Posted tagged ‘Commons’

Open Universities, pt. 2

August 25, 2010

In our previous post we discussed the possibility that web-casting academic lectures could transform universities in some way, possibly making academic information accessible to more people outside the university, or helping to keep lecturers honest and accountable. On Monday, the New York Times published this story about attempts by humanities scholars to use the internet to transform the process of peer review:

some humanities scholars have begun to challenge the monopoly that peer review has on admission to career-making journals and, as a consequence, to the charmed circle of tenured academe. They argue that in an era of digital media there is a better way to assess the quality of work. Instead of relying on a few experts selected by leading publications, they advocate using the Internet to expose scholarly thinking to the swift collective judgment of a much broader interested audience.

So the idea here is not that digital information systems will help make education more accessible, but rather that they could be used to allow a broader segment of the public to weigh in on key academic questions: Which research findings are interesting, convincing or valid? Can research that stands the test of peer review by experts hold up in the court of public opinion? In other words, the process of internet reader review could be use to break down the social power and exclusivity of expertise, one important step in opening the intellectual commons.

Open Universities?

March 19, 2010

With growing concern in the United States about the cost, accessibility and quality of education, it may be useful to consider a recent trend in American Universities: many professors now publicly ‘share’ video of their lectures, opening their courses to anyone with internet access, rather than only to paying, enrolled students. The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published a great story about this.

Personally, as a lecturer myself, I imagine having my lectures taped and shared would make me self-conscious in practice, which might cause me anxiety or help me improve my lectures. It certainly might make professors accountable to a broader public, and help “peer review” their claims. It is also appealing in theory to consider the ethic of open-source teaching, which could push the conventional limits of public education. I have always found that colleges and universities are places where the ethic of an intellectual “commons” is strong; this trend still survives in the age of the corporate university in a somewhat muted form.

I am also a fan and follower of online lectures. The European Graduate School offers many lectures online, and considering their faculty of superstar theorists, this is a unique opportunity to hear from Zizek, Butler, DJ Spooky and a whole slew of continental philosophers, media and cultural theorists, film directors and other media practitioners. John Merriman‘s lectures at Yale in modern European and French history are online. MIT’s Open Course Ware site provides syllabi, assignments, lectures and other media to anyone with a web browser. There must be countless others.

Of course, many universities will worry about harming their bottom line, if prospective students can see lectures without enrolling and paying. Some professors will be uncomfortable, unable or unwilling to share their lectures. No matter how the “classroom” or the price of textbooks and materials might change in the internet era, it remains the case that students who want a credentialed degree will have to enroll and pay. Internet video alone won’t solve a national problem with access to education, rising tuition, failing schools, and so on, but sharing lectures online is already stretching the boundaries of the classroom.

Prelinger Manifesto: On the Virtues of Preexisting Material

February 23, 2010

Rick Prelinger, a force in internet archiving, is also the author of this useful manifesto On the Virtues of Preexisting Material, in which he outlines 14 Principles for using preexising works to make new work:

1 Why add to the population of orphaned works?
2 Don’t presume that new work improves on old
3 Honor our ancestors by recycling their wisdom
4 The ideology of originality is arrogant and wasteful
5 Dregs are the sweetest drink
6 And leftovers were spared for a reason
7 Actors don’t get a fair shake the first time around, let’s give them another
8 The pleasure of recognition warms us on cold nights and cools us in hot summers
9 We approach the future by typically roundabout means
10 We hope the future is listening, and the past hopes we are too
11 What’s gone is irretrievable, but might also predict the future
12 Access to what’s already happened is cheaper than access to what’s happening now
13 Archives are justified by use
14 Make a quilt not an advertisement

Cherry’s 10 cents per bottle: update on the Great Lakes water wars

December 15, 2009

As he prepares to run for Governor of Michigan, current Lieutenant Governor John Cherry (Dem) has been campaigning for a 10-cents-per-bottle tax or fee on companies that sell bottled water from Michigan. He estimates it would raise about $118 million a year, enough money to restore the unfunded Michigan Promise scholarship and put $18 million toward programs for protecting wetlands and the Great Lakes. Taxing bottled water companies to fund education and ecology? Sounds good to me.

The biggest and loudest opponent of the idea, so far, is Ice Mountain, a Michigan-based bottled water company owned by the American Water Division of Franco-Swiss giant Nestle. The company is making two moves to protect its privatized grasp on Michigan waters. First, Ice Mountain lawyers and the IBWA (International Bottled Water Association, a trade group) have been arguing that Cherry’s proposed tax is unconstitutional because Michigan’s state constitution prohibits any tax on sales of food products since 1974. Meanwhile, Ice Mountain PR has been hard at work picking at the special wounds of Michigan’s suffering economy with a widely circulated press release claiming that the tax would raise prices for consumers, raise costs for producers, and threaten jobs. In Michigan, heavily deindustrialized, with one of the highest unemployment rates of any U.S. state and a state government struggling financially, Ice Mountain knows that if it cries about increased costs and job loss, people will take notice. Two shrewd moves to protect the privatization of water, indeed.

But the tax is also being criticized by more publicly-minded critics. Some are concerned that it will prevent Michigan citizens from having access to clean water, especially where tap water is considered unsafe and residents rely on bottle water. Others are concerned that taxing water will add fuel to the fire of privatization, making it seem natural and normal that water is a commodity to be sold, rather than a common resource for public use and enjoyment.

Lt. Governor Cherry has responded to these charges in remarkably anti-enclosure terms (see this story on MLive):

Cherry said he knows putting a fee, or tax, on bottled water may be seen by some as turning water into a commodity. But he argues that businesses that draw and bottle groundwater from Michigan have already done that.
“This is a resource owned by all of us in Michigan,” he said. “And so in that context, if someone takes something that’s owned by everybody and sells it at a profit, it just seems to me to be logical that they have some obligation to reimburse those who own it.”
He said the Legislature has decided to let bottlers extract Michigan’s water without paying a fee, which encourages the use and sale of the state’s water.
“If you want to discourage it, you claim what’s rightfully yours — and that’s a portion of the money,” he said.
Cherry said he supports closing a loophole in the Great Lakes compact which allows shipment of Great Lakes water outside the basin as long as it’s in containers of less than 5.7 gallons.

Cherry’s argument that water is a public resource is refreshing and remarkable in these times when water is increasingly scarce, increasingly polluted, and increasingly captured and commodified by large corporations like Ice Mountain/Nestle. But Cherry’s campaign also needs to be kept in context: it is just another move in a long-standing battle for the water of the Great Lakes.

Peter Annin wrote his award-winning 2006 book The Great Lakes Water Wars (see his website here) to show how and why the region has become the target of such vicious water wars in the last several decades: the lakes hold 18% of the world’s surface fresh water (not including underground aquifers). Amidst a global water crisis, it is no wonder that corporations are working to snatch up this water, while locals fight to protect it. Questions of ownership and jurisdiction are difficult in the great lakes basin, however, which spans 7 U.S. states (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York) and sits astride the U.S.-Canadian border. Thus, on top of questions about whether water can and/or should be publicly or privately owned, there are questions here about which states, provinces and nations have claim to the waters as public property.

For more on water privatization and protection in the Great Lakes region, visit Save Michigan Water.

Privitization of the Sewer Monster

July 7, 2009

The sci fi blog io9 recently posted about a mysterious slime creature found in a sewer in the area of Raleigh, North Carolina. Follow the link to see the revolting video clip.

Initially, a Raleigh public utilities rep issued a statement tentatively identifying the glop and noting that the municipal sewage treatement system would take care of any water that touched it. Later, however, the following retraction was issued:

The video was taken in a private sewer system by a private contractor working for them. It does not belong to the City of Raleigh nor will it reach the Neuse River Wastewater Treatment Plant. This is the response from our director: “The video is of the private sanitary sewer in the Cameron Village and was taken by a private contractor working for them and not taken by our staff. The blob has been identified by others as worms.”

Notes io9:

I love how the privatization of the sewer system under this particular town has led to a terrible situation where the city’s public utilities commission has no ability to guarantee that the situation will be dealt with in a reasonable way.

This presents an interesting twist on the dilemma of privatization and accountability. In many cases, we have noted that privatization often goes hand in hand with secrecy and a lack of accountability on the part of the private resource holder. In this case, however, privatization is used by the state as an excuse to recuse itself from responsibility for containing a possible public health hazard.

When Artists Go a-Sharing…

June 14, 2009

In our recent discussions here at Enclosure, we’ve been discussing how “free rider” user-consumers – who download content without paying for it – may be making the business of selling cultural content more and more difficult, maybe unsustainable or ultimately impossible. Well, at least this is the way public discussion has been tending in the last several years.

But why blame the user? High profile artists like Radiohead and Girl Talkproducers of cultural content – have recently been offering their music online for an unspecified cost – users can choose donation-style how much they want to pay, including nothing. These artists have boldly cut the corporate middle men (or culture industry) out of the deal altogether, distributing content directly to user-consumers. This business model is most definitely not sustainable for corporate distributors (and three cheers for that!), but is it sustainable for the artists themselves? This, I think, remains to be seen; Radiohead and Girl Talk are in much the same boat as DiFranco and MacKaye, here. Though so far things look fairly affirmative.

Radiohead apparently chose to do this as part of a major sea-change for the band in 2007. Their former contract with a major label had expired, and instead of signing a new contract, they decided to go indy (see New York Times article here). They could afford the financial gamble of pay-what-you-want digital distribution because they were already a very wealthy and successful band – they made money no object in part because they didn’t need the money. But this was also a welcome gesture that they didn’t care about the money – we may say “sure, they can afford to do that,” but I suspect there’s something more highminded at work in Radiohead’s decision.

There also may have been something simply practical behind their decision. According to the NY Times article referenced above, Radiohead stood to make a good deal more profit by selling their wares directly, compared to the amount they would have made after their record label took its generous cut. What’s more, releasing the music digitally meant no lag time for producing CDs, one among several factors that often makes corporate culture distribution take longer; Radiohead could release the album themselves, the very second the final mixdown was finished. They also reduced production costs dramatically. Radiohead’s choice was as good for cold, rational-economic reasons as it was for warm, high-minded ethical reasons.

In other words, Radiohead showed that – at least under certain circumstances – going indy in the digital age could mean much more profit for artists than their major label contracts ever would have delivered. The economic reasoning is simple: cut out the middleman, and simultaneously cut out the process of manufacturing CDs. Where costs dry up, profits bloom. And here’s the kicker: they made this increased profit in spite of the fact that, according to one estimate, at least 3/5 of downloaders took the album for free. What happened to the internet “free-rider problem”?

Then, about a year ago, Girl Talk released Feed the Animals in the same pay-what-you-want, web-only format. Unlike Radiohead, though, his reasons for doing so were non-economic. His album of mash-ups was composed entirely of music sampled from other artists, and in a statement of frank copyright defiance, he made no effort to license or “clear” any of the samples. The major record companies never would have sold such a thing in any case. The compelling question about Girl Talk, according to this NY Times article, is whether this type of distribution can make Girl Talk a star and a financial success. Given his status last year one of the darlings of the underground, I think the only sensible answer in hindsight is yes.

Unlike Radiohead, who were already riding a long wave of fame thanks to almost two decades of major label promotion when they made the switch to distrubuting digital donation-based downloads, Girl Talk has never been major. If Radiohead showed that one could jump from the top of the skyscraper and fly on his own without corporate support, Girl Talk is testing whether an DIY artist (a self-contained performer,  producer and distrubutor) can get in on the ground floor, so to speak. If Girl Talk can make it economically by distributing albums on the web for free/donation/profit (and that’s really the only way to understand what he’s doing!) , maybe anyone can. Which means: maybe there is no internet free rider problem…or if there is, it would only trouble the music industry, not the artist.

Private Ownership and Corporate Ownership, from Ani to Einstein

June 14, 2009

In the discussion around my previous post, P and Bob have been pushing me to consider what seems to be one of the most important problems with the principle of open source (or even “open resource”) culture – if content is shared for free (often on the internet), how can producers/sellers of content (large and small alike) continue to make a living? Won’t most users/consumers choose free copies of content over paid ones? – it’s only economically rational, after all. Will the production of culture become economically unsustainable?

It’s a fair line of questioning, and unavoidable. Most discussions of what’s happening to culture in the digital era will eventually unearth the same concern. P and I had already thought of the question, and discussed it a bit in person in January, but have never written about it directly on the blog, perhaps dodging it for its difficulty, before Bob reminded us of its importance.

As P put it, the large corporate distributors of culture – record companies, film companies, etc. – have recently been defending their turf against open source encroachment by arguing, loudly and publicly, that free sharing of cultural content will not only ruin their business as middle men, but also make it harder for the artists whose work they sell to make a living. As P argued, we know that this is true for large corporations, but is it true for smaller producers, even individual artists? To put it in Bob’s terms, does open source culture pose the same problem for “private ownership” in general as it does for “corporate ownership” in specific?

The short answer is: we don’t know yet. In order to find out, we could start by talking with (or researching) some independent producers and sellers of culture, like Ani DiFranco or Ian MacKaye, to see if their business is suffering in the digital era. As both indy stars operate record labels, it might also be interesting to seek out some unsigned artists who distribute their own content.

Behind all this, there’s a deeper issue. As Bob perceptively picked out, there’s some tension here at Enclosure between a general critique of all private ownership/property, and a specific critique of corporate ownership. Are we waging a critique of private property itself, or are we only concerned about large holders and monopolies? I see my views on this as a spectrum of value: small businesses are preferable to large ones, but an end to private property would be even better. While it is easy to readily critique corporate power and monopolies, it is a bit harder for me to critique smaller businesses (even though they are for-profit enterprises just the same). These are broad and difficult questions – we’ll have to keep working on them as our discussion continues.

Meanwhile, I wanted to catch up on a tidbit Bob mentioned: Einstein’s day job. Coincidentally, the subject is very relevant for Enclosure. In 1905 when Einstein published his first two groundbreaking articles in physics, he was working for the Swiss patent office, himself contributing to the private enclosure of science and technology.