Open source, Rawls, and rights

Man survived the fierce test of the Ice Ages because he had the flexibility of mind to recognise inventions and to turn them into communal property.

Jacob BronowskiThe Ascent of Man, p 39

Let us pose a challenge to the prevalent attitude towards intellectual property. The society in which we live exists as a result of previous technological successes in overcoming environmental difficulties. Now, what if we are to posit some new difficulty on a par with the last Ice Ages. It would be a way of asking, with John Rawls,  in what type of society we want to live. How would we ideally cope with flows of information in such a world?

Imagine a new crisis. Take, for example, some purely hypothetical fatal disease with the annual death toll in the millions. (This is surely a stretch to imagine in these advanced and civilised times, but try to suspend disbelief with me) Continue reading

Networks and philosophical style

Does a new subject in philosophy lead to a new style in philosophy? Sometimes it does, because it causes us to drop previous disputes, or to take up preoccupations. This is the content however, as contrasted with its expression. How does new content lead to a new style, and is this only of interest in terms of aesthetics or rhetoric? Does a different style of philosophy imply new thought?

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Downloading music: biting the hand that RSS-feeds you

The Net […] interprets censorship as damage, and routes around it.

John Gilmore.

There’s no point in treating the recording industry as a monolith, and so we can’t treat them as though SOPA etc. represent their views (it’s more likely to be hedge funds, pension funds, big finance, etc. who piggyback on the productivity and creativity of others who do not want the cash cows slaughtered). Accordingly the reality of the matter, rather than the rhetoric, is as follows.  Continue reading

The Whig interpretation of Information: Is open source inevitable? I

The following is an attempt to trace some of the outlines of an element of the ideology of technology, it is not a detailed sociological analysis. The standard political model favoured by many interested in information technologies point to the supposed inevitability of openness. It is a techno-libertarianism that hovers over all discussion, our standard right-on refrain. Certainly it can be regarded as a goal, but more along the lines of a regulating ideal, rather than a Five Year Plan. This is a polite way of saying we don’t back any of this up with action. The argument for openness is in its essence a historical one, which notes that once there had been an information technology that somebody attempted to control, there followed a breakdown of this control, with a free and open exchange following. I draw a parallel with Herbert Butterfield’s

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Perfect internet, algorithms and long tails

“There is no standard Google anymore”, “invisible, algorithmic editing of the web”, “The internet is showing us a world we want to see, not what we need to see.” This is what we all glory in, that whatever we want is available to us, the long tail in action. As in the post below, however, the tail has to be attached to something. The long tail says that you can profit from deviating from a norm, but the result of the algorithms that choose for us is that new norm are created. Thus we have the phenomenon of your Facebook page becoming an echo chamber. Such algorithmic editing has swallowed wholesale the arguments behind generation me, as well as the result of the culture wars where all norms are negative. What we have, then, is software as a crypto-morality. “There cannot be such a thing as a norm”, this narrative tells us, “because nobody has a right to tell me what’s normal!” There is a confusion in our conceptual apparatus, because a quantitive norm is being interpreted as a qualitative norm. There is a case where there is a cross-over, as Hegel tells us, but basic exchange of information requires this standard in terms of brute numbers. There is not a political or ethical agenda to this concept of the numerical norm.
The assumption behind algorithmic editing is that there is a perfect search result. It is a cybernetic version of Plato’s forms. There cannot be such a perfect internet experience, however, and we mislead ourselves in even imagining it is impossible. Perfect, in the sense of Lt. perfectus implies completion, of something being finished. This is nonsense, and so perhaps the ideology of perfection that underlies the thought and practice of  information technologies should be reminded of the irreducible reality of noise, of that which does not necessarily communicate a message, but without which the message cannot be communicated. We need to be able to go for a stroll with no particular destination in mind. We need that element of play in the hard sense, not hippy-dippy “y’know like whatever man”. StumbleUpon curiously tries to inhere play into an algorithm, but for me it lacks that spookily magic sense of achievement when you find something that hasn’t been linked by a thousand others already. We must realise there is a fundamental and structural contradiction in terms by attempting to make our online environment perfect for us in all ways because this leads to the isolation everyone on their own personal desert island. This simply establishes us in our own limits. Where then do we meet communally? Where do we have arguments? Where do we hear new stories, or jokes, or gossip? We need to have a norm from which we deviate, we need to have a same for there to be difference.

Is open source inevitable? II

[If open source is to have its day, some implications must be examined]

Technologies of privacy:

  • Old style : passive, reactive, the default position. 
  • New versions?: Opt-in, active privacy; specifically designed ways of deciding what we share, and with whom.

Transition away from previous economic models. Manufacturing and the mass ownership of capital has been on the wane for generations. Consider the MIT model of spinning-off industries. According to this study “Entrepreneurial Impact: The Role of MIT”, if one were to regard companies developed by MIT alumni, collectively they would form the 11th largest economy in the world. Technologies must be proven, thus they must be peer-reviewed as well as tested by the market. If everybody can use the same ideas (goodbye proprietary anything), if open source and the intellectual commons get their day, then the matter of ‘economic viability’ is set aside in favour of “technical viability” and ‘environmental viability’. The new models will have to incorporate recognition that there are diseconomies of scale, and what we called economies of scale were all too often a fetishization of size. This is a realization from the realm of network theory, which brings the long tail to bear on our everyday lives. It is not merely a niche element – the long tail is not long tail, as it were. (E.F. Schumacher had an intimation of this in his collection of essays, Small is Beautiful.)

How do we then differentiate between old and new? It becomes a matter of serviceWill digital mean that we are all eventually a part of the service economy? We may be able to set our businesses apart according to how we deal with our customers. It may be a matter of approach rather than cost. A fully open source world, with respect for the intellectual commons, is utopian. Too much seems to stand in its way, but elements of this can be used to consider alternatives to developing nations making the mistakes that the industrial and post-industrial nations have made. Consider the principle of the long tail applied to national economies. Of course there will factors that lead a country to be wealthy by virtue of some natural resource, as long as unsustainable practices are maintained, but an open principle towards information will in theory allow innovation to take place anywhere. We see this in the emergence of ‘regional hubs’ and ‘centres of excellence’, but the best example yet, in terms of something that will actually last (unlike Dubai), is Singapore. CNN has fifty reasons to account for this (about 20 are compelling, but that’s enough for me). For long enough have people considered the first part of McLuhan’s “Global Village”. We need now to give greater attention to the ‘village’ part. That is the locus of differentiation, and of what we can manage, to make our actions environmentally and socially sound.

Facebook, my friend, you are entering a world of pain.

I quite enjoy impromptu battle with people getting furious over Facebook’s redesign on one side, and then there is the “hey, keep it cool man, like, change happens, y’know?” brigade who have set themselves up as the default voice of reason. I side more with the former than the latter, since there’s a difference between acceptance and acquiescence. The posture of the latter holds that we pay nothing for these online services, and basically falls in with the pre-digital mindset of “you’ll take what you’re given”, or “any colour as long as it’s #3B5998“. It is the position of the Dude, who just accepts what happens. By default, I am put in the position of Walter by those who are, like, way more chilled out about it all. Facebook abides, man.

 I told that Kraut a fuckin’ thousand times, I don’t roll on shabbos.

Well, fine. I am he. But think about what exactly the dissatisfaction that people feel with these changes. It’s not simply a manifestation of chutzpah (as someone following in the footsteps of a convert to Judaism, I’m assuming I can say that now) for us to point out that all is not well.
The Dude: Walter…
Donny: They already posted it.
Walter Sobchak: Well they can *fucking unpost it*! 

You know what, they can change Facebook, because we are what it runs on. It is of course not the case that we have paid for a service with cash, but do we think they are providing a service to us for free? Of course not, they get our time, they get our attention, and they get the revenue from every advertiser wanting to hit exactly the target-market that we represent.


This is the new logic of open source being brought to bear on ever more realms, and we need to expand our conceptual vocabulary accordingly. We no longer pay for services with money, but with our attention, with our time. That is as valuable as money, if not moreso, because in the murky world of Facebook’s revenue stream via ads, they can tell marketers that there is billions to be made in the upcoming world. In capital terms, Facebook is not worth anywhere near the numbers thrown about (such as $100bn), what is behind such fantasy figures is the concept of there being a social ecosystem which this website represents. Those billions that don’t come in via direct advertising are to be found right behind our eyeballs. Too right we can complain.


Finally, of course Facebook is going to listen and make more changes, because though Bebo and Myspace etc. are dead in the water, they died because they deserved to. They were no kind of a challenge. The situation we are in now is that Facebook is in the position of AOL, a stupid monopoly of closing off information. Creating a wall to keep information out equally keeps it in, and every information technology has proved that to be a foolhardy strategy in the long term (even the guilds only kept the print press out of Paris for 20 years). The prize of openness and market-share is Google’s to grab.