Category Archives: Networked Communities

Global ecosystems – piracy and inequality

Another plenary session that I covered in the iCommons blog at the Dubrovnik iCommons Summit was a session on Global Ecosystems, in which the presentations by Bodo Balacz (Budapest University of Technology and Economics) and Lawrence
(Alternative Law Forum, Bangalore) stood out both for their provocative content – the subject was ‘piracy’ – and for the virtuosity of their arguments.What is particularly challenging in their arguments is the presentation of a world view that is not grounded in the presuppositions that underlie an often aggressive Western view of the rights and wrongs of copyright. This was my reflection on what they said, from an African perspective:

A panel that contains both Bodo Balazs and Lawrence Liang was bound to be lively. They did not disappoint in the closing plenary of the iCommons. Both had a similar message – that the ‘pirates’ are harbingers of future trends in the face of market inefficiencies and failures. Balazs made a compelling case in a historical survey of repeated resistance to monopolistic tendencies in in the development trajectory of the copyright regime The pattern that appears in his analysis is one of nodes of resistance at stages at which there were fundamental shifts in the economic, social and technological framework of how culture is produced. What emerged strongly from Bodo’s history of ‘pirate’ resistance was the ethical base of these acts of resistance, which explicitly aimed to remedy injustices and imbalances, rather than targeting financial gain.

Read more on the iCommons blog site

Yochai Benkler speaks at the iCommons

Yochai Benkler’s book, The Wealth of Networks has made a remarkable impact in the short time since it was published. Larry Lessig hailed it as probably the most important book of the decade. Benkler’s keynote at the iCommons Summit in Dubrovnik was therefore awaited with considerable anticipation by many of us who know his work.

I covered his keynote address at the iCommons Summit: In a densely argued paper, Benkler persuaded Commoners that where we are – the Commons movement – is not a passing fashion but a basic reality and part of a transitional trend in social, economic and political affairs. In the traditional media, where massive investment is required to obtain a voice, power is centralised in the hands of the large corporations, making it all to easy for the voices of ordinary citizens to be silenced.

But mass dissemination of information is now possible through decentralised peer-to-peer and collaborative networks, creating space for effective resistance by ordinary citizens against attempts to force silence through censorship or to bury corruption.

The importance of Benkler’s argument is that he takes the debate about collaborative modes of knowledge production deeper than the cultural context in which these issues are usually set, arguing that the Commons poses a fundamental challenge to the accepted proprietary theories of how economics and politics work. The growth of non-proprietary, collaborative ways of working offers opportunities for addressing human welfare and development, away from the power dynamics of big business and political hegemonies.

Read on in the iCommons blog, where I report that what emerged in Benkler’s talk was, first of all, an analysis of the ethical dimesnions of the Commons and, secondly, a dense bu fascinating account of how peer production and his picture of a world in which the tensions between the proprietary and non-proprietary modes of production could lead to the development of a
new version of the political economy.

iCommons grows up – what measures for success?

I blogged a few articles on the iCommons blog in Dubrovnik over the last few days. Here is a link to a reflection on how one judges the success of free culture projects in a rapidly-maturing community.

What to expect from the opening plenary of a conference that is essentially about copyright? Only a few years ago it would have been a stuffy hall at the London Book Fair, in the dingy surrounds of Olympia on a rainy Saturday in April. The experts in their suits would drone on, assuming the reassuring earnestness of a doctor’s bedside manner to tell us how successful they had been in prosecuting the pirates in India and how China was beginning to be copyright observant. The most dramatic we could hope for was an alarmist display of web pages showing the speed and effectiveness of the burgeoning informal online pirate economy.

Not so here at the second iCommons Summit. First of all, iCommons goes for stunning settings – last year on Copacabana Beach in Rio, this weekend in the Revelin Fort on the edge of Dubrovnik old town. This means that we come into the conference hall with the smell of pine resin in our nostrils, slightly dazzled by the brilliance of the white boats in the harbour and early morning sun reflecting off the blond stone of the old city. What we were treated to when we got inside was a bravura display from a movement that in one brief year is displaying a new confidence in the success of its alternative creative vision.

The beautiful settings hide something else that emerged very strongly in the opening plenary session and that is that iCommons is a truly global, polyglot community. It is no accident that the conferences happen in places that are off the major beat of the USA and Europe – or even the Asian industrialised powerhouses. it means that iCommons can specialize in the off-beat. It would be a mistake, though, to think that this offbeat quality means that it is lightweight. it is all a matter of how one measures success.

A free education world explored in a fortress by the sea

iCommons has a talent for holding its conferences in beautiful places. Last year it was Copacabana Beach in Rio. This year we met in Dubrovnik, in the Revelin fortress on the edge of the centuries-old city walls. Very different to Rio, but some similarities – an intensely blue Adriatic sea, muggy heat, a laid-back atmosphere. But there the similarities ended. Dubrovnik is very much a European city, perhaps even surprisingly so, given its location on the far edge of a Mediterranean culture. In some ways it feels more Germanic than Southern, with its pristine city walls in blond stone, impeccably restored after the war with Serbia and Montenegro, and its gleaming polished marble streets in the old town. But then there are the villas climbing steep hills behind the old town, the patches of brilliant colour from flowering trees, the grape vine pergolas over sea-facing terraces, the scent of pine resin over cafe tables and the olive green foliage of the islands – all this is decidedly southern.

The conference rooms in the Revelin fortress were all in blond stone, with vaulted stone ceilings, soft light and shadows. Ironical perhaps that this was the setting for an often passionate discussion about the nature of free culture, often anarchic, never boring. It is hard to capture the spirit of what was this year a diverse event, from deep intellectual discussion to presentations by free culture radicals, to the workshop sessions of the Open Education stream. This challenged the formal conference structure of the rest of the Summit, with its more rigid panel discussions, where expert opinions provided a framework of authority and response. Instead, the nature of Open Education was explored in what some speculated might be a subversive symbolic setting, the Lazar-house set on the rocks over Dubrovnik’s most fashionable beach.

The discussions led with gusto by Allen Gunn revealed a wide diversity of views from a global patchwork of people. What emerged was the capacity to reconcile the sometimes extreme dogmatic views about what constitutes Open Education, whether the dogmatism be free content, open source software, collaborative communities, or whatever. The workshop context allowed discussion of these diverging views and, above all, the emergence of a much more complex and pedagogically-informed
tapestry of the potential that could be offered by Open Education in a variety of geographical and educational contexts. It is much more than just content, the participants agreed. Also, they concurred, there has been too little attention paid
to informal education and lifelong learning, the possibilities offered for mature learners.

The process was sometimes anarchic – go to Steve Foersters blog on the speed-geeking session on the iCommons website, or look at the podcast of the workshop participants acting out open education as a flight of geese. As is familiar to many educationists, a collaborative workshopping process like this one can be playful, but the results are often more serious and complex that earnest discussion can be. Perhaps this is a model for future Commons conferencing (along the lines that I believe Sakai has taken). This has opened up a blog discussion on the iCommons site – it will be interesting to see where this leads.

The workshop participants commented rather acerbically that the panel discussion on Open Education held in the main stream of the conference did not contain one teacher. But was acknowledged was that this was the one stream that produced a
series of concrete recommendations and projects for tracking in iCommons 2008 in Tokio.

There is a plethora of blog articles on the new iCommons site – see the education track on the iCommons blog for a wide-ranging discussion of the issues.

The future of universities in a digital age

The Academic Commons blog is running a story about a collaborative project in brainstorming what a university could look like in a digital age. From the blog article:

The folks at the Humanities, Arts, Sciences, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory aka HASTAC have posted a draft of a paper entitled “The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age.” The paper will evolve through online collaboration and conversations, and will be published in its final form as part of the Occasional Paper Series on Digital Media and Learning sponsored by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

It is framed by the following proposition: “We are faced today by a pressing question: How do institutions–social, civic, educational–transform in response to and in order to promote new kinds of learning in the information age?”

This provocative and difficult question–What does a peer-to-peer learning institution look like and how does it differ from what we understand our traditional learning institutions to be?–is only part of what makes this project exciting.

This project looks as if it is bringing together a number of cutting edge players, so it is well worth visiting the blog and the site for the paper. It should certainly stimulate discussion about what a South African university could develop into. Given the diversity of our university communities and the very rapid rate of transformation we face, this kind of forward thinking could offer us a lot.