech terrorist.” 

Samuel Bowles  is one of the frontier thinkers about cooperation and pry rights in the long sweep of history.  An economist who teaches at the University of Siena and heads the Behavioral Sciences Program at the Santa Fe Institute, Bowles is that rare economist who regards property rights as a fluid concept – something that depends a great deal upon the context, culture and values of a given community of people. 

I recently caught up with a lecture that Bowles gave at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society on what he calls “Kudunomics.”  It’s a wonderful presentation.

Kudu?  A kudu is a species of antelope that hunters in the Pleistocene era used to hunt.  Bowles makes a fascinating comparison between the property rights of subsistence economies that once hunted kudu, and what he calls the “weightless economy” of digital information today.  Here’s Bowles’ analysis:

Millennia ago, a band of hunters in Africa might bag a kudu once a month, and be rewarded with about 160,000 edible calories of highly perishable meat.  When thinking about an economy based on kudu, several significant things stand out:  Kudu are quite difficult to acquire (it takes a village to hunt an animal); difficult to own privately (it’s a wild animal); and wasteful if not immediately shared (there was no refrigeration, and so the kudu would spoil unless shared among many people).

In such an economy, the culture rewards generosity toward others and a modesty about one’s personal talents in hunting.  It’s a group thing.  Self-aggrandizement is bad form.  No one can snare a kudu by themselves, and no one can individually consume one.  It makes perfect sense for an economy reliant on kudu to share and have minimal or no property rights.

On the Al Jazeera website, Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation has a terrific big-picture assessment of the impressive growth of the sharing economy and peer production, and its serious long-term implications for capitalism.   

He starts by explaining how commons-based peer production is rapidly expanding.  It is no longer confined to the familiar, robust worlds of free software, wikis, the blogosphere, and social networking in cyberspace.  Peer production has moved on to various physical realms.  It can be seen in such innovations as open source manufacturing, which has produced Wikispeed, a 100 mpg car built by a team of volunteers in just three months, and Arduino, the open-source electronics prototyping platform.  It can also be seen in various crowdsourcing and social lending platforms, such as Kickstarter (which I recently learned channeled more money to artists in 2011 than the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts).

Peer production has also spawned a whole new sector of “collaborative consumption.”  This consists of organized forms of swapping and bartering, car-sharing, CouchSurfing and other lifestyle practices and innovative markets based on sharing.  The point in most cases is to reduce one’s dependence on the market and live a more social, convivial life.  The goal is not acquisition and ownership, but access and use.

Why Design Cannot Remain Exclusive

The recent political struggles between Hollywood and networked culture underscore a profoundly disruptive fact:  exclusive ownership rights are no longer as valuable as they once were.  What really matters is the flow.  Increasingly, knowledge and other intangible things are more valuable when they can circulate -- when they can be freely copied, shared and modified via open platforms.

Finally, we have a big, meaty book that takes on this issue. Open Design Now:  Why Design Cannot Remain Exclusive offers lots of specific stories and penetrating analysis by leading practitioners of “open creativity.”  The book will make heads explode in certain executive suites around the world, but it will also inspire talented artists and amateurs to enter the exciting world of co-creation and social design. The stories show that online collaboration is not just for software; it’s a larger, more powerful force that now designs and builds cars, mobile phones, furniture, images, computer hardware, and much, much else.

Open Design Now was produced by three Dutch organizations – Creative Commons Netherlands; Premsela, “the Dutch Platform for Design and Fashion”; and the Waag Society, a foundation that “develops creative technology for social innovation.”  Not surprisingly, the book has a bold, sleek, attractive design for its 18 essays, 21 brief case studies, and a “visual index” showing dozens of innovative trends in design.  

How does Marxism relate to the commons and peer production? My friend Michel Bauwens, founder of the Foundation for P2P Alternatives, offers a penetrating, big-picture analysis in an interview with Jean Lievens (originally posted on TANIT, Toward a New International Tendency, but also at Social Network Unionism). 

It's now clear that postmodernism is a dead-end if only because it was more of a cultural stance than a serious analysis of economic production and social relations. Meanwhile, “class warfare” is making a resurgence, yet few people really aspire to rehabilitate communism or socialism; the historical models are simply not credible. So what are the realistic alternatives to capitalism and its known pathologies? And what role will the commons and peer production play in challenging capitalism?

Bauwens explains how peer production is moving well beyond the virtual world to include physical manufacturing, and how a certain class of business enterprises – “netarchical capital” – is positioning itself to exploit the powers of digital networks and collaboration.

Provocative Reading

Every day all sorts of fascinating, commons-relevant stories flow through my computer. I thought I'd showcase a few of the more notable ones.

Silent Protocol Wars

Radical Philosophy, a UK journal, has a fascinating essay, “A Tale of Two Worlds,”  by Nicolás Mendoza, about the “silent protocol wars” that websites like WikiLeaks, 4Chan and the Anonymous hackers are embroiled in with nation-states. The “de-localized collaborative community” is arguably the biggest social innovation of the Internet. It is the source of what Mendoza calls a “rogue episteme” – alternative, sometimes-subversive ways of seeing and engaging with the world. But will these alternative networked communities be made technically impossible if they continue to challenge the authority and control of the nation-state? Recent provocations by WikiLeaks (the US Embassy Cables leak) and Anonymous' retaliatory acts raise the question.  The implications for the civic sovereignty of citizens elsewhere around the world is huge.

Mendoza writes: 

“There is no remote corner of the Internet not dependent on protocols,” Laura DeNardis insists. What DeNardis stresses is the ultimate preponderance of the technical over the social protocol. Lessig inaugurated this line of thinking when he famously stated “Code is Law.” But protocol runs deeper than software: if code is law then protocol is the constitution. This is why, as long as attention is diverted toward anything spectacular (like tactical and superficial DdoS [denial of service] attacks), governments can start the demolition of the protocols that grant the possibility of autonomy to the network. In reaction to the release of the US Embassy Cables [by WikiLeaks], the UN called for the creation of a group that would end the current multi-stakeholder nature of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) to give the last word on Internet control to the governments of the world.

Governments, of course, want to assure their own capacity to conduct surveillance, censorship and control. The question is whether the autonomous communities as embodied by WikiLeaks and Anonymous (who act as a vanguard for the larger, less politicized set of Internet users) can survive the protocol wars. “This is where the war stands to be won,” writes Mendoza: “in the building of autonomous structures of all sorts (structures that bypass and outcompete existing ones) on top of other new structures until the entire old world is unnecessary.”

As the Occupy Wall Street protesters contemplate “what next?” – and as they ponder how to combine a visionary agenda with achiveable, short-term political goals – I have suggestion. The Occupy forces in hundreds of cities should petition their local governments to acquire a new “top-level Internet domain” for their city, and to manage that patch of cyberspace as a local commons.

Even Internet sophisticates are not really tracking this issue, but the ownership and control of the new city TLDs could provide enormous new opportunities for citizens to transform their local political cultures, economies and everyday life.

Top-level domains, or TLDs, are the suffixes at the end of Internet addresses, as in .com, .org and .edu. The international body that manages TLDs is called ICANN, for Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.  It recently approved a plan that will authorize cities to acquire their own TLDs, as in .nyc, .paris and .berlin. If properly constituted, the city TLDs could serve as “open greenfields for new local governance structures.”  Unfortunately, the new city TLDs are not likely to serve this role if traditional city governments simply sell off the TLDs to private interests.  Transformative governance will occur only if the TLDs are managed as digital commons accountable to city residents. (See my previous blog on this topic.)

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