Internet

The weekend news showed exultant customers hoisting their newly purchased iPads over the heads in stunning images of triumph, transcendence and rapture. You gotta hand it to Steve Jobs. He knows how to stage a PR coup.

Too bad that the iPad is hardly a paragon of "freedom." It is actually a "tethered appliance," as tech guru Jonathan Zittrain puts it — a closed, proprietary system that enables Apple to control what we may do with the iPad and which new applications may run on it.

Even though software developers will likely generate thousands of new apps for the iPad, the little-discussed reality is that Apple will retain absolute control over which apps will be legally sold and used on the tablet. Like the iPhone and iTunes store, the iPad is encrypted with DRM (digital rights management). Apple will control how the system evolves and what freedoms users will have. (This, from a company that professes to dislike DRM and that once used the advertising tagline, “Rip. Mix. Burn.”)

Sometimes it just takes a determined set of commoners to get the job done. Impatient with the lethargy of the federal government in making its own films and videos available online, info-activist Carl Malamud has launched the International Amateur Scanning League. Dozens of volunteers are digitizing government-produced DVDs on everything from agricultural advice to presidential addresses, and putting them on the Internet.

Some 200,000 such DVDs are nominally available to the American people, but unless you live in Washington, D.C., and can personally visit the National Archives, your only option is to buy a copy from Amazon.com. The Scanning League aims to liberate those videos for everyone — for free.

As the New York Times (March 15) tells the story:

A huge international coalition has come together to campaign for respect for the civil rights of citizens and artists in the digital era. Yesterday, the Charter of the Culture Forum of Barcelona for Innovation, Creativity and Access to Knowledge was released by more than 100 representatives from 20 different countries who had met in Barcelona from October 30 to November 1. The Charter is a landmark statement about rights of commoners to freedom of expression, access to culture and knowledge, privacy, cyber-security and Net Neutrality, among other concerns.

The Charter was spurred by the growing ambitions of the culture industries and the European Parliament and national parliaments to assert greater control over the Internet, expand copyright and patent rights, criminalize copying and sharing (often mis-characterized as "piracy") and in other ways stifle the expansion of free culture.

Celebrating One Web Day

It may seem odd to celebrate a day known as One Web Day. which is this Tuesday, September 22. Isn’t this a bit like National Mustard Day (August 3) or National Bubble Gum Week (in March)?

Not at all! We have very few devoted to our shared, commons interests — and the World Wide Web surely must rank as one of our most important shared interests. In fact, the Web must be considered one of the most amazing, historic, disruptive, democratic and surprising creations in human history.

But if the many marvels and benefits that flow from the World Wide Web are going to endure in the future, we need to be able to name this social, technological and legal invention for what it is — a part of our common wealth. We must cultivate its remarkable capacities, defend it from attack and preserve the social practices and virtues that enable it to flourish.

No Time to Think

One of the more pernicious enclosures of the commons is the enclosure of time and consciousness. It’s pernicious because it is so subtle and rarely discerned. When commercial values such as productivity and efficiency become so pervasive and internalized, they crowd out other ways of being. Our very sense of humanity — full-bodied, spontaneous, spiritual — leaches away.

All of this was brought home clearly in a provocative lecture that I attended yesterday evening. It was called "No Time to Think," by David M. Levy, a professor at the Information School at the University of Washington. Levy gave a chilling historical overview of how American society has become enslaved to an ethic of "more-better-faster" and is losing touch with the capacity for reflection and intuitive thinking. In an overweening commitment to constant doing and making, analyzing and thinking (which, let us note, are important human activities), we can too easily close off access to an entire realm of consciousness that is at least as important, our capacity for reflection.

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.

Last week, in my post about "peak hierarchy," I referred to a talk by Michel Bauwens of The P2P Foundation at UMass Amherst on November 25. Bauwens, who lives in Chiang Mai, Thailand, is a leading student and proponent of "peer production" as a new paradigm of economics and culture. The term comes from the Internet culture and describes the ability of dispersed individuals to come together and collaborate on projects of shared interest.

While this may sound as familiar and prosaic as a garden club or local Kiwanis group, the Internet changes the dynamics of self-organization and production dramatically. There are at least one billion people in the world online right now, and their historic separation by time and space can be partially overcome through Web 2.0 software platforms. This enables all sorts of very specialized communities to arise from a global pool of people, who can now self-organize themselves into productive commons.

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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