Provocative Reading

Every day all sorts of fascinating, commons-relevant stories flow through my computer. I thought I'd showcase a few of the more notable ones.

Silent Protocol Wars

Radical Philosophy, a UK journal, has a fascinating essay, “A Tale of Two Worlds,”  by Nicolás Mendoza, about the “silent protocol wars” that websites like WikiLeaks, 4Chan and the Anonymous hackers are embroiled in with nation-states. The “de-localized collaborative community” is arguably the biggest social innovation of the Internet. It is the source of what Mendoza calls a “rogue episteme” – alternative, sometimes-subversive ways of seeing and engaging with the world. But will these alternative networked communities be made technically impossible if they continue to challenge the authority and control of the nation-state? Recent provocations by WikiLeaks (the US Embassy Cables leak) and Anonymous' retaliatory acts raise the question.  The implications for the civic sovereignty of citizens elsewhere around the world is huge.

Mendoza writes: 

“There is no remote corner of the Internet not dependent on protocols,” Laura DeNardis insists. What DeNardis stresses is the ultimate preponderance of the technical over the social protocol. Lessig inaugurated this line of thinking when he famously stated “Code is Law.” But protocol runs deeper than software: if code is law then protocol is the constitution. This is why, as long as attention is diverted toward anything spectacular (like tactical and superficial DdoS [denial of service] attacks), governments can start the demolition of the protocols that grant the possibility of autonomy to the network. In reaction to the release of the US Embassy Cables [by WikiLeaks], the UN called for the creation of a group that would end the current multi-stakeholder nature of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) to give the last word on Internet control to the governments of the world.

Governments, of course, want to assure their own capacity to conduct surveillance, censorship and control. The question is whether the autonomous communities as embodied by WikiLeaks and Anonymous (who act as a vanguard for the larger, less politicized set of Internet users) can survive the protocol wars. “This is where the war stands to be won,” writes Mendoza: “in the building of autonomous structures of all sorts (structures that bypass and outcompete existing ones) on top of other new structures until the entire old world is unnecessary.”

Rats That Empathize

Economists would have us believe that we are all scheming, rational utility-maximizers. But there is increasing evidence that empathy and altruism are baked into life itself. The latest evidence comes from a study published in the journal Science that explored whether rats would act to help another rat escape from a cage by nudging the door open. (Abstract of study locked behind a paywall, and NYT account, December 13, 2011.)

Call it empathy, call it altruism – but the researchers found that once the free-roaming rat figured out he or she could free the other rat, it would do so day after day. When the experiment was altered to give the free rat an option of freeing the other rat or liberating some locked-away chocolate, the rats were just as likely to free their fellow rat. And when they did gain access to the chocolate, they almost always shared it.

The study's conclusion: “Rats behave pro-socially in response to a conspecific’s distress, providing strong evidence for biological roots of empathically motivated helping behavior.”

Stir to Action – the Third Issue

My friend Jonny Gordon-Farleigh, the founder and editor of the political/cultural magazine Stir (as in “Stir to Action) has come out with a third issue. For a new magazine, this is great news; it appears that the magazine is finding its audience. And no wonder – Stir has a perspective that no other journal in the UK (or elsewhere) has. Politics is not approached from all the conventional, boring angles – the political leaders, the mainstream framing of “issues,” the breathless forecasting, etc.  The magazine doesn't fall into the old categories of thought or treat us as mere spectators to political culture. Stir embodies a different sensibility of politics altogether, one that honors personal initiative and responsibility, the power of culture, and the promise of the commons.

In the Winter 2011 issue, we see, for example, “A Competitive Cooperative,”  which profiles a worker-owned food cooperative in England, Essential Trading, which is celebrating its fortieth anniversary. With 85 employees, it is one of the largest successful worker co-operatives in the UK. Another piece, “Common Ground,” by Dr. Mark Everard, is a meditation on the future of the commons as a way to manage ecological resources. He writes: “This Revolution is brought about by a shift in focus from natural resources as possessions towards the functions that they perform and the many benefits that flow from this to all society.”

There are other terrific pieces in this issue of Stir. “The Aviation Justice Tour”  describes how UK activist John Stewart, a leader in the successful campaign to stop construction of a third runway at Heathrow Airport, was detained upon his arrival in the US. It seems that US authorities didn't want Stewart enlightening his American counterparts about the strategic secrets of his success. Stewart was immediately sent home.

The Commons Law Project on CSRwire

Over at CSRwire Talkback (“corporate social responsibility”), Francesca Rheannon – Producer and Host of a radio show Writer's Voice and Managing Editor of CSRwire Talkback -- has a wonderful two-part piece about the need for imaginative changes to global governance to deal with ecological decline. Rheannon, a long-time supporter of the commons, cites the Commons Law essay that Professor Burns Weston and I have been pursuing for some time.

We recently finished a draft that calls for recovering the near-forgotten history of commons law and renovating it to address contemporary ecological problems. We also talk about how the “duopoly” of State and Market needs to become part of a new triarchy with the Commons to protect the environment. Rheannon's two-part series can be read here  and here. 

“How the Food Industry Eats Your Kid's Lunch”

Journalist Lucy Komisar describes how one-quarter of the U.S. School lunch program, which feeds some 32 million children with surprlus agricultural food, could be a powerful force for good nutrition and nutrion education. Unfortunately, about one-quarter of the program has been hijacked by private food service corporations whose profit motivations have turned a good program into a horrible one.


from 2011 into 2012

Excellent series of year-end and year-in posts. Thanks, David!