open source software

Rarely have I read an essay that knits together some very different commons with such wisdom and depth. Joline Blais' 2006 essay, “Indigenous Domain: Pilgrims, Permaculture and Perl,” is a wonderfully insightful analysis that reveals the underlying unity and logic of commons principles. Her piece appeared in Intelligent Agent (vol. 6, no. 2), published by the Inter-Society for the Electronic Arts.

Blais' essay is valuable because it speaks to the rift that is said to separate commons based on natural resources and those of cyberspace. The segregation of those two classes of commons has always bothered me. There are of course significant differences between managing depletable natural resources and managing cheap and limitless stores of digital information. Yet it has always struck me that the two great tribes of commoners have much more in common than not, and should be in closer consultation with each other.

Blais not only confirms this, she suggests a way forward. She does this by applying her extensive knowledge of actual indigenous peoples to contemporary permaculture and digital culture. The links that she draws among them are not rhetorical or metaphorical, but explanatory. Because she understands the common paradigm is about integrating resources, social relationships and culture into a single system, she is able to identify recurrent patterns of commoning in some very different resource regimes.

For example, Blais draws clear connections between Native Americans managing their lands and the permaculture movement.  The latter, emulating indigenous peoples, is trying to re-create sustainable human/nature relationships in a modern context. She also shows how the cultural practices of indigenous peoples resemble those of digital communities. One example is the community of programmers that created and maintains Perl, a programming language, in its low-tech, high-trust systems of self-governance.

The infrastructure for starting and maintaining new commons just got a big boost in Spain with the founding of Goteo.org, a new crowdfunding website. The explicit mission of Goteo.org is to help finance and support “the independent development of creative and innovative initiatives that contribute to the common good, free knowledge, and open code.”

The site is obviousy inspired by the crowdfunding website Kickstarter and other distributed-funding innovations, but Goteo.org differs in being dedicated exclusively to funding open-source and commons-related projects. It is also dedicared to fostering distributed collaboration on proposed and ongoing projects.

Most of the Goteo.org website is in Spanish, but here is an English FAQ describing the project. Geoteo sees itself as “a platform for investing in 'feeder capital' that supports projects with social, cultural, scientific, educational, technological, or ecological objectives that generate new opportunities for the improvement of society and the enrichment of community goods and resources.”

Ready to Share: Fashion and Ownership of Creativity

Ready to Share: Fashion and the Ownership of Creativity, edited by David Bollier and Laurie Racine
(Lear Center Press, 2006)

More than any other industry, fashion treats a far larger portion of its creative output as a commons – shared resources that can be freely reused and transformed by other creators. In some ways, the history of fashion is the simultaneously whimsical and serious story of an industry that continues to grow and prosper via Sir Isaac Newton’s maxim, "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." This book draws together several essays and the proceedings of the Norman Lear Center's 2005 conference, Ready to Share: Fashion and the Ownership of Creativity."

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.

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