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Against Jaron Lanier: financing the commons without commodifying it

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
27th June 2013


I must make a confession, I have not yet read Jaron Lanier, and I am reluctant to do so. The two ‘trivial’ reasons are that 1) I remember Lanier’s inane comments on digital maoism 2) he continuously uses the straw men argument that “information wants to be free”, means gratis, and that has of course, never been the case, as has ben repeated ad nauseam by free software and free culture advocates, indeed, it’s about “free speech” and the right to share, not about “free beer”. The other annoying thing is that he casts his purported enemies as “idealists”, while they are describing reality as is, while his own nonexisting utopian proposal is billed as realism. This is for me intellectual dishonesty.

Indeed, producing for the commons requires an income in one way or another, but the key issue is this: that income must be devised in such a way that the commons is not destroyed. Thus, if you pay people for information-as-a-commodity, you have a market, not a commons. The important question is: does Jaron Lanier’s scheme protect the commons or not. Insights on his concrete proposals and their effect on the production of shareable commons are welcome. Let’s hope he has cracked the issue in a positive way.

I cannot judge this, but I asked IP and sharing expert Philippe Aigrain for this thoughts, and here is his response:

“Monetization is for me a sensitive issue from another angle, as some people can find schemes such as my “creative contribution” as inducing some additional monetization. I have adressed such critics in the chapter 11 Clarifications and counter-arguments:

I reproduce here my treatment of the counter-argument #19, i.e. “In the name of commons, you are monetizing the non-market”.

No, we aren’t, but the difference is a subtle one. We are financing the conditions of existence of a specific form of cultural commons. In a world where access to conditions of living and resources for production are monetized, commons can exist only if those who maintain and enrich them have adequate financial resources.

The key differences between monetizing the non-market as described by Jeremy Rifkin in the Age of Access [Rifkin 2001] and our proposal lies in:

* the absence of transaction and control in the path of usage,

* the empowerment of users.

Social public goods and commons in modern societies are always financed by collective means. Publicly run schools are built by paid contractors, and teachers receive a salary. Elinor Ostrom, who received the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics for her studies of commons governance, has stressed that the management of resources by user communities was a key approach to governing commons. The true question is “is our proposal the right approach to finance cultural commons in the Internet age?” We certainly did our best to define one of the ways of doing it.

However, some people would claim that since we have a redistribution of the financing towards individual works and creators, there is some monetization. That’s one reason invoked by proponents of basic income as a better scheme (if it can exist). I believe that a universal flat mechanism is not fit for cultural works and activities, but the discussion is not going to end.”

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