Internet

Now that free market dogma has become the dominant narrative about value – and yet that narrative is neither credible nor readily displaced -- we are descending deeper and deeper into a legitimacy crisis.  There is no shared moral justification for the power of markets and civil institutions in our lives.  Since the 2008 financial crisis, the idea of “rational markets” has become something of a joke.  There are too many external forces propping up markets – government subsidies, legal privileges, oligopoly power, etc. – to believe the textbook explanations of “free markets.”

This is a serious quandary.  We’re stuck with a threadbare story that few people really believe -- the “magic of the marketplace” advancing human progress and opportunity – and yet it is simply too useful for elites to abandon.  How else can they justify their entitlements?  These are among the themes explored in an astute new book, The Ethical Economy:  Rebuilding Value After the Crisis  (Columbia University Press, 2013), by sociologist Adam Arvidsson and entrepreneur/scholar Nicolai Peitersen. 

The implicit “social contract” that people have with the reigning institutions of society is coming apart.  As the authors note:  “Three decades of neoliberal policies have separated the market from larger social concerns and relegated the latter to the private sphere, creating a situation where there is no society, only individuals and their families, as Margaret Thatcher famously put it, and no values, only prices.”  Meanwhile, the catastrophic ecological harm being caused by relentless consumerism and economic growth is becoming all too clear, especially as climate change inexorably worsens.

Our “value crisis” is tenacious, say Arvidsson and Peitersen, because we have “no common language by means of which value conflicts can be settled, or even articulated.”  Few people believe in “free markets” and government as benign, mostly responsible influences any more; there is simply too much evidence to the contrary.  And who believes that the Market/State as constituted can solve the many cataclysms on the horizon?

Arvidsson & Peitersen’s ambitious goal is to outline a scenario by which we might come to accept a new, more socially credible justification for socially responsive production and governance.  They want to imagine a “new rationality” that could explain and justify a fair, productive economics and civil polity.  A tall order! 

While I don’t agree with all of their arguments, they do make a penetrating critique of the problems caused by neoliberalism and offer some useful new concepts for understanding how we might imagine a new order.  The Ethical Economy provides a bracing, sophisticated look at these issues.

Readers of my blog may recall the announcement several months ago of Michel Bauwens’ appointment to head a strategic research project for the government of Ecuador. Under the auspices of the Free/Libre Open Knowledge (FLOK) Society Research Project, Bauwens and a small team have embarked upon an ambitious effort to imagine how to “remake the roots of Ecuador’s economy, setting off a transition into a society of free and open knowledge.” 

The Project is now seeking the help of people around the world who are engaged in transformative social change inspired by open knowledge, co-operation, and the building of commons.  Here is a lengthy excerpt from the FLOK Society’s letter:

Our aim is to finalize proposals to be presented at a conference in April 2014, which will bring together the President, government officials, civil society participants, and global experts on the commons. The project received its impulse from IAEN Rector Carlos Prieto, Project Leaders Xabier E. Barandiaran & Daniel Vázquez, and Research Director Michel Bauwens.

Here is the link to the FLOK Society project: http://www.floksociety.org

The project seeks the involvement and input of local civil society, but also includes an explicit appeal to the global co-operative and commons movements to assist us with advice and policy proposals. It is our belief that the Ecuadorian people will be inspired by the best of what is happening abroad, in all countries of the world. Hence our appeal to you, global co-operators and commoners.

If you are engaged in transformative social change that is inspired by open knowledge, co-operation, and the building of commons for the well being of all, we ask you to send us information and benchmark proposals on leading local or global initiatives in your area of expertise.

Imagine a society that is connected to open knowledge commons in every domain of human activity, based on free and open knowledge, code, and design that can be used by all citizens along with government and market players without the discrimination and disempowerment that follows from privatized knowledge.

Writer’s Voice, a national radio show and podcast featuring authors, recently devoted an hour to talking with me about the commons. The chief focus was on my new book co-authored with Burns Weston, Green Governance:  Ecological Survival, Human Rights and the Law of the Commons, which Cambridge University Press published in January. 

Our book recovers from history many fragments of what we call “commons-based law” from such sources as Roman law, the Magna Carta and Charter of the Forest, and public trust doctrine governing natural resources.  We also point to many modern-day analogues such as international treaties to manage Antarctica and space as commons. We wish to show that commons-based law is in fact a long and serious legal tradition – but one that has also been quite vulnerable, particularly over the past two centuries as market-oriented priorities have eclipsed the commons. 

Burns Weston and I argue that the right to a clean and healthy environment, and to access to nature for subsistence (as opposed to for profit-making market purposes), should be recognized as a human right.  The right to meet one’s everyday household needs – by responsibly managing forests, pasture, orchards and wild game as a commons – was recognized by the Charter of the Forest, adopted by King Henry III, the son of King John, in 1217.

This right was essentially a right to survive because commoners depended on the forest for food, fuel, economic security and other basic needs. Such precedents ought to inform our discussions today, when the rights of investors and markets in effect override any human right to survival (consider the many free trade treaties that override democratic sovereignty, ecological protections and local control).

The election of Bill de Blasio as Mayor of New York City suddenly presents a rich opportunity to reclaim a commons-based resource that the Bloomberg administration was on the verge of giving away. I’m talking about the pending introduction of a new Internet “Top Level Domain” for New York City, .nyc.   

Top Level Domains, better known as TLDs, are the regions of the Internet denoted by .com, .org and .edu.  They amount to Internet “zones” dedicated to specific purposes or countries.  Over the past few years, far beyond the radar screen of ordinary mortals, the little-known Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) – which manages TLDs -- has been pushing the idea of TLDs for cities.  If Paris wants to have its own Internet domain -- .paris – it can apply for it and get it.  Rome could have its own .rome and London could have .london. 

New Yorker Thomas Lowenhaupt of Connectingnyc.org – a long-time advocate for treating the TLD as a shared resource – has written, “I’ve often thought of the .nyc TLD in its entirety as a commons -- that the .nyc TLD is a digital commons that we all need to protect as we today (seek to) protect our physical streets and sidewalks by not littering, and provide clean air, parks, schools, health care, fire and police protection, and the like, to our built environment so that it best serves 8,200,000 of us.”

Here are some examples that Lowenhaupt has come up with for how .nyc could make New York City more accessible and navigable: 

The idea is that Internet users could use the TLDs to access various aspects of city life by using them in creative ways.  Instead of having to rely on Google to search for museums in New York (which would yield thousands of not-very-well-organized listings), you could use museums.nyc and find everything laid out more intelligently.  Or if you were new to Brooklyn Heights, you could go to brooklynheights.nyc and find all sorts of civic, community and commercial website listings for that neighborhood – the library, recycling resources, parking rules, links to relevant city officials.  And yes, the businesses. The possibilities are endless -- and potentially enlivening for a city.

Ever since the World Wide Web went wide in 1994, film studios, music labels and publishers have tried to neuter this unparalleled communications commons.  Much of the Web’s power stems from its open technical protocols known as hypertext markup language, or HTML, which are used to build webpages.  HTML has always put users, not "content-makers," in control of content, and as a result, people could (for example) copy and save the “source code” for a webpage.  Bottom-up innovation could emerge and prevail.    

The truly dismaying news is that the official steward of technical standards for the Web – the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C – plans to adopt a new set of standards, HTML5, that will let content owners add digital rights management, or DRM, to their web content.  As Cory Doctorow writes on BoingBoing, “the decision to go forward with the project of standardizing DRM for the Web came from Tim Berners-Lee himself [who invented the Web in the early 1990s], who seems to have bought into the lie that Hollywood will abandon the Web and move somewhere else (AOL?) if they don’t get to redesign the open Internet to suit their latest profit-maximization scheme.”

What makes the new HTML5 standards so alarming is that it kicks open the door for still other new forms of proprietary control over Web-based video, images, fonts and more.  Danny O'Brien, International Director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has a good account of the struggles to prevent this outcome at the W3C, which could lead to the piecemeal privatization of the Web infrastructure.  

Book publishers love that libraries can act as free marketing venues, introducing readers to new authors and keeping them focused on books.  But publishers don’t like it when libraries act as commons – that is, when they promote easy access and sharing of knowledge.  A successful commons may modestly limit a publisher’s absolute copyright control – and even minor incursions on this authority must be stoutly resisted, publishers believe.     

One of the more egregious such battles now underway is a lawsuit filed by Harvard Business School Publishing, John Wiley and the University of Chicago Press against the Institute for the Study of Coherence and Emergence.  ISCE  is a small, nonprofit membership group that “facilitates the conversation between academics and business people regarding social complexity theory, particularly the implications for the management of organizations.” 

The focus of the publishers’ lawsuit is ISCE’s virtual library of 1,200 books.  May ISCE self-digitize and lend its virtual books to its members on a one-usage-at-a-time basis, for private, educational, non-commercial purposes? 

The publishers say no, and are seeking to establish their legal authority to shut down such unauthorized “reproduction, display and distribution” of the books.  But ISCE counter-claims that the fair use and first-sale doctrines of copyright law give it the legal right to lend its virtual books.  (Fair use is the legal doctrine of copyright law that allows excerpts to be shared noncommercially.  The first-sale doctrine prohibits the seller from controlling what a consumer does with a book or DVD after it is purchased, such as renting it, lending it or giving it away.)  ISCE claims, in addition, that libraries are entitled to special-use privileges under copyright law, which apply in this instance.

Here’s a development that could have enormous global implications for the search for a new commons-based economic paradigm.  Working with an academic partner, the Government of Ecuador has launched a major strategic research project to “fundamentally re-imagine Ecuador” based on the principles of open networks, peer production and commoning.   

I am thrilled to learn that my dear friend Michel Bauwens, founder of the P2P Foundation and my colleague in the Commons Strategies Group, will be leading the research team for the next ten months.  The project seeks to “remake the roots of Ecuador’s economy, setting off a transition into a society of free and open knowledge.” 

The announcement of the project and Bauwens’ appointment was made on Wednesday by the Free/Libre Open Knowledge Society, or FLOK Society, a project at the IAEN national university that has the support of the Ministry of Human Resource and Knowledge in Ecuador.  The FLOK Society bills its mission as “designing a world for the commons.” 

The research project will focus on many interrelated themes, including open education; open innovation and science; “arts and meaning-making activities”; open design commons; distributed manufacturing; and sustainable agriculture; and open machining.  The research will also explore enabling legal and institutional frameworks to support open productive capacities; new sorts of open technical infrastructures and systems for privacy, security, data ownership and digital rights; and ways to mutualize the physical infrastructures of collective life and promote collaborative consumption.

My friend Silke Helfrich recently wrote a great blog post about the importance of infrastructure to the commonsdrawing upon the keynote talk on infrastructure by Miguel Said Vieira at the Economics and the Commons conference in Berlin, in May 2013.  Silke reviewed Miguel's talk, prepared in collaboration with Stefan Meretz – and then added some of her own ideas and examples.  Here is her post from the Commons Blog:  

Infrastructure is, IMHO, one of THE issues we have to deal with if we want to expand the commons….Let’s start with a few quotes from the (pretty compelling) framing of the respective stream at ECC, which was called, “New Infrastructures for Commoning by Design.”

"Commons, whether small or large, can benefit a lot from dependable communication, energy and transportation, for instance. Frequently, the issue is not even that a commons can benefit from those services, but that its daily survival badly depends on them. … When we look at commoning initiatives as a loose network, it does not make sense that multiple commons in different fields or locations should have to repeat and overlap their efforts in obtaining those services (infrastructures) independently…“

We need to sensitize commoners about the urgent need for Commons-Enabling Infrastructures (CEI). That is, we need infrastructures that can “by design” foster and protect new practices of commoning; help challenge power concentration and individualistic behavior are based on distributed networks (as extensively as possible) provide platforms which enable non-discriminatory access and use rights (for instance: a “ticket-free public transport system” is not cost-free, but it is designed in such a way that the funding of maintenance is not tied to the traveller’s individual budget).

Welcome, the Commons Atlas!

Ellen Friedman and the good folks at CommonSpark website (“a collective of commons activators”) are in the early stages of assembling a new sort of resource guide for the commons, “The Commons Atlas.”  This innovative project is a collection of online maps, “threat maps,” datasets and tools for creating data visualizations (geospatial maps, timelines, network maps, mindmaps, infographics, etc. ) related to the commons.

The diversity of visual systems to locate various commons is wonderful!  If you want to find out where you can locate fruit trees and other edibles for personal gleaning, go to Falling Fruit, Forage Berkeley and Mundraub (Germany).

The atlas includes a map of Maker projects in the US, and a map, “Vivir Bien” (good living) that shows where to locate “resources for a solidarity economy.”  Can’t find a place to sit in a city?  Check out Street Seats, which identifies seats and benches where you can sit down in public spaces.

On the Common Atlas, you can find the “Bike-sharing World Map” and and the Great Lakes Commons Map  which plots people’s stories on a map of the Great Lakes along with harms to it.

Our knowledge about what makes digital commons work is terribly under-theorized.  Yes, there are famous works by Lawrence Lessig and Yochai Benkler, and there are lots of projects and websites that are based on commoning such as like Wikipedia, free software, Arduino, open access journals, among countless others.  But can we identify core principles for organizing digital commons?  Can we use that knowledge to engineer the evolution of new commons?  Identifying such principles just might let us move beyond “openness” as the ultimate goal of online life, to a more sustainable goal, the self-governed commons.

It has been a pleasure to discover that some computer scientists are actively exploring how Elinor Ostrom’s principles for successful commons might be applied to the design of software.  Consider this intriguing essay title: "Axiomatization of Socio-Economic Principles for Self-Organizing Institutions: Concepts, Experiments and Challenges,“ which appeared in the ACM Transactions on Autonomous and Adaptive Systems, in December 2012.  

The piece is by British electrical and electronic engineer Jeremy Pitt and two co-authors, Julia Schaumeier and Alexander Artikis. The abstract is here.  Unfortunately, the full article is behind a paywall, consigning it to a narrow readership.  I shall quote from the abstract here because it hints at the general thinking of tech experts who realize that the social and the technical must be artfully blended:

We address the problem of engineering self-organising electronic institutions for resource allocation in open, embedded and resource-constrained systems.  In such systems, there is decentralised control, competition for resources and an expectation of both intentional and unintentional errors.  The ‘optimal’ distribution of resources is then less important than the sustainability of the distribution mechanism, in terms of endurance and fairness, based on collective decision-making and tolerance of unintentional errors.  In these circumstances, we propose to model resource allocation as a common-pool resource management problem, and develop a formal characterization of Elinor Ostrom’s socio-economic principles for enduring institutions. 

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