DIY Policymaking

I was on a panel, “Artists and Advocacy,” at the National Conference for Media Reform Conference the other week.  The other panelists focused on innovative tactics to gain visibility and influence for pushing a policy agenda.  That's an essential task, but I decided to focus on a different way to advance our interests in a way that is arguably more durable.  Why not build our own commons-based markets and commons infrastructures? 

The existing policy process is systemically corrupted by corporate money and influence, making it a Herculean task for public-interest advocates to prevail.  Just look at the fate of net neutrality to date.  And even if you do prevail, the political winds may blow the other way and erase those gains later. 

Mind you, I am not making an either/or argument, but rather a both/and argument.  We obviously still need to persevere in conventional policy advocacy, particularly on net neutrality.  But with the Internet providing a easily accessible platform for wide-open creativity and the viral amassing of audience/participants, we should find ways to bypass policy altogether and develop our own enterprises to advance our interests.  

The International Commons Conference in Berlin continues to generate some interesting follow-up work.  One of the most engaging is a series of videos shot by Alain Ambrosi of Remix the Commons.  The day after the conference, Alain interviewed ten commoners, including me, asking each of us the same questions, such as "What struck you most about this conference?"and "Would you say there is a commons movement?"

The Remix the Commons project is still a work-in-progress and won’t be fully operational for a few months.  However, in the meantime, two different series of videos are available:  “Define the Commons / Définir le Bien Commun / Definir el Procomùn,” and  “Framing the Commons in Berlin.”  The latter consists of a series of  nine separate interviews with  Silke Helfrich (Germany), Michel Bauwens (Thailand), Julio Lambing (Germany), Beatriz Busaniche (Argentina), Frédéric Sultan (France), Valérie Peugeot (France), Rosa Maria Fernanda (Ecuador), Alberto Acosta (Ecuador), Hervé Le Crosnier (France), and me.  Each interview is conducted in the interviewee’s native language.

When the Commoners Converged on Berlin

The conversations that I encountered at the International Commons Conference in Berlin, Germany, three weeks ago are still reverberating through my mind.  I’m not sure if any of us really knew what a group of 180 self-styled commoners from 34 countries would look like.  But just experiencing the transnational tableau of commoners – each with different voices and passions, but united by a commitment to the idea of the commons – was energizing and inspiring. 

The conference was sponsored by the Heinrich Böll Foundation in cooperation with the Commons Strategy Group (of which I am a part) after months of planning, primarily by Silke Helfrich.  The event had an ambitious focus – “Constructing a Commons-Based Policy Platform” – that, in retrospect, was not entirely achieved.  There were just too many commoners meeting each other for the first time, each coming from different intellectual and cultural traditions, with no lingua franca or shared agenda yet.  We are still learning who were are, how we think and our aspirations for the commons.  (It was quite obvious, however, how we feel.)

The conference's most significant achievement may have been the in-person convergence of so many committed commoners -- and the many new relationships and collaborations that have been spawned.  And even if the framing of the conference was ambitious, it was precisely what we need to be talking about. 

Video and accounts of the landmark gathering, "Constructing a Commons-Based Policy Platform," in Berlin, Germany, on November 1-2, 2010, convened by the Heinrich Boell Foundation in cooperation with the Commons Strategies Group. See also the conference wiki.

The Politics of Open Source

As a vehicle for passionate participation and, transparent management, free and open source software (FOSS) has become an icon of our time: a synonym for a happier, more productive and democratic way of producing things. But sometimes the progressive image of open source may skate past some of the messier realities. Developing software code is, after all, a different challenge than journalism or music. And hackers are a different kind of social cohort than writers and musicians, let alone the general public.

The University of Massachusetts Amherst just completed a two-day conference, The Politics of Open Source, which assessed the impact of open source software in a variety of domains. The dominant perspective was political science, with accents of tech talk and activism.

The Digital Republic

These remarks were given by David Bollier at the Free Culture Forum [] in Barcelona, Spain, on October 30.

This conference takes place at a time of great promise and great peril. Great promise, because we have the opportunity to secure what I call the Digital Republic. And great peril, because the 20th Century content industries show few signs of recognizing the legitimacy and value of the digital commons and its principles of openness, participation and decentralized control.

So I thank the organizers of the Free Culture Forum for bringing us together to discuss the future of our Digital Republic. You may be wondering: What is this Digital Republic? It is the federation of self-organized commons that constitute free culture. It is the new vision of democratic practice that we have been creating for a generation.

And who is this "we"?

We are the hackers and programmers who have built and maintained GNU Linux, Apache, PERL, blogging software, wikis, social networking and wifi.

Putting People Back into Economics

Last weekend I traveled to Bloomington, Indiana, to speak at a community-organized conference on the commons. As I got up to speak, I paused and gulped: there in the audience was the pioneering scholar of the commons, Elinor Ostrom.

It was not an academic conference, but rather a gathering of 125 regular citizens at the local Unitarian-Universalist Church. Several slides in my presentation drew upon her work or mentioned her. Would she agree with my interpretations? Would I get something wrong?

Ostrom, a long-time political scientist at Indiana University, is a tremendously warm and generous-spirited person, so it was not her personality that gave me pause. It’s that she has spent several decades studying how real-life commons work, especially in managing natural resources. From Nepal to Switzerland and from Turkey to Los Angeles, Ostrom has done painstaking field work and attended scores of conferences to probe the inner dynamics of commons. She knows a few things.

The Commons Comes to Schlossberg Hill

“You just walk into the mountain,” I was told. And so I walked up to Schlossberg, a large hill that overlooks the city of Graz, Austria, and into a tunnel carved out of sheer rock that extended dimly into the distance. I stepped gingerly onto the metal grating that formed a inclined walkway, and proceeded in amazement for more than 100 yards. The air had the sharp tang of rock dust. I came to a huge open space — a 150-foot “auditorium” with a 40-foot ceiling — again, carved out of sheer rock.

I had arrived at Dom Im Berg, the main venue of the annual Elevate Festival, a four-day gathering for indie music and political culture that this year is devoted to the commons.

Interest in the commons has been gaining some momentum in Austria and Germany. Some two-thirds of the conference speakers are from those nations, and a number of regional and national media were covering the event. Falter, a national weekly that has a resemblance to the Village Voice of New York City, interviewed me, and devoted another page to DJ Spooky (a.k.a. Paul Miller), the remix artist and cultural philosopher.

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