Apr 272012

Lawrence Lessig famously stated that “code is law”:

The primary idea, as expressed in the title, is the notion that computer code (or “West Coast Code”, referring to Silicon Valley) may regulate conduct in much the same way that legal code (or “East Coast Code”, referring to Washington, D.C.) does.[2] More generally, Lessig argues that there are actually four major regulators — Law, Norms, Market, Architecture — each of which has a profound impact on society and whose implications must be considered.

In a sense, then, the pincer movement is utterly complete.  Whilst a parliament of lawyers is taken over by a posse of businesspeople, exerting undue influence over our democracy, from the other side – the side of coders and software architects everywhere (and by everywhere I mean Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter; as well as, even, I have to say, open source projects such as Mozilla, LibreOffice and WordPress itself) – our behaviours, our attitudes, what we can do or not do with our possessions, what we can say, how we say it, the kinds of things that strike at the very heart of our economies and define what we are as human beings … all the above is equally structured by people who run transnational behemoths for the benefit of certain ways of seeing or doing.

Now I’m not, for the moment, passing judgement on those mindsets in question.  All I’m saying is that to date our society – our democracy – has been based on the rule of law as defined by lawyers.  Our parliaments are stuffed full of ex- or practising lawyers; our politicos all speaking with the care and general prevision of those who might avoid a future trap cleverly set by an ever-watchful media class.

But if what Lessig has sustained for quite a while now is in any way true, the kind of profession which dominates our democracy is entirely the wrong one for our times.  If more law is being made in the online constitutions we now all operate under for our communication, peer-to-peer exchanges, commerce and gaming than is being made in our parliaments, surely we need a parliament stuffed with those who understand the new tools.

Otherwise, we depend on the good faith of people working behind closed corporate doors to create online and connected offline worlds with a sensibility and sensitivity to the needs of a wider democracy.

The current situation is, in fact, as follows: it’s as if we had a civilisation where the more money and wealth you had, the more right you had to tell citizens what to do.

Which surely can’t be the case.

Can it?

The solution then?  As per the title of this post: we need a parliament not of lawyers – or not only of lawyers – but, rather, more importantly, of coders and software engineers.  Only then will we be able to not just track the changes in technology that take place and their impact on our societies but also implement and engage from the very beginning a wider citizenship in democratic debate.

We need a new and parallel parliament – parallel, at least, to start out with – which writes the rules of how we should act and behave through software code itself.  Much as books, as core repositories of information, have developed into films and latterday websites, so the legal code which once ruled our civilisations is giving way to billions of lines of software.

Any legal professional worth his or her virtual salt must understand the implications.

Any political professional who cares about democracy must accept that patching up 19th century code, as SOPA, PIPA and ACTA have tried to do, is simply going about the job to hand in a totally inappropriate way.  We’ve been creating the software tools and their permissions and ways of seeing and doing before typing their rights and responsibilities in the legal parliamentary code of old.  Inevitably, if we choose to act thus we are going to fail miserably.

We are buying the horse blindfold, without examining its mouth before it’s too late.

We need to start at the beginning of the process; not come in way beyond the end of its implementation.

What needs sorting – and opening up to public scrutiny – are the software constitutions themselves.  It’s not open government we need any more but an engagement of end-users – let’s call them virtual voters – before software code is written and implemented; before it impacts on our societies.

It’s not open source code we need to promote (though that, of course, is virtuous) so much as open source process.

Not open government but the kind of open Internet we still have not seen.

A parliament of societally focussed coders, then – able to communicate and liaise with the above-mentioned virtual voters?

Why not?

Apr 242012

I once wrote these words in my unfortunate, naive and relative youth (a couple of years ago I mean), in a piece titled “Is Web 2.0 an example of 21st century socialism?”:

Lessig doesn’t think so. More here.

But I do. It’s a semantic question, obviously. For me, socialism means employing the collective to defend the individual. Historically, there are many socialisms where this has simply not been the case. Thus, we disagree.

But a 21st century socialism we choose to remake, in the image of a century we all covet and proclaim ours, can break out from its historical straitjacket – can achieve something entirely different.

Web 2.0, crowdsourcing, consumer-producers … all these concepts sit nicely with the idea of supportive communities which are able to organise themselves. Using open source tools to redefine and remove costs from the equations that large corporations would otherwise burden us with is 21st century socialism at its best.

Let’s have more of it.

And yet today I find myself posting on whether Twitter and Facebook should pay their users for the content they generate.  Clearly something has gone wrong.

We’ve ended up making the most basic of all mistakes: we simply don’t have control over our means of production.  What’s missing from my previous position, what turns my dream into a mirage of a delusion, is the fact that instead of open source tools freely and unconditionally available for everyone to use, we’ve decanted for a branded equivalent which behind it has only the naked instincts of profit and loss.

Decanted is the right word too.  It’s kind of like what’s happened to the growth in bottled water consumption: running water used to be so enough.

Only now it isn’t quite.

Now we need a logo, an image, a network of messages to justify and sustain our continued participation.

Whilst back at Web 2.0, we continue to slave away at our keyboards and mobile phones – punching in data furiously, with the only reward and compensation for our efforts being the approbation of our peers.

It’s not even as if we’re doing it for free – it’s actually far worse than that.

In the process involved we are obliged to give up so much of our personal information in order that we may access these tools, that effectively we end up paying our lords and masters for the right to enter the aforementioned data on their behalf.

As users of Web 2.0 tools such as Twitter and Facebook we are nothing but foolish data-inputters who actually court our virtual bosses for the honour of broadening their portfolio of assets.

Web 2.0 isn’t 21st century socialism at all.  Web 2.0, as we have allowed it to grow, is 19th century sweat-shop capitalism of the very worst sort.  And what’s so very fascinating about its dynamics is that we’re prepared to cede to its attractions so cheaply.

Quite an achievement, this apparently voluntary enslavement of the working-classes – how to beat Marx and all his assumptions, in fact, in one easy step.

A certain kind of infirmity – even, perhaps, an encroaching technological addiction of the proletariat – which is fashionably and ingeniously destroying our ability to put boundaries on its reach.

Social networks.

Don’t you just love ‘em?

How we’d do anything for our friends.  Even work for absolutely nothing for the grandest web-based corporations – which then, on the back of our toil, receive billions of dollars of hardly earned cash.

Now there’s an unfashionable explanation for our current levels of unemployment: a massively clever transfer of socially networked riches from the most humble in our nation states to the most powerful on our globalised planet – and all via the labour of the former at the hands of the latter and their freemium strategies.

Could be a PhD in there somewhere, you know.

Definitely a PhD’s worth of ideas.

Alternatively, a truism only we at the coalface are still unaware of.

Apr 202012

Chris rightly asks the question:

The answer is that all pose what might be the most important question in economics – of how to encourage creativity.

I think, however, the question is misplaced – misplaced because economics, as well as observers of the creative industries themselves, still sees human endeavour on a playing-field where individuals are more important than mobs.  In fact, some would eagerly blame open source movements and other crowdsourcing efforts for having removed the individual – as well as their due compensation – from modern creation.

But if we’re honest about this, it started at least as early as the nascent 20th century production line that was the Hollywood film industry.  (There are, if I remember rightly, historical references to the Flemish geniuses of Renaissance art also running their own industrially produced outputs – though obviously nothing on the scale of Hollywood.  On the other hand, what did the printing-press bring to authorship if not the industry of the many cooks who might very well spoil the broth constructively?)

And this selfsame Hollywood, for quite a while, was able to impose a model that other industries such as newspapers readily copied: take advantage of the multifarious skills the properly channelled mob might apport; pay them minimally for their efforts; and cream off the profitable results in terms of massive gains for hierarchies and shareholders decade after decade.

The problem, of course, for all the above now, is that the mob which once scraped a living by working for the corporates – which quite correctly invoked the added value that centralised communications, places of work and managed teams of able staff brought to very many creative people – has “disintegrated” into free-culture producer-consumers on the web.  The problem with the web isn’t just that the corporates are getting their content “ripped off”; the problem with the web is, really, that the ant-hill mob of selfless striving has replaced the permanent expectation to be individually famous – and paid for it.

If you stop blogging, another blog will replace you.  If you stop posting to Flickr, another photographer will step into your shoes.  We have taken on board so completely the fifteen-minutes-of-fame dynamic of Warhol’s that we actually now expect to be eventually trodden on – and our only desire is to carry on scurrying creatively for as long as our own personal resources last.

The problem, then, with creativity in modern economies isn’t finding ways of generating more of it.  We only have to read up on YouTube’s download and upload stats, on Wikipedia’s daily pageviews and on Pinterest’s current levels of interest to realise that quantity – and even quality – isn’t an issue.  The ant-hill mob is doing its biz – there’s no doubt about that.

No.  The real problem with creativity only exists within an individualist – and perhaps libertarian – focus on what human reward should really look like.  Even as traditional socialism vanishes from most of modern political practice, the old sharing and community instincts which form a part of being a human being find their expression in modern online creativity.

Essentially, creativity has finally gone all post-modern on us: it no longer needs the traditional economic process of investment, worker oppression and shareholder reward to produce its goods.

The question is whether this is satisfactory for any of us who still believe we human beings should be more than grains of sand on anonymous beaches.

And to that question, I really have no answer.

Maybe because part of its answer, sadly, lies in the meaning of life itself.

Apr 182012

A tweet which this morning was directed at my innermost open-source leanings led me to wonder if Wikipedia has a symbiotic or parasitical relationship with knowledge.  The tweet went thus:

@eiohel like the wonderful open source voluntarism-driven marvel that is Wikipedia. It’s foundation is well-funded publications 4 citation

I answered with a perhaps too flippant reply that just as many journalists working for paid publications would be taking advantage of Wikipedia’s millions of pages as any of the alleged “free-loaders” out there.  I say flippant because this of course wouldn’t necessarily make the situation any better: quite the reverse in fact, as paid-for organisations could arguably free-load on the back of other paid-fors via the intermediary actions and paraphrasing skills of Wikipedia itself.

It also led me, however, to tweet back the following resulting thought (the bold is mine):

@Paul0Evans1 We could of course equally say the same of blogging since the beginning of time … symbiotic rather than parasitic?

Which leads to me to my final occurrence and the very point of this post: does blogging – has blogging ever – added real value to anything at all?  Dependent as it is on much of paid-for media’s output to spark off its over-the-garden-fence discourses, it would probably not exist if there weren’t a close interface between the blogosphere and MSM.  Yet surely even those most in favour of traditional copyright models could not argue that the blogosphere taken in its entirety had not added anything useful to the sum of human thought.

Or, in their irascible and fanatical mindsets, might they be tempted to assert that it manifestly hadn’t?

My opinion is, of course, quite different.  I believe we need deniable outriders in thought – just as much as we need them in politics.  They are the proving-ground of new and bright ideas – and such ideas need the freedoms of open and unrestricted places if the future is to be dealt with under any kind of intelligence at all.  The shutdowns of traditional copyright models probably do have their place in some form: but blogging, and the kind of open access to general knowledge which Wikipedia and social media in general tend to provide, are a necessary adjunct to the intellectually sustainable – and directly fundable – stuff traditional copyright seems to want to continue inscribing.

In any case, there have been notable calls recently for open access to publicly-funded research: if the debate is now getting as far ahead as the cutting-edge of such research, surely that cutting-edge shouldn’t any longer be causing us to bleed?

Mar 272012

When they proposed taking away Legal Aid from those who’d grown up with every right to expect it, they didn’t suggest that multinationals should also do without their platoons of legal departments and brains.  Of course not.  For this is just one example of many recent examples where the gander’s sauce is used to well and truly cook the goose.  That is to say, we, the ordinary people, are the geese; those who like to prance around the world’s political and business stages being the ganders.

There are no level playing-fields for ordinary people any more.  You perhaps may argue I am being naive – but this is not exactly the case.  What has changed over the years, quite imperceptibly, is the shame that those at the top express in public about injustice.  No longer, it would seem.  Injustice is the tool only of polarised extremists.  The mainstream has other matters to preoccupy it.

The job of government is now the same as that of business: to entrench Darwinian inequalities and ensure it’s every man for himself (and, mark my words, it will most certainly be mostly men).  The poor no longer have their effective representatives: in any case, the model was pretty much corrupting itself already.  Representative democracy?  A rope bridge of uncertain quality too far.

Open source communities for a while have offered a possible alternative: an opportunity for disparate peoples to organise around common objectives with solid foundations and fundamentals.  An exchange of labour, self-interest, altruism and democracy all mixed up in one, sometimes, beautiful package.  This for example:

[…] We need a new form of capitalism for the 21st century—one dedicated to the promotion of greater well-being rather than the single-minded pursuit of growth and profits; one that doesn’t sacrifice the future for the near term; one with an appropriate regard for every stakeholder; and one that holds leaders accountable for all of the consequences of their actions. In other words, we need a capitalism that is profoundly principled, fundamentally patient, and socially accountable.

Sounds interesting, doesn’t it?  But it’s quite one matter to fashion and forge nice words.

Quite another to implement the devilish detail.

In the absence of proper democratic representation and accountability, in the absence of politicians paying any constant and accurate attention to their voters and charges, there was always the chance that self-organisation as touched on above might have provided the key.  But it seems, even here, the objective of government has been to make daily life so very very Darwinian that the slack our leisure time used to afford, in those better and boom-like times of a decade ago, has slowly but surely dissipated away – to such an extent that we may simply not have the energy to get out and act at the margins of their awful stranglehold on our society.

We are caught – rat-like – in a laboratory of their making; we are gradually losing access to levers of counterbalancing power; our rights, whilst still in theory within our gladsome reach, are becoming evermore difficult to exercise, as they remove all practical support and information and ability to fight sensibly back.

What has changed since the times of recent yore is that our governors and political class now shamelessly, quite publicly, care little for the needs and preoccupations of the vast majority in society.  The tragedy is that whilst New Labour was in power, those of us foolish enough to listen believed the warning signs would not be implemented: whilst an apparently left-leaning and cuddly kind of right-winger was still in charge, and able to comfort the weaker consciences amongst us, we thought that all those laws were a just-in-case of extreme circumstance; a just-in-case we would never really end up using.

Unfortunately, all that commercialisation of the state, that was stealthily enshrined in unnecessary and sometimes hardly exerted law, ended up conveniently sitting in the political wings – just waiting for men like Andrew Lansley, George Osborne and David Cameron himself.

And perhaps, in a surrogate kind of way, Tony Blair himself.

Perhaps Tony Blair now comforts himself by saying – as Thatcher, with New Labour, must have done in her time – that his legacy lives on as spores in the body politic of the Tory Party, under Cameron’s unhappy posse of malcontents.

Perhaps, in truth, we’ve been very naughty people.

Perhaps it is through the Gates of Hell we are only now really entering.

Perhaps, only now, do we find ourselves realising what it is like to survive instead of live in the West.

Perhaps it is time we looked elsewhere.

Mar 202012

There’s a complex piece over at Al Jazeera at the moment on the subject of the worldwide Occupy movement and the new economics it may help to configure.  Till now, Occupy has been generally perceived and criticised as an umbrella group of people who obviously know what they disagree with but find difficulty in saying what they’re in favour of.

Also, till now, Occupy has been seen as a mainly political statement of utter rejection of the more immoral sides of latterday economic practice, without offering concrete solutions or alternatives.  But the article Al Jazeera published on the 9th of this month, and which can be found here, points us in a different direction completely.  The thesis thus described appears to build on solid and pre-existing process as exemplified by the grand American IT corporations which have already cared to get involved with the ecosystems of open source software (the bold is mine):

Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organisationsstresses that companies that work with Linux, such as IBM, “have given up the right to manage the projects they are paying for, and their competitors have immediate access to everything they do. It’s not IBM’s product”.

This, then, is the point I want to make: that even with shareholder companies allied with peer production, the community’s value creation is still at the core of the process, and that the entrepreneurial coalition, to a substantial degree, already follows this new logic – in which the community is primary and business secondary.

If gigantic corporations such as IBM can work out a way of keeping their shareholders onside whilst they work to create libre software, surely it cannot be beyond us to contemplate a society of the common good where that common good is sustained by empowered communities which can choose according to their own particular set of ethical values.  From Al Jazeera once more:

[…] Occupy Wall Street set up working groups to find solutions to their physical needs. The economy was considered as a provisioning system (as explained in Marvin Brown’s wonderful book, Civilising the Economy), and it was the “citizens”, organised in these working groups, who decided which provisioning system was appropriate given their ethical values.

For example, organic farmers from Vermont provided free food to the campers, but this had a negative side effect: the local street vendors, generally poor immigrants, did not fare too well with everyone getting free food. The occupiers cared about the vendors and so they set up an Occupy Wall Street Vendor Project, which raised funds to buy food from the vendors.

Bingo: in one swoop, OWS created a well-functioning ethical economy that included a market dynamic, but that also functioned in harmony with the value system of the occupiers. What is crucial here is that it was the citizens who decided on the most appropriate provisioning system – and not the property and money owners in an economy divorced from ethical values.

As I pointed out in my own piece linked to above, the tools of large corporate behaviours can be useful or destructive: it all depends to what organisational purposes they are put and what values are employed to define their implementation.  That so many large corporations psychopathically get it wrong doesn’t mean everyone who uses such tools of mass organisation will be tainted by the same behaviours.

Meanwhile, this observation, from the new blog Shifting Grounds,  puts the neoliberals of this world firmly in their place:

An ideology that celebrates selfishness and denigrates the common good has been the moral and financial ruin of Britain.

As well as a great many other places around the world.

It may, then, now be the turn of open source strategies and their ilk to allow a protest movement with many relatively passive adherents in a wider society to build on a considerable corporate expertise proven over the a quarter of a century.  The challenge, of course, is to find a way of interfacing the powerful with the needy – without losing our moral compasses.

New Labour failed to do the latter.

In the shadow of the moral outpourings of a discarded generation, quite another Labour must not.

Another learning Labour, that is.

Jan 212012

Louis quite rightly defines the forked paths ahead of us thus:

So the question is this:

* A lifetime of licenses routinized into the cost of living, and invisible in the enormous harm such a licensed life would put in play if only by suturing close the possibilities of having it some other way; or

* A lifetime open to innovation, collaboration, production unencircumscribed by closed licenses; markets would be built and profits made on the merit of one’s work and not on the right to work itself.

It seems to me that with the traditional content industries’ massive desire to make copyright a tool for guaranteeing enormous cashflow without further creative effort – that is to say, without further artistic creative effort (for marketing tricks and discourses these moguls will always value and understand) – we are running the serious risk in our Western civilisations (and wherever their values manage to prevail) of destroying the very right to artistic creation itself.

Just imagine if versions of SOPA and PIPA finally get through, sanctioning the right of one discourse and society – the US capitalist cash-cow industrial model – to decide who sees what, where and when, as well as for how much and how often.  With the vast quantities out there of already existing and licensed content, who needs new ground-breaking applecart-upturning ways of looking at the world?

The grand paradox of the traditional content industries since time immemorial (and certainly since Hollywood’s inception) has been how they required of their artists an anti-artistic series of behaviours.  Thus it is we could argue that finally working out how to censor the Internet’s flow and exchange of information is nothing more nor less than an easy but unhappy return to a previous age: a Hays Code for our time.

It may be that history will teach us that the progress we thought was being achieved via virtual freedoms was actually a simple parenthesis between the instincts of the 1930s and the beginning of this fearful 21st century, where an openness to new ideas – and an inability to properly sustain the existing order – are taken as signs of a dangerous unpredictability which could serve to shake the very foundations of our societies, instead of a source of brilliant imagination and game-changing thought which – to the benefit of us all – could totally alter our future socioeconomic growth and development.

Proprietary cash cows which see creativity mainly in terms of repackaging and marketing existing material – or fleet-of-foot online and offline nexuses of real artistic endeavour?  That is the crossroads we find ourselves at.  And the stakes are far higher than simply a matter of whether the traditional content industries manage to reimpose far more forcefully a tired business model which – over the last decade – was clearly losing traction. 

I would, in fact, posit that we run the risk of losing the very environments, conditions, instincts and impulses which would allow for future art itself – or, at least, future art as we have understood the concept to date.

A world without art then? 

Or, at least, a world with only a marketable, packageable and securely licensable history of art – but no possibility any more of a confident future of mould-breaking innovation?

One step too far in my train of thought?  It might all be closer than you think …

Dec 042011

This, today, is obviously a piece of distracting spin from all the economic crises we are facing.  Nevertheless, it deserves our attention:

David Cameron is to unveil plans to allow patients’ records and other NHS data to be shared with private life science companies.

In a speech on Monday, the prime minister will argue that giving researchers from private sector companies access to NHS information will make it easier for them to develop and test new drugs and treatment.

He will argue that cutting the regulation that restricts collaboration of this kind could boost the life science industry, which already employs 160,000 people in the UK, with an annual turnover of £50bn.

And for once, quite surprisingly I might say, I agree wholeheartedly with David Cameron.  But on one massive condition.  “What’s that?” you ask.  “This,” I respond.  “That we open source not only the data itself but also the intellectual property of all companies which receive such competitive advantages.”  Open source the intellectual property?  In what way and why?  In this way:

Health and science



  • Research — The Science Commons was created as an alternative to the expensive legal costs of sharing and reusing scientific works in journals etc.[35]
  • Research — The Open Source Science Project was created to increase the ability for students to participate in the research process by providing them access to microfunding — which, in turn, offers non-researchers the opportunity to directly invest, and follow, cutting-edge scientific research. All data and methodology is subsequently published in an openly accessible manner under a Creative Commons fair use license.

And, what’s more, in order to stop the following happening:

Evergreening refers to a variety of legal and business strategies by which technology producers with patents over products that are about to expire, retain rent from them by either taking out new patents (for example over associated delivery systems, or new pharmaceutical mixtures) or by buying out or frustrating competitors, for longer periods of time than would normally be permissible under the law.[1] Evergreening is not a formal concept of patent law; it is best understood as a social idea used to refer to the myriad ways in which pharmaceutical patent owners use the law and related regulatory processes to extend their high rent-earning intellectual property rights, otherwise known as intellectual monopoly privileges,[2] particularly over highly profitable (either in total sales volume or price per unit) ‘blockbuster’ drugs. Thus, while the courts are an instrument frequently used by pharmaceutical brand name manufacturers to prolong their patent royalties, evergreening is rarely mentioned explicitly by judges in patent protection cases. The term usually refers to threats made to competitors about a brand-name manufacturer’s tactical use of pharmaceutical patents (including over uses, delivery systems and even packaging), not to extension of any particular patent over an active product ingredient.[3]

Now, if Cameron doesn’t act on my demands (unlikely I grant you but – even so – still a remote possibility) I will only be able to conclude that instead of looking to open our society up in one humongous step forward of data liberation, he’s actually more interested in trafficking, economically speaking, in highly sensitive personal records – and with the obvious aim of further lining the already deep pockets of his corporate sponsors.

So this is my battlecry – my condition in a nutshell.  If you want to share private patient data with private corporations:

  1. open source it, so all kinds of life science organisations can freely take advantage of its virtues and in benefit of their research; and 
  2. impose on all such corporations and organisations (as well as all subsidiaries and related institutions) a watertight obligation to release into the public domain all research conducted from the moment they receive any such data

If we’re really looking to improve the patient experience, Mr Cameron should really have no problem with this.  And, conversely, if he finds the idea at all resistible, then his motives are clearly not as focussed on patient needs as – perhaps – they actually ought to be.

Your call, Mr Cameron.  As you can see, it’s easy enough to prove you’re on our side.  Now go ahead and do it.

Or not – as the case may be.

Nov 152011

Here’s a film and a story from 2010 which should warm the cockles of any independent film maker’s heart.  Made entirely using open source software, it makes independent animation of the quality Hollywood has had us accustomed to a definite possibility in the years ahead.

Sintel from Jose Manuel Acosta on Vimeo

And as the article points out:

Hollywood should watch its back. With tools like this available, a whole new generation of animators will be able to compete on screens large and small in the upcoming years.

Meanwhile, from November 2011 (and thanks to Louis for the link), it would appear that Hollywood has taken note of the above piece of advice, as it proceeds to push forward with a “grievously misguided” bill which paints extraordinarily broad brushstrokes – attempting as it does to make all alternative channels of creation, production and distribution ultimately impossible:

It would be bad enough to have these types of censorship orders targeted at software produced and distributed by a single company. But for the free and open source software community — which contributes many billions of dollars a year to the American economy — legal obligations to blacklist domains would be an utter catastrophe. Free and open source projects often operate as decentralized, voluntary, international communities. Even if ordered to by a court, these projects would struggle to find volunteers to act as censors to enforce U.S. law, because volunteers usually only perform tasks that they consider constructive. And in the case of larger projects and repositories like Mozilla, to monitor and enforce such court orders against generic functionality could potentially violate licensing obligations and would likely create acrimony, demoralizing and shrinking the communities of contributors and innovators that those projects depend upon.

Essentially any software product or service, such as many encryption programs, that is not responsive to blocking orders could be under threat. And lest you think we exaggerate for effect, recall how some of the provisions of another copyright bill have been used to chill security research.

Now just imagine how the powers of such a bill could be used to prevent the ongoing development of the kind of open source animation software we see above.  And how this could be engineered to prevent any kind of meaningful production and distribution outside the traditional Hollywood channels, as the online communities and hubs of film-making began to disintegrate under the forces so described.

Let me make one thing clear.  I studied film at university.  And I came to recognise that Hollywood’s clash of cultures – high artistic intelligences on the one hand and frankly hard-nosed business models on the other – was a very special melting-pot of uniquely creative forces.  Hollywood clearly invested heavily in product and, just as clearly, deserved to get something out of that investment.

So I am not criticising Hollywood for wanting to ensure copyright is duly respected and investments can be properly recovered.

I am unhappy, however, with a mindset where everything which involves decentralisation and grassroots opportunity is confused (whether in good or bad faith) with illegal filesharing and anti-American activities.

If America is to mean anything, it is the opportunity of the brave, new and courageous.

If America is to mean anything, it is the freedom to reap the benefits of community.

Which is why I note with sadness that the bill currently going through the American House of Representatives (more here and here) seems specifically designed not to protect the reasonable rights of copyright owners but, rather, more importantly, to detonate the independent ecosystems of consumer/producers which 21st century technologies would – if given the free run of the farm – allow us to create and develop.

If the bill in question succeeds – in the way EFF has described above – in making the nurturing and engendering of open source and other virtual communities impractical in the long-term, then we will have lost a lot more than the freedom to communicate: we will have lost, far more tragically, the freedom to innovate.

And with that grand loss, some pretty significant futures too.

Nov 082011

This came my way via Louis – an excellent video on the possibilities of open source theology in the closed and often disastrous church that is health IT.

Watch – and imagine the possibilities of openness in any kind of future health service. 


For open source isn’t only the technology – it’s also the community which supports the decision-making processes, and ensures that the technological choices made are the right ones.  But for that to happen, you need to provide the right environment in order to encourage the users to want to take part.  And in order to achieve that, as well as an essential and vested set of interests, you need to engender trust and security in society – something British governments, with their top-down mindsets, rarely get their heads round.

Even so, as I argue in the title to this post, an open-sourced health IT infrastructure’s time has most certainly arrived.  Not just from a technological standpoint but also from a people-interface point of view.

The latter perhaps being even more important than the former. 

Except inasmuch as closed and proprietorial licences lead to closed and proprietorial corporate behaviours …

Nov 042011

This came to me via Paul just now on the subject of failed experiments and high quality web content:

[…] what better illustration could there be of online media’s woes than an ezine laying off its media critic because the economics of web content don’t support a writer of his stature and specialism? At least Shafer can take some satisfaction in the fact that his departure is in and of itself an absolutely perfect piece of media criticism: Jack Shafer as both medium and message.

Slate’s admission that, even with a minuscule staff of 60 and the financial “might” of the Washington Post company, it can’t make money from online content is also perfect. The perfect opportunity, that is, to acknowledge once and for all that the grand experiment in free online content has failed.

I’m sorry – but I simply do not agree.  Let’s take the example of another art.  There was a time when music belonged to the people it was made for – and the singers and songwriters, those who cobbled together and adapted old and new songs for their particular audiences, earned a living from their performances and not from the copyright of their products.

That is to say, in true open source style, they made money from the services not the code.

This would be a perfect model for writing high quality content on the web.  Earn your reputation via what you write – and build a portfolio of ancillary services on the back of it.  It is, of course, easier said than done – as I am currently finding out.  But I would suggest it’s not impossible.

Not entirely, anyhow.

Perhaps we simply have to recognise that if we want to earn a living from the web, we need to downgrade our lifestyles and expect less than we might once have hoped for.  What we don’t need is the doom and gloom merchants from inappropriately-sized industrial models arguing that high quality content is unsustainable.

It is for them – probably because, like the Premier League football teams with more money to burn than common sense to invoke, they serve to distort the visibility and status which the rest of us could achieve by buying up the Internet real estate through their sponsored links and heavy ad budgets.

A pretty big part of the reason, just like the big football clubs on a separate plain, that – long-term – it’s not proving sustainable for them.

They and we need to step firmly back from these assumptions.  There is, I am convinced of it, a sustainable place on the open web for those of us who are prepared to go down the singer-songwriter road.

And it may be true that the old model which the big industries are looking to replicate doesn’t fit.  But that doesn’t mean any other model can’t – nor that we should stop pursuing its possibility.

Sep 222011

The word “public” is a strange word.  When used by Americans about companies, it refers to organisations which are obliged – by law – to hide important details of their functioning from their workers and their customers, whilst far more important constituencies such as shareholders are not duly informed first.  In Britain, on the other hand, we use the word to describe schools which are actually private – ie do not belong to the state.

And then, of course, there are “public revelations” – which no one in public life would ever like.

So whilst “public” might – in the first instance – appear to be a word you’d really rather like to be associated with, there is a reasonably long list of negative connotations and contexts in which you can find the word.

The website opensource.com has an interesting article on this very same subject this week:

But for public companies, the benefits of an open approach are often overshadowed by the risks. During my time at Red Hat (a publicly-traded company for much of my tenure), our approach was traditionally to “default to open,” sharing as much information as we could, both inside the company and with the outside world.

Yet, as a public company, there were many financial and legal obstacles that stood in the way of openness. It was challenging to find the right balance between being open with our thinking and information, yet respectful of the legal and financial responsibilities that come with being a public company.

In the company I most recently worked for, there was a definite tendency on both management and union sides of the negotiating table to use these legal and financial responsibilities in order to precisely avoid setting that “default to open”.  In an environment – the financial services sector – where heavy top-down governance ruled for almost everyone out there – except, it would seem, in the event, the big guns who from up on high continually helicopter-viewed the landscape – the cloak of convenience which such governance offered both parties was a temptation too fine to resist.

The opensource.com article goes on to offer a couple of solutions which relate more to people setting up new businesses than those who may suffer the burden, in the interests of greater transparency, of re-engineering existing ones. 

Well worth a read, then – especially if, as I say, you’re new to business; and with the grand virtue, in an executive summary kind of way, of being brief and to the point.

Meanwhile, a piece I wrote two years ago now reminds me of my own continuing interest in openness.  A short quote from it today, to whet your appetite perhaps, in this article I entitled “Openness, not Rosebud, is the key to sustainable organisation”:

We do not disavow the need for organisation. What we request, deserve and battle on behalf of is the kind of organisation that underlies a Spanish shopping experience.

Openness, honesty, fairness and justice – all at the same time, all without unnecessary hierarchy or prioritisation.

Sep 122011

My previous article on free banking was a little hyperbolic for those of you accustomed to these pages.

Sorry about that.

But of course there are two meanings to the word “free”.  That is to say, one can be “free” – but not as in beer:

Gratis versus libre is the distinction between two meanings of the English adjective “free”; namely, “for zero price” (gratis) and “with little or no restriction” (libre). The ambiguity of “free” can cause issues where the distinction is important, as it often is in dealing with laws concerning the use of information, such as copyright and patents.

The terms are largely used to categorise intellectual property, particularly computer programs, according to the licenses and legal restrictions that cover them, in the free software and open source communities, as well as the broader free culture movement. For example, they are used to distinguish freeware (software gratis) from free software (software libre).

Richard Stallman summarised the difference in a slogan: “Think free as in free speech, not free beer.”[1]

When the banks sell us “free” bank accounts, they’re really selling us that “free” drink they reward you with for entering a night club – that drink you just know you’ll end up paying for, and more, as the evening advances and the monopolistic circumstances you find yourself wrapped up in take their profit-generating toll.

So can we have the kind of banking which involves the “free speech” approach – instead of that unhappy cousin which is the “free cocktail” mind-distracting equivalent: that is to say, the kind in Western society we are currently so accustomed to suffering under?

This article from El País‘s English-language edition would seem to indicate we can:

The ethical banking sector, composed in Spain of only five entities and somewhere more than 50,000 clients, stands for total transparency. It only invests in the real economy, finances projects related to sectors such as renewable energies and ecological agriculture, and holds social justice to be its own particular Bible.

“I looked at the list of companies I had invested in, and none of them were to my liking. It was a pleasure to tell my bank to withdraw all my investments in the stock market. Then your conscience is a lot clearer, because your money is passing through an ethical filter,” says Víctor Maeso, member of an agricultural cooperative at Manresa, near Barcelona.

The story goes on to point out that not everyone is in favour of these ethical outposts.  Certain campaigners seem to fear that ethical banking as described above might become ensconced in a kind of ghetto of good behaviours which none of the other banks would ever end up acquiring.

I can see their point.  But I still think the idea is worth pursuing.

“Libre banking” instead of “gratis banking” then?  A clear example – if there ever was one – of how open source can inform much more than simply software licences.

Aug 282011

I’ve been trialling the distribution of my blog via Kindle (here and here) for about a month now.  I’ve also suggested – first over at Munguin’s Republic, and then here and here at this place too – that a blog on national identity called BestOfTheRest.org, with a single RSS feed and pay-for distribution via Kindle/KindleApps/other devices, might also be a valid proposal.

In both cases, at no time have I suggested the open web version with comments facility be disabled.  My own blog rarely has comments – so this might be less of an issue if I were to do this (although recently we’ve been having some splendid debates around the subject of Eric Schmidt’s recent speech); but I would hope that in the case of BestOfTheRest.org the commenting side of things would be as lively as the original content.

So why then would anyone wish to subscribe to a Kindle version of a blog, without the corresponding comments or other add-ons the Internet has us accustomed to – especially when there are now tools to send web content to your Kindle, Android and Apple devices and especially when it’s now so easy to access web content via many highly mobile devices?

Well.  Here we have some reasons:

Paradoxically, the Kindle’s greatest technological achievement is to make us forget the lessons of the past ten years [of hyperlinked text]: to return us, in fact, to a world where the hierarchy of writers who narrated tales to a spellbound audience reigned grandly over us all.

Oh, the Internet is here to stay – I’m not suggesting otherwise. All I am saying, I suppose, in reality, is that for many of us out here on the techie side of the web, the Kindle will serve to help us recover a former intellectual glory and attachment to the exclusively written word. All of which explains why I firmly believe that, in both its current and future manifestations, Amazon’s Kindle will ensure the cementing of our relationship with what is now clearly going to be a benevolent hierarchy of literary intelligences.

And here we have an example:

I’m pleased to say that, so far at least, our strategy is paying off. We are now joined by thousands of new readers, who access (and pay for) The Spectator on Kindle or iPad. They now make up 8 per cent of our sales, a figure that is growing fast: two years ago, it was zero. We were one of the first magazines to launch on the iPad and have been with Kindle for almost two years. Soon, we’ll be launching a new App. And, yes, Coffee House will be given a lick of paint too. We charge for the magazine but have no intention of charging for the blogs. Coffee House, the best posts and most intelligent comments online, will remain free.

But I am proposing to go even further than the Spectator.  I am proposing to use blogging technologies as the backbone for a number of editorial projects, whose monetisation would involve the use of ads on the web and ad-free subscription on portable devices such as Amazon’s Kindle.

How so and why so?

And, what’s more, with what moral justification?

For the web has always been open and inter-communicative; has always built its best thought on the basis of a free exchange of ideas.  The assumption that operates behind such an infrastructure is that ideas belong to no one – only their implementation and servicing can be charged for.

Which is precisely where I find the justification for charging for Kindle, Android and Apple-device versions of the very same content we intend to continue to distribute on the open web.

We would not be charging for the content itself, nor for the ideas so propagated and exchanged.  Rather, it would be from the value-added services such a distribution would imply that the right to charge for access would originate.  That is to say, in purely traditional publishing terms: the three grand virtues of the ordinary printed book: readability, legibility and outright portability.  All three of which we find greatly improved in most e-book readers and certain tablet PCs.  And none of which are particularly impressive on standard desktop and even laptop PCs.

In traditional open source parlance: we would not be making money out of the ideas themselves but, rather, out of our ability to support people and help them access and use these ideas for themselves.

There is, quite naturally, a separate matter in all of this: you may be able to justify your right to charge for freely available content in such a way but will anyone, in the end, wish to actually pay for something they have become accustomed to getting for nothing?

That’s a different issue, of course – and its answer will depend on how well the content-providers, the 21st century editors, that is, who are beginning to shape this new environment, manage to engineer both micro-subscription systems for users as well as micro-payment systems for authors.

Nevertheless, the experience which for example the Spectator is clearly having is editorially noble, exemplary and worth keeping in mind.

And we shouldn’t forget how the Kindle has turned heads this summer, precisely as it teaches us, once again to our grand and imperious fascination, to remember and delight in author-led reading hierarchies – the very essence of publishing through the centuries.  As the Observer rightly pointed out recently:

Amid the encircling gloom of riot-torn streets and economic meltdown, there is one silver lining to celebrate. Young and old are reading as never before. 2011, the year of the ebook, has become the summer of the Kindle. On planes, trains and automobiles, we are witnessing a sea change in our reading habits unprecedented since Gutenberg.

Once upon a time, it was said that the virtual book could have no answer to the three Bs (beach, bath and bed). But lately, here at the Observer, we detect a trend in reading that’s exposing the digital book to sand, soap and seduction. Popular Kindle reading has reached a tipping point. The average UK shopper now spends £4 per month on ebooks and 53% of Kindle users say they are now reading more books than ever before. Better still, grumpy bibliophiles are falling in love with the Kindle’s sleek, reader-friendly lines, its lovely facsimile of the printed page and, yes, its literary chic.

But what’s far more important, in all of this, at least in my mind, is that this process of monetisation of the digital idea is actually compatible with the principles of the open web.

Whether it remains so remains to be seen.

In the meantime, I continue to be hopeful.

And I hope you do too.

Aug 272011

Whilst suffering from the not-so-lovely after-effects this early morning of a lovely meal yesterday, I am minded to read the Guardian‘s article on Eric Schmidt’s critical speech about the British education system.  A couple of thoughts come to mind.

Firstly, is it rightly the British or the English and Welsh system he should be lambasting?

Secondly, we wouldn’t be where we were today – a place which in my opinion he quite rightly describes in parts of his speech – if it weren’t for the (at least from the outside looking in) chummy and matey stranglehold which companies like Dell and Microsoft have enjoyed over the years in the context of the English and Welsh (possibly British) educational procurement system, alongside its rank and inexplicable (not) tendency to prioritise traditionally licensed software over far cheaper and more responsive open source equivalents.

Compare and contrast this experience from one of the poorest but most technologically proactive and imaginative areas of Spain, Extremadura – which all on its lonesome engineered a veritable technological and social miracle for itself by putting creativity and empowerment at the centre of its IT objectives.


You can find more information on the subject of the Extremadura open source software project here (in Spanish).  Whilst Wikipedia has the following to say on the matter:

gnuLinEx, or LinEx, is a Debian-based GNU-Linux operating system that uses GNOME for its desktop. An initiative of the regional government of Extremadura, Spain, gnuLinEx is intended to be used in all schools in Extremadura, as well as in official institutions. It is actively promoted for business and home use as well. gnuLinEx is only compatible with computers based on the i386 architecture. The aim of the project is the promotion of a technologically-literate information-based society in order to improve the citizens’ quality of life.

And now let’s read what Schmidt – let me remind you, Google’s chairman – has to say about the British education system and the emphasis it places on turning us all into obedient pre-programmed office fodder:

Schmidt said the country that invented the computer was “throwing away your great computer heritage” by failing to teach programming in schools. “I was flabbergasted to learn that today computer science isn’t even taught as standard in UK schools,” he said. “Your IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it’s made.”

This is absolutely spot-on.  Why, for example, do my children love their home PCs as they do and yet – yes, all three of them, without a single exception – universally despise the subject of ICT at school?  Essentially, because ICT teaches them to be office fodder, little adults that is, struggling as they do to find creativity and imagination in a sad and reactive learning process which shows them how to do little more than use Microsoft Word, Access and Excel as the data-processors they must surely become – whilst their own PCs outside school allow them consistently to fly across a virtual landscape of a thousand and one glorious nights of true discovery.

And this is yours truly, a couple of years ago now, on a slightly different matter – and even so with a line pertinent to the issue at hand (the bold is mine):

A disconcerting piece on Google’s Microsoft moment. But a fundamental difference still exists between Google and Microsoft: Microsoft is and always has been driven by the need to appeal to corporate users – and in the same way that schools and education systems which use Dell/Microsoft combinations have brought children up to be adults in short trousers, so Microsoft has almost treated its consumer users as if they were mini-business people.

Google, meanwhile, has grown up in a much tougher market.

A consumer market where loyalties chop and change and where achieving a convincing adherence to a single idea is much more challenging than it ever will be when the fear factor employed in company environments can do its worst. With your boss breathing down your neck, you’re unlikely to see allegedly unnecessary change as something to be dallied with.

So this is why Eric Schmidt should be lauded for having said at least the paragraph I quote previously.  But in part, as I pointed out earlier, we are where we are because American corporate behemoths just like Google itself have taken remote-control charge of our technology – and thus our societies – by selling us standardised solutions which take no account of local quirks or, perhaps far more crucially, local political needs and impulses to get involved with issues of technology and society.  That desire for us to become more literate as a whole and in the round which Wikipedia touches on in relation to the LinEx project is something most regions in Europe – and, indeed, across the world – will find very difficult to initiate and implement in the face of strong-arm sales techniques from technology corporations worldwide.

And only when technology truly becomes the utility which serves to drive all modern constructs of civilisation – instead of the mere self-interested tool to enrich the already deep pockets of transnational giants – will we ever get a sensible balance between the needs of bleeding-edge innovation on the one hand and a true and properly devolved societal empowerment on the other.

Aug 202011

The following all reminds me a little of www.neighborland.org (more here) – and just goes to show how innovative the US can be.

I guess “downtown” and “inner-city” don’t have exactly the same connotations – but even so, and despite the common language which all too often separates us, I think this article from Government in the Lab today fairly describes the virtues of a long-running American experience we could – and should – learn from here in Britain.  Especially in the light of the recent rioting and looting.

Not only is it not too long a read, it’s also very revealing.  So highly recommended to you all – and please don’t pass up the opportunity!

The closing paragraphs in particular grabbed my attention, as they cover off the importance of including both the involved and the disinterested when analysing the future needs of a community (the bold is mine):

How important is open source to local economic development efforts?

It’s huge. Because one of the biggest challenges (in terms of attracting companies to downtown) is lack of good information. The more transparent we are with a prospect interest in attracting a new business, the more successful we tend to be. When we don’t share information, they’ll find out later. There is a perception of urban areas being more dangerous, and our data helps to prove otherwise.


The people that were most passionate had the hardest time stepping away from it and couldn’t give us the insights that we eventually uncovered. The person with a loose association [to downtown] gave us better insight. This was an ah-ha moment. If you only involve the advocates, you don’t get the broader view. Participation from all made the information better.

This is surely something Ed Miliband’s plea for a “national conversation” post-English riots could contemplate in its remit.  As well as any government response which might emerge from the whole affair.

At their best, open source principles aim to apply the eyes of an observant and intelligent million to making better and continually improving products, services – and now even neighbourhoods.

Learning from other experiences – and the experiences of others – is one of the greatest skills humankind exhibits.

Let’s, then, try and see if we can do so in the aftermath of all this civil disturbance in England.  And do so from the most expansive and inclusive examples we can find – that is to say, from those very virtual and online sectors which have led the way in community collaboration for a more than startling decade.