Benkler on Freedom and Justice on the Commons

The iCommons Summit in Dubrovnik wrapped up yesterday, and what a colossal gathering of commoners from around the world it was! The group included the heads of dozens of Creative Commons affiliates (Korea, Pakistan, Mexico, others), free software hackers from eastern Europe and developing nations, the Gnu Girl Power Lounge Collective from Zagreb, copyright scholars from the United States, activists from the U.K. and Europe, Arab-language commoners devising new social networking websites, and many, many others. The international movement for a more open, participatory and creative digital culture does not really have an adequate name — “free culture” comes closest, perhaps — or even a single focus or “ideology.” It is a swarm, a network, a federation of many projects loosely joined. It does share many ideals about culture and human betterment, and is verging toward a new set of social justice issues, especially in the developing world. Significantly, the many disparate strands of this movement are starting to discover each other and lend support to each other’s struggles.

Yale Law Professor Yochai Benkler’s keynote remarks on Saturday, “Freedom and Justice in the Commons,” offer some insight into why this humanist, democratically oriented groundswell (still unrecognized by elites and the mainstream media) may be happening. Part of the answer is economics. In the mass-media age, you needed access to a lot of capital to reach people and be influential; that’s why the owners of broadcast stations, newspapers and film studios typically dominated public culture and politics. But that is starting to change now that PCs, transmission costs and digital memory are becoming so cheap and distributed. Now it is fairly easy for anyone to communicate to a wider public — and the heartfelt and idiosyncratic expression of amateurs can often be far more compelling and authentic than the pap served up by mass media (which, unlike online media, has an economic imperative to reach the lowest-common-denominator of cultural taste).

The economics of decentralized media has radically changed the cultural ecology of communication, Benkler noted. An illustrative example is the nearly suppressed story of flawed electronic voting machines made by Diebold. When critics began to complain about the vulnerability of Diebold machines to hacking or fraud, the mainstream media politely accepted Diebold’s word that nothing was wrong with their voting machines. But when activist Bev Harris obtained the source code for the Diebold software, she was able to enlist the free help of other programmers to investigate — and confirm that the code was seriously flawed. Swarthmore students obtained Diebold internal emails suggesting problems, and put it on the Web — which Diebold tried to suppress, claiming copyright infringement. In short, the open Internet ecology and volunteer citizen investigations were able to force the issue into the public eye, eventually resulting in a California state commission that confirmed problems with Diebold’s software.

The point is that the Internet and new software platforms enable citizens to pursue collective action more efficiently and effectively than ever before. Public life and culture cannot be so easily monopolized by monied interests. Radically decentralized cultural production enables more people to participate in creating music, making films and democratic culture. In the process, the free culture movement is redefining democracy.

As people recognize their capacity to be serious and autonomous players in public life, they are developing a new sense of themselves and their civic identities. People who participate or read Wikipedia realize that they may be experts with something worth contributing. Bloggers have a keen realization that The New York Times is not the last word on what happened in the world yesterday. Commons-based peer production is enabling people to build online platforms that help that take care of their own needs directly, without buying something from the market or having it provided by government.

Perhaps the most promising sociological result of the new online media, said Benkler, is its ability to help people cultivate social and personal virtues that mainstream economics ignores or denigrates: friendship, cooperative, sharing, generosity. Online communities require that people learn to develop trust in each other, and to have a respect for norms of fairness, transparency and shared goals. We hear a lot about the predatory side of the Internet, which surely exists, but it is also true that cooperation and sharing on a grand scale are becoming more pervasive social realities online. The commons is stepping up as a more socially convivial and effective substitute for some types of market activity or paid expertise (Wikitravel as a source of travel advice, for example).

In short, a lot of positive developments that we should welcome and take pride in. There are some serious challenges, of course, in securing the new commons so that they can persist and resist enclosure. But that’s a large and complicated story unto itself that I’d prefer to leave for another day.

Dubrovnik itself, it must be said, is a gem. Dry sea breezes, Mediterranean charm, a wealth of history inscribed into the buildings, walls and cobblestones. A massive 50-foot wall surrounds the Old City — two square kilometers that stretches back to the 7th Century — protecting it from enemies who might otherwise attack it. A visitor can now walk the perimeter of the city — which endured damage from artillery shelling by the Serbs in the early 1990s — and realize that its citizens know how to provide for the collective welfare.