The International iCommons Summit

The explosion of “free culture” initiatives are on full display at the iCommons Summit in Dubrovnik, Croatia, which I am attending this weekend. iCommons is the international organization spun off by the Creative Commons to convene the countless commoners around the world who are building the new digital, democratic republic. From bloggers to free software to Wikipedia to Creative Commons affiliates to open education and open science practitioners, this wildly diverse community now flourishes in more than 50 countries. This Dubrovnik gathering is a kind of staging area for imagining, and building, a new type of open, democratic culture — one that competes in a fashion with the more stodgy and/or corrupt democratic norms of nation-states.

As you might imagine, the conversations among the 330 people here span a huge territory. One growing field of interest, however, especially in developing countries, is “open educational resources.” These are textbooks, online archives, curricula, learning software and other resources that can be freely used by students and teachers. The key themes in the OER movement are peer learning, participatory learning, situational learning and the sharing of materials with others. So, for example, Australian school systems have created a vast commons to share the educational materials that they each generated — which enables them to avoid the high costs of photocopying and payments to collecting societies. Another project in Australia is developing free high school science textbooks. A nonprofit solicits experts to volunteer to write separate modules of text, and then professional editors are hired to integrate the final product. The final result is a free, high-quality textbook. The One Laptop Per Child project is forging ahead with its distribution of millions of durable, inexpensive and child-friendly laptops to children in developing countries.

In his keynote remarks yesterday evening, Oxford University professor Jonathan Zittrain warned that lots of online commons that we take for granted — e-mail and the Web, for example — are being ruined by the popularity that stems from their openness. E-mail is being overwhelmed by spam and malware, for example. Open wikis are sometimes ruined by vandalism. There is a growing conflict between the “I” and “the commons,” Zittrain said — that is, between individual freedom (and its inevitable abuses) and the freedom and stability of the commons. “Exit” is the traditional solution to deteriorating or unacceptable situations, but what if there are no viable alternatives to such threatened commons as email or the Web?

The usual response, says Zittrain, is to try to stay ahead of the curve of abuse by developing new innovations on-the-fly. Wikipedia, for example, is trying to avoid factual errors and vandalism, and improve quality, by organizing the people who have contributed to specific articles, and through formal mediation systems. But it may be that the commoners need to design new and better software tools that better give a sense of what’s going on in online communities. For example, a new distributed software application called Herdict — meaning “a verdict from the herd” — can be installed on individual PCs to allow people to detect “badware,” monitor the vital signs of a computer and detect Internet filtering and impediments to network neutrality (are transmissions between discriminated against?). One’s individual results can then be compared against aggregate results collected by a Berkman Center server.

An alarming development is the resurgence of closed systems, which are typically sold as solutions to the messiness and abuses of open commons. So Apple’s new iPhone, for examle, is a closed, proprietary appliance that offers the same sort of one-stop, packaged convenience that Prodigy and Compuserve once offered in the late 1980s, before the open Internet eclipsed them. Is the closed, proprietary model making a comeback at the expense of the commons made possible by the open Internet infrastructure?

One big news item out of this conference is Professor Larry Lessig’s announcement that he plans to step aside as leader of the Creative Commons. He returns from Berlin to Stanford University in the fall, and hopes to shift his attention to new, as-yet-unspecified directions. While Lessig’s departure is obviously a loss for the free culture movement (but who can begrudge him the respite after ten years of relentless activism, especially now that he has two young children?), it also creates new opportunities for the movement to develop a new generation of leaders and explore new ways of managing itself.

Tonight, Professor Yochai Benkler, author of The Wealth of Networks, will deliver a keynote that talks about future prospects for the online commons and democracy.