commons strategies

Free Culture Gets Political

For years, the free culture world was resolutely focused on building its eclectic array of commons projects — free software, open-access journals, wikis, and pools of creative works using Creative Commons licenses. History may record that the free culture reached a turning point in Barcelona, Spain, in November 2009. At the Free Culture Forum, a conference that just concluded this week, free culture activists from about twenty countries came together to assert a shared political and policy agenda.

What was notable about the Forum was its complete independence from the three leading transnational free culture organizations -- the Creative Commons (and its dormant affiliate iCommons), Wikipedia and the Free Software Foundation. Perhaps because it is European-based, the event was more frankly political and diverse than the gatherings usually hosted by those organizations. (Though to be clear, the Barcelona Forum was building on top of the innovations of these groups, and was not averse to them or their work.)

Online Collaboration Goes Legit

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.

Science Commons, the Video

Science has never been jazzier. Director Jesse Dylan -- the director of the Emmy- award winning Yes We Can Barack Obama campaign video -- has teamed up with Science Commons to produce a short video explaining why science is the ultimate remix. It’s a great primer on the special challenges facing scientists in sharing and collaborating, and it’s licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license. Watch the video here.

Surprisingly enough, it is easier for the layperson to find obscure things by using Google than it is for scientists to find out more about "signal transduction genes in pyramidal neurons." Today, that search turned up 137,000 hits, a universe of undifferentiated material that is too large to be easily searched and used by most scientists. Scientific knowledge, unlike many other realms of information, exists in some very specialized structures that make it more complicated to browse and organize it.

The familiar storyline of science fiction is the evil dystopia – the totalitarian society of the future in which large, faceless government agencies and corporations use sophisticated technologies to pry into every corner of our lives. The goal is to neutralize dissent and shield the exercise of power from accountability. However necessary at times, surveillance is a crude display of power, a unilateral override of the “consent of the governed."

Now a countervailing storyline is starting to get some traction in real life: the increasing citizen use of technology to “watch from below.” The practice has been called “sousveillance,” a word that comes the French word “sous” (from below) with the word “viller” (to watch). Instead of Big Brother using a panopticon of surveillance to exercise total, unquestioned control, the commoners are using cheap, portable technologies to monitor and publicize the behavior of Power. The commons is sprouting its own eyes – and its own means of self-defense, political organizing and reclamation of democracy.

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