Last week, I spent a few days at a small but intense workshop where we were looking at a the political dimensions of various forms of commons. The discussions were open and far ranging. I tried to distill some of these into a definition of commons that tries to take its various dimensions into considerations and separates structural from political issues. Far from perfect....
COMMONS, A DEFINITION
A commons is a resource held as joint property by a community. Thus, it is distinct from private property (held by natural or legal persons) or public property (held by the state). Typical for commons is that the management of the resource is oriented towards use-value for its members, rather than towards exchange-value within society at large. The separation between producers and consumers is minimized. Thus, commons are also distinct from other forms of collective ownership (such as co-operatives) that produce for the market.
All commons are social institutions, they depend on a community to create and maintain it. A resource that is freely available to all but not managed in a meaningful way by a self-aware community (e.g., the fish in the open sea) are not a commons. Like in all communities, questions of membership (boundaries) and internal decision-making are subject to ongoing, more or less conflictual, negotiations.
It is these questions that define the political quality of the commons, which can serve as defensive mechanism against market encroachment (e.g., in the case of indigenous commons), as a project of exclusion (e.g., in far-right conceptions of the body national) or as the basis of open cooperation (e.g., in the case of Free and Open Source Software).
Commissioned by the Dutch government, a recently published report concludes that file-sharing has a positive effect on the economy, both on the long and short term. A massive 30% of the Dutch population uses file-sharing software to download music, games, movies and other forms of entertainment, which is now considered to be a ‘good thing’.
File-sharing gives people access to a wide range of cultural goods and is often used to sample content that is bought later, the report concluded. Most file-sharers would have never bought the content they downloaded, but having access to such a large media library increases the welfare of Dutch citizens, the researchers note.
Frankly, the findings of this study do not surprise me and they point to the power of the long tail for cultural economy. Wider range of access to cultural product is a good thing, in and off itself. People will be able to find what they really care for (rather than stick to what is just not objectionable enough to switch off -- the basic mode of operation of TV and other broadcast media) and form that engagement, many things can flow.
Things get really interesting on page 116 as the report starts to dissect the societal effects of file sharing. The study concludes that the effects are strongly positive because consumers get to enjoy desirable content and also get to keep their cash to buy other things. Because the consumers save much more money than the producers lose, the net economic effects are positive. The report also reinforces the truth that unpaid downloads do not translate into lost sales in anything close to a one-to-one ratio.
David Bollier writes:
It is one thing to talk about the “virtual corporation” and online commons as new organizational forms. It’s quite another to have those forms be legally recognized. Yet in a little-noticed law enacted in June 2008, the State of Vermont has formally conferred “legal personhood” on online communities that wish to form limited-liability partnerships.
The Vermont law strikes me as an ambitious next stage in the evolution of tech and legal infrastructure that started with free software and Creative Commons. The General Public License (for free software) and CC licenses authorize new forms of sharing and collaboration, and have the force of law. We’ve seen the explosion of new online creativity and collaboration that has resulted. The new Vermont law has the potential to authorize all sorts of interesting new collaborative organizations that would have the full legal standing to “compete” with conventional corporations.
My friend John Clippinger of the Berkman Center has described the virtual corporations law as the first step toward imagining a new type of “cloud law.” He is referring to “cloud computing,” the next generation of computing that will locate software systems in the “cloud” – remote server-farms that are accessible from anywhere, through one’s iPhone, laptop or other portable device. Cloud computing will be sold as a utility – like electricity or phone service – and will enable even more powerful modes of Web 2.0 collaboration. For economic reasons, tech experts regard the Cloud as the virtually inevitable next stage of computing.
As with our colleges, so with a hundred "modern improvements"; there is an illusion about them; there is not always a positive advance.
The devil goes on exacting compound interest to the last for his early share and numerous succeeding investments in them. Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; ... We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the Old World some weeks nearer to the New; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.
Source: Chapter Economy http://www.princeton.edu/~batke/thoreau/
The NYT has an interesting article on people who make money with the regular video shows (apparently all comedy). Through YouTube's partner program (where people can register to have adds shown next to their video -- so that youtube can be sure not to show adds on pirated content). According the a company spokesperson, there are "hundreds of YouTube partners are making thousands of dollars a month." One of the shows as an average of about 200'000 viewers with popular episodes up to three million.
Mr. Williams, who counts about 180,000 subscribers to his videos, said he was earning $17,000 to $20,000 a month via YouTube. Half of the profits come from YouTube’s advertisements, and the other half come from sponsorships and product placements within his videos, a model that he has borrowed from traditional media.
On YouTube, it is evident that established media entities and the up-and-coming users are learning from each other. The amateur users are creating narrative arcs and once-a-week videos, enticing viewers to visit regularly. Some, like Mr. Williams, are also adding product-placement spots to their videos. Meanwhile, brand-name companies are embedding their videos on other sites, taking cues from users about online promotion. Mr. Walk calls it a subtle “cross-pollination” of ideas.
In June 2008, the Canadian government introduced Bill C-61, new copyright legislation that closely followed the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The public response to the bill was both immediate and angry - tens of thousands of Canadians wrote to the Minister and their local Members of Parliament, leading to town hall meetings, negative press coverage, and the growing realization that copyright was fast becoming a mainstream political and policy issue. This film, produced by Michael Geist and Daniel Albahary, asks Canadians from across the country and from a wide range of sectors the question - "why copyright?"
Jeffrey Rosen has an interesting article in the NYT Magazine asking "Are Google’s gatekeepers determining the limits of free speech?" He looks at various cases where Google decided how to respond to demands that it blocks access to material, most notably on YouTube.
On the balance that Google seeks to strike, he quotes Tim Wu, a Columbia law professor and a former scholar in residence at Google:
“To love Google, you have to be a little bit of a monarchist, you have to have faith in the way people traditionally felt about the king. One reason they’re good at the moment is they live and die on trust, and as soon as you lose trust in Google, it’s over for them.” Google’s claim on our trust is a fragile thing. After all, it’s hard to be a company whose mission is to give people all the information they want and to insist at the same time on deciding what information they get.
Google claims that it can detect the outbreak of the common flu two weeks earlier than the US Center for Desease Control, based on sudden spikes in relevant search terms -- e.g. flu systems, muscale ache -- that people are using. The set up a site to track this called "Flu Trends." They write
We have found a close relationship between how many people search for flu-related topics and how many people actually have flu symptoms. Of course, not every person who searches for "flu" is actually sick, but a pattern emerges when all the flu-related search queries from each state and region are added together. We compared our query counts with data from a surveillance system managed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and discovered that some search queries tend to be popular exactly when flu season is happening. By counting how often we see these search queries, we can estimate how much flu is circulating in various regions of the United States.
It's pretty clear that while we are learning about the world through Google, google is learning about us. And it does so in real time. While we have to wait for someone to put material out there, Google as access to enormous amounts of raw data as it is being produced and can process it any way it wants, most profitably, one can imagine, for marketing. I guess the pharmaceutical industry is quite interesting in such data. One can imagine that publishing (or witholding) such real time monitoring data is having a real effect in the developing of the underlying phenomena itself.
I'm doing research on the early practices of remixing and came across this gem from the late 19th century, by Eugène Bataille a member of an art group called "les incoherènts" which I had never heard of, quite frankly. Yet they did many of the things that later the dadaist and surealists would do, a full generation earlier.
Today appeared on the ORF website appeared an interview with Konrad Becker and myself on social and political aspects of search engines. This is all part of the preparation leading up to our Deep Search conference on Nov. 8.
Die Konferenz "Deep Search", die am Samstag in Wien stattfindet, untersucht die gesellschaftliche Macht der Suchmaschinen. ORF.at hat mit den Konferenzveranstaltern Konrad Becker und Felix Stalder vom World Information Institute über digitale Wissensordnungen, Bürgerrechte bei Google und Paranoia als Erkenntnisinstrument gesprochen.