Internet

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.)

The Pirate Party Wins Big in Berlin

The Pirate Party won an impressive and unexpected 8.9% of the vote in Berlin's elections on Sunday. This means that the Pirates will have an astonishing 15 seats out in the state parliament, out of 141 legislators. It's the first time that the Pirate Party has won representation in a German legislative body.

To put this in perspective, the German Pirate Party won 2% of the vote in national elections in 2009, but no seats in the legislature. The Berlin election can be chalked up as a regional aberration, which it is, but it also took place in the capital of Germany.  And a bloc of 15 seats can be parlayed into real power in a parliamentary system.

But what's also significant about the Berlin victory is the growing power of trans-national movements that have strong local bases and political and cultural affinities that span national boundaries. This is the new Internet culture emerging. As the blog Governance Across Borders puts it, “The Pirate Party’s election win in Berlin would not have been possible without its relations to a much broader and transnational movement. For one, there are fellow pirate parties in over 40 different countries, most of which are members of the meta-organization Pirate Parties International. For another, the pirate party movement is itself only one of several related and partly overlapping social movements inspired by the new technological possibilities of Internet and digital technologies.” (Governance Across Borders has a useful FAQ on the Pirate Parties and the Berlin victory.)

Benkler's The Penguin and the Leviathan

Is the pendulum swinging to a new vision of what human beings are? For decades the standard narrative of the economics profession has been that a human being is homo economicus, a self-regarding, materialistic creature who is constantly trying to maximize his utility through rational calculation. We all know that this is a caricature, but in the “real world” of markets and politics, it seems functional enough to accept as true. After all, we all know people who are nasty, self-serving and acquisitive.

While everyone has been focused on this aging model, however, a new body of academic literature offering up a new paradigm has been building for the past twenty years or more. It hasn't quite won mainstream acceptance, at least among economists, politicians and the public. But Harvard Law Professor Yochai Benkler aspires to remedy this problem with his new book, The Penguin and the Leviathan: How Cooperation Triumphs Over Self-Interest. The book is an accessible and thorough overview of the literature of cooperation, as seen through the prism of economics, sociology, neuroscience, evolutionary biology and other disciplines.

Scores of scientific studies and countless Internet-based examples are revealing that we humans aren't as irredeemably selfish and socially retrograde as economists make us out to be. In fact, science is telling us that humans appear to be hard-wired to cooperate within consensual social structures, rather than wage an endless competition of individuals against each other. Such findings have far-reaching implications for how public policy, law, regulation, business models and many other social structures should be designed – which is precisely Benkler's point in writing the book. We need to acknowledge our human capacities to work together collaboratively and to design appropriate institutions and policy systems to leverage our innate propensities.

Benkler's previous book, The Wealth of Networks, was an illuminating but dense and lengthy treatise on how digital networks are enabling “commons-based peer production” and markets that are more socially embedded and responsive. In many respects, that book, published by Yale University Press, is quite a contrast to The Penguin and the Leviathan, an anecdote-filled book published by Crown Business and aimed at a lay readership and businesspeople.

Give Me My Data

Most Facebook users have become so accustomed to working on the “corporate plantation” as "digital sharecroppers" that they lose any interest in controlling their own digital lives and content.  It is a welcome development, therefore, to see enterprising souls like Owen Mundy develop a free app that lets people reclaim their data from their Facebook accounts.

Give Me My Data,  which is officially in “public-beta” release, is an attempt to give social network users control over their own stuff.  You might want to delete your account but retain your accumulated postings, for example.  Or you might want to get around the Facebook interface, archive your content or perhaps make artwork from it.  The content can be exported into a variety of common formats.

Give Me My Data is not only a useful free software tool (licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license), it’s a way of sending a signal to the corporate goliath Facebook that users have some choices and just might decide to go elsewhere.   Mundy sees his app as a vehicle for public education:  “While clearly utilitarian,” he writes, “this project intervenes into online user experiences, provoking users to take a critical look at their interactions within social networking websites. It suggests data is tangible and challenges users to think about ways in which their information is used for purposes outside of their control by government or corporate entities."

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