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Everything written by Michel Bauwens

Movement of the Day: The Open Science Federation

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
26th March 2014


From the self-description:

“The Open Science Federation is a nonprofit alliance working to improve the conduct and communication of science. We are scientists and citizen scientists, writers, journalists, and educators, and makers of and advocates for Open Data, Open Access, and Open Source and Standards.

Get to know us at @openscience on Twitter, or in Google+, and elsewhere, with which we have connected the largest Open Science network in the world. We recently took up a count, deduplicated, and identified more than 30,000 people and groups across our social network.

We do not intend to be at the centre of the Open Science community per se, though analyses often place us there such as in NodeXL SNA Maps via @marc_smith, here and here. A network can be stronger than any one organization, and a federation of networks can be stronger than any network. Thus we share access to our social media accounts with many individuals and organizations. Some of our account managers are listed in Google+ while most of our friends @openscience on Twitter and elsewhere remain anonymous. Multiple companies in the publishing industry and one in the healthcare industry have attempted to purchase our social media presence and our contacts’ data; we have declined and always will. Our efforts are by, for, and belong to the Open Science community.

As technically skilled volunteers and sometimes contractors, we do take up technical projects under the Open Science Federation banner from time to time, especially in open source software for science or for science publishing. Some of our favourite recent work has been to build a federation of publishing and social networks, initially for the SciFund Challenge, ScienceOnlineSeattle, ScienceOnline Bay Area, and ScienceOnlineVancouver, and since then many others. SciFund’s network of researcher blogs and sites, for example has spawned another, Open Notebook Science Network. Altogether, this federation is comprised of now more than a thousand individuals sites and blogs, serving researchers and labs, event series, and workshops and working groups such as the People Matter Project hosted within the Communications Lab network.

The networks are federated in several regards, for example one’s username and password can be used in any federated site to which one has access, and all sites share one version of the open source software and services, which we administer pro bono. It’s a bit like a WordPress.com for science, except rather than being one network, it’s a network of networks, and we don’t only run WordPress.
At the same time, we began a separate federation for young adult researchers and bloggers, and their teachers and mentors, including FutureScienceLeaders.org, StudentBioExpo.org, and U20Science.org. For this junior federation alone, our volunteers have given in the low thousands of hours of pro bono software development and technical support. We also donate the cost of services such as web and email hosting.

Separately from all of the above, we maintain more highly secured, semi-private networks, used for example by biomedical researchers for notebooks, intranets, event management, and so on. Contact us if you are interested — if your work contributes to opening science, then we are probably interested, too.

OpenScienceFederation.com is currently a yearbook with a couple dozen projects representative of our 2012 and 2013; head to our home page and have a look around. We will update it with more from 2014. Some of us are considering projects that could make our web site more interesting, such as hosting a global calendar of Open Science events, a directory of people and projects in Open Science, and a distributed, open source social layer for science.”

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Posted in Featured Movement, P2P Science | No Comments »

David Graeber: Bank of England confirms alternative theory of monetary creation

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
26th March 2014


Excerpted from David Graeber:

(republished from a Guardian editorial)

“Back in the 1930s, Henry Ford is supposed to have remarked that it was a good thing that most Americans didn’t know how banking really works, because if they did, “there’d be a revolution before tomorrow morning”.

Last week, something remarkable happened. The Bank of England let the cat out of the bag. In a paper called “Money Creation in the Modern Economy”, co-authored by three economists from the Bank’s Monetary Analysis Directorate, they stated outright that most common assumptions of how banking works are simply wrong, and that the kind of populist, heterodox positions more ordinarily associated with groups such as Occupy Wall Street are correct. In doing so, they have effectively thrown the entire theoretical basis for austerity out of the window.

To get a sense of how radical the Bank’s new position is, consider the conventional view, which continues to be the basis of all respectable debate on public policy. People put their money in banks. Banks then lend that money out at interest – either to consumers, or to entrepreneurs willing to invest it in some profitable enterprise. True, the fractional reserve system does allow banks to lend out considerably more than they hold in reserve, and true, if savings don’t suffice, private banks can seek to borrow more from the central bank.

The central bank can print as much money as it wishes. But it is also careful not to print too much. In fact, we are often told this is why independent central banks exist in the first place. If governments could print money themselves, they would surely put out too much of it, and the resulting inflation would throw the economy into chaos. Institutions such as the Bank of England or US Federal Reserve were created to carefully regulate the money supply to prevent inflation. This is why they are forbidden to directly fund the government, say, by buying treasury bonds, but instead fund private economic activity that the government merely taxes.

It’s this understanding that allows us to continue to talk about money as if it were a limited resource like bauxite or petroleum, to say “there’s just not enough money” to fund social programmes, to speak of the immorality of government debt or of public spending “crowding out” the private sector. What the Bank of England admitted this week is that none of this is really true. To quote from its own initial summary: “Rather than banks receiving deposits when households save and then lending them out, bank lending creates deposits” … “In normal times, the central bank does not fix the amount of money in circulation, nor is central bank money ‘multiplied up’ into more loans and deposits.”

In other words, everything we know is not just wrong – it’s backwards. When banks make loans, they create money. This is because money is really just an IOU. The role of the central bank is to preside over a legal order that effectively grants banks the exclusive right to create IOUs of a certain kind, ones that the government will recognise as legal tender by its willingness to accept them in payment of taxes. There’s really no limit on how much banks could create, provided they can find someone willing to borrow it. They will never get caught short, for the simple reason that borrowers do not, generally speaking, take the cash and put it under their mattresses; ultimately, any money a bank loans out will just end up back in some bank again. So for the banking system as a whole, every loan just becomes another deposit. What’s more, insofar as banks do need to acquire funds from the central bank, they can borrow as much as they like; all the latter really does is set the rate of interest, the cost of money, not its quantity. Since the beginning of the recession, the US and British central banks have reduced that cost to almost nothing. In fact, with “quantitative easing” they’ve been effectively pumping as much money as they can into the banks, without producing any inflationary effects.

What this means is that the real limit on the amount of money in circulation is not how much the central bank is willing to lend, but how much government, firms, and ordinary citizens, are willing to borrow. Government spending is the main driver in all this (and the paper does admit, if you read it carefully, that the central bank does fund the government after all). So there’s no question of public spending “crowding out” private investment. It’s exactly the opposite.

Why did the Bank of England suddenly admit all this? Well, one reason is because it’s obviously true. The Bank’s job is to actually run the system, and of late, the system has not been running especially well. It’s possible that it decided that maintaining the fantasy-land version of economics that has proved so convenient to the rich is simply a luxury it can no longer afford.

But politically, this is taking an enormous risk. Just consider what might happen if mortgage holders realised the money the bank lent them is not, really, the life savings of some thrifty pensioner, but something the bank just whisked into existence through its possession of a magic wand which we, the public, handed over to it.

Historically, the Bank of England has tended to be a bellwether, staking out seeming radical positions that ultimately become new orthodoxies. If that’s what’s happening here, we might soon be in a position to learn if Henry Ford was right.”

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Posted in Economy and Business, P2P Money | 1 Comment »

Robin Good on the Ideal Profile of a P2P Search Tool to replace Google

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
25th March 2014


Excerpted from Robin Good:

Robin also give recommendations to use already available alternative P2P search engines.

“What could be the alternative search route available to us?

How could we escape the limitations imposed by the Google search model?

Proposal:

What would happen if it was me and you, individually, the ones who selected the criteria, ranking algorithms and penalization approaches to use to determine our search results?

My assumptions:

a) To make search results more useful, while becoming more trusted and much less vulnerable to being reverse-engineered and gamed by unscrupulous marketers, I don’t think there is a need to make your search engine and your ranking algorithms secret.

b) Secrecy promotes and breeds black markets, underground work and a well-defined objective for everyone: uncover the secret. Reverse-engineer it. Game it.

c) Following the patterns we have seen at work elsewhere: from centralized to distributed; from top-down expert secrecy to crowdsourced, open-sourced and distributed co-operative participation.

Here is how I see my ideal future search engine:

Open-source

Distributed – P2P

User-controlled

Imagine if:

a) Search was similar to a free public service.

b) Users could see search ranking and filtering factors and, if they wanted, they could change them according to their own specific needs and preferences.

c) “Trusted search curators” for specific vertical information niches started to become themselves the new relevant results. The idea is that they could provide the needed “trust” and transparency to search results by co-creating curated collections on the topics in which they have already demonstrated a high level of competence.

d) An ecosystem of open-source public search algorithms, filters, aggregators and curated collections of sites and resources on specific topics emerged.

e) Content indexing became a distributed activity in the hands of we the users. With this approach, individual users contribute to index and add information into a shared database aggregating each user personal index.

In this fashion, users not ONLY would have greater control of what is actually indexed, but they would actually be creating a real search commons index – a collaborative effort by all users that is available to everyone. (An example of a distributed search engine – where peers collaborate to construct their search database – is the YaCy project. More info on this Wikipedia page).

In simple terms:

Turn the search ranking mechanism upside down by giving back control to who is searching and in need of taking decisions based on that information.

Achieve this by allowing the user to see at all times, what is under the hood and to have the option to modify it, rather than achieving this by personalizing his results univocally or by differentiating them from those of others based on history, preferences or the social graph.

Key Benefits

An ungameable system.

If everyone could individually select and rank results according either to their preferences, or by utilizing user-defined filtering pre-sets, ranking plugins done by experts and niche curators, it becomes much more difficult for anyone to game search engine results, as now there would be an infinite number of different ranking systems at work.
But unlike what Google does with personalization, the rules by which results are ranked are not secretely set by Google, but it is me and you who decide how we want to slice and dice them.

For those who wouldn’t want to bother with tweaking and setting up their individual search preferences, they could be offered to select among alternative ranking algorithms (e.g.: Pre-Panda, 1998-style, etc.), or through open-source or paid-for algo pre-sets designed by users, groups or even other search engines themselves.

Commercial search engines like Google could even license their own algo as a plugin to use by paying a monthly subscription fee. Better yet, they could offer different flavours of it tailored to different audiences, applications and with different levels of customization possible.

Finally search users could also select to fallback on the preferences set by their close network of friends (on Facebook, Twitter, etc.) or even by Google (or other search engines) itself if they wished so

If you had no “online” friends and did not want to set preferences, paradoxically you could be given an alphabetical, or chronologically indexed set of results, and then you could move on to refine and distill what you need out of it, by applying on the fly, your own criteria.

If search was a distributed mechanism, there would be no central server, and thus there would be possibility to censor or block specific content.

Reliability would be significantly increased as single points of failure have been eliminated and the search index is stored redundantly across all users in the network that opt-in to participate.

It becomes possible to index and crawl contents, databases and web sites previously not accessible.
It is finally possible to achieve a high degree of privacy and to leverage the power of crowdsourced ranking.

What You Can Do About It

If you like the future of search that I am painting, you should not be sitting there waiting for it to happen. It won’t.
This future can only take place if you stop what you have been doing until now and you start doing something different.
Here a few simple suggestions:

a) Vote with your click

The first and foremost thing you can do to change the status quo, when it comes to online search, is to vote with your clicks. If Google does not offer what is your “ideal” situation, then do not support its growth and power by increasing your use of it.

b) Use alternative search tools

Start using an alternative search engine, among the ones that I suggest later in this article. Stop using Google or at least start to use it in combination with other alternatives.

c) Curate collections of quality vetted resources

If you are a subject matter expert or just passionate about a specific topic take into serious consideration the idea of starting to curate resource collections that can offer a one-stop-shop for those looking for insight into that topic.

d) Speak up, share what you find

Speak up, share, let others know. If you find better results by using one of the alternative solutions available, or if you discover something new or valuable that can help other people search in new, effective ways, share your information via social media so that others can pick up from it and move forward.

In Conclusion:

Search as we know it today, could be a million times better, if we only decided that we wanted it to be so.
While we associate searching the Internet with Google, the future of search could be quite different from what you have been used to until now.

In my view in fact, this approach to search, will not remain the major, most common and most effective search solution available in the digital realm.

What is really best for us?

A centralized, secret and proprietary search engine driven by Wall Street or a distributed, fully transparent and open-sourced one that placed each and every user / searcher in the driver seat?

Put the choice of how to rank Internet search results results in the hand of the searchers, not in the hands of those who control both the search and advertising marketplace.

Let users index, refine, develop and improve search engine ranking algorithms by applying the filters and metrics that serve THEM best, and not only the Google stock.

Move from listing titles-URLs-descriptions to curated search results, in which “trusted search curators” will provide bundles of high-quality results, selected and organized together in new emerging formats.

If Google and the other major search engines are not willing to be transparent about how they organize, filter and rank information, how can you trust that the answers you are given do really provide you with the best option possible?

Access to information should not be based on some “social” secret recipe of what is good and what is bad, – that is taken care of by religions of this world – as there is no objective metric that can measure the different needs and information requirements of each human being.

Unless I can check it.

But unless you decide that Google should not be your only key reference for finding any kind of information that exist out there, then nothing is going to change.”

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Posted in Collective Intelligence, P2P Software, P2P Technology | No Comments »

The new Danish Alternative Party is optimistic about the politics of horizontality

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
24th March 2014


Excerpted from Uffe Elbaek and Neal Lawson:

“The old icebergs of state and corporation are dissolving into a fluid sea where action only becomes meaningful in concert with others. The waves of change demand interconnections, because we know all of us together are smarter than any one of us on our own.

Today the world and our ability to shape it is literally in our hands. We can criticise, disrupt, collaborate and share at the touch of a few keys. Transparency and accountability rule. We rule; but only if politics changes too. For the new rules of this epochal shift go with the grain of a good society precisely because in a flattened world, we talk and participate as equals. That’s why the post-1945 social settlement could never hold, because it was built on well-meaning but hierarchical institutions. And so the counter-revolution of neoliberalism took hold in the late 1970s against the daily grind of an elitist socialism.

But the radical promise of a flat earth could become transformative and permanent, because equality and democracy have become both means and ends. This doesn’t deny the need for struggle. The big corporations will try to commercialise these new flat planes, and the threat of authoritarianism is real. But here at last is a terrain that can be genuinely contested by radicals because democracy and equality are now what we struggle with, and what we struggle for.

This paradigm shift is not a prediction – it’s real, and happening now. Kickstarter, Wikipedia, Open Source, Mumsnet, the People Who Share and Thoughtworks are some of the first movers in a future that is being co-produced.

But it’s the implications for the way we do politics that are truly profound. If elitism is out and participation and connections are in, the results – as the old clashes with the new – are increasingly explosive. For instance the Danish government recently sold off parts of the national electricity company to the investment bank Goldman Sachs, giving it influence over a strategic sector despite the company’s dubious involvement in the financial crisis and its recent role in the botched sale of Royal Mail in the UK. In Denmark the move triggered a network-based movement resulting in huge demonstrations, more than 200,000 signing a declaration opposing it and polls that showed 80% of people objected to the sale.

Yet it went ahead. Partly as a result, one of the government parties, the Socialist People’s party, is crumbling as its MPs are in conflict with each other. The party has left the government. The finance minister, Bjarne Corydon, who before this debate was one of the most powerful politicians in Denmark, is now ranked as the second most disliked minister in the government. The old politics could not contain a decision about what the public should own and what should be in private hands. The cycle of frustration and anger deepens – and the old parties will either transform themselves or die and new political entities will take their place.

What is the shape of that transformation? Representative democracy must now take its place alongside direct and deliberative forms of democracy and a mash-up of all three: what is being called liquid democracy, as we cast, lend and pool our votes. People will stop being the occasional consumers of politics and instead become its permanent producers.

The culture will change too. Tribalism and adversarialism will give way to shifting alliances. Empathy, respect and the ability to engage with people you don’t agree with will be crucial. So if you want to be a rebel, be kind. And leadership will be less about pulling levers for people and more about building the spaces and capacity for people to do thing collectively themselves.

The big and successful transformations in values and behaviour, like support for gay rights, greater gender equality and the end of apartheid, only take place when the overwhelming majority see change as common sense. If a “good society” is achieved by even a metaphorical big stick, then that stick will go on being used in that so-called good society. Remember, means shape ends. So we must be change we wish to see in the world.

In these new times, political parties will still matter. After Tahrir Square – or some day soon Trafalgar Square – someone has to offer the candidates, make the manifesto coherent, set the budgets and establish the policy basis for capacity building. As Guardian journalist John Harris said at the recent Change: How? conference, “you can’t redistribute income sitting in a tent outside St Paul’s”. The party must become the “bridge” between the state and the new horizontal movements.

Modernity and the human values of love, empathy and connection are being aligned. Instead of trying to fit people into a bureaucratic state or a free market we can bend this increasingly flat world to our values and us. We are all particles in the wave of a future that is ours to make.”

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Posted in P2P Hierarchy Theory, P2P Movements, Politics | No Comments »

From the Communism of Capital to a Capital for the Commons

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
22nd March 2014


Michel Bauwens:

The labor/p2p/commons movements today are faced with a paradox.

Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens

On the one hand we have a re-emergence of the cooperative movement and worked-owned enterprises, but they suffer from structural weaknesses. Cooperative entities work for their own members, are reluctant to accept new cooperators that would share existing profits and benefits, and are practitioners of the same proprietary knowledge and artificial scarcities as their capitalist counterparts. Even though they are internally democratic, they often participate in the same dynamics of capitalist competition which undermines their own cooperative values.

On the other hand, we have an emergent field of open and commons-oriented peer production in fields such as free software, open design and open hardware, which do create common pools of knowledge for the whole of humanity, but at the same time, are dominated by both start-ups and large multinational enterprises using the same commons.

Thus, we need a new convergence or synthesis, a ‘open cooperativism’, that combines both commons-oriented open peer production models, with common ownership and governance models such as those of the cooperatives and the solidarity economic models. What follows is a more detailed argument on how such transition could be achieved.

The Main Argument

Today we have a paradox, the more communistic the sharing license we use in the peer production of free software or open hardware, the more capitalistic the practice, with for example the Linux commons becoming a corporate commons enriching IBM and the like … it works in a certain way, and seems acceptable to most free software developers, but is it the only way?

Indeed, the General Public License and its variants, allow anyone to use and modify the software code (or design), as long as the changes are also put back in the common pool under the same conditions for further users. This is in fact technically ‘communism’ as defined by Marx: from each according to his abilities, to each according to their needs, but which then paradoxically allows multinationals to use the free software code for profit and capital accumulation. The result is that we do have an accumulation of immaterial commons, based on open input, participatory process, and commons-oriented output, but that it is subsumed to capital accumulation. It is at present not possible, or not easy, to have social reproduction (i.e. livelihoods) within the sphere of the commons. Hence the free software and culture movements, however important they are as new social forces and expression new social demands, are also in essence ‘liberal’. This is not only acknowledged by its leaders such as Richard Stallman, but also by anthropological studies like those of Gabriella Coleman. Not so tongue-in-cheek we could say they are liberal-communist and communist-liberal movements, which create a ‘communism of capital’.

Is there an alternative ? We believe there is, and this would be to replace non-reciprocal licenses, i.e. they do not demand a direct reciprocity from its users, to one based on reciprocity. Call it a switch from ‘communist’, to ‘socialist’ licenses’.

This is the choice of the Peer Production License as designed and proposed by Dmytri Kleiner; it is not to be confused with the Creative Commons non commercial license, as the logic is different.

The logic of the CC-NC is to offer protection to individuals reluctant to share, as they do not wish a commercialization of their work that would not reward them for their labor. Thus the Creative Commons ‘non-commercial’ license stops the further economic development based on this open and shared knowledge, and keeps it entirely in the not-for-profit sphere.

dmytri_kleiner2

Dmytri Kleiner

The logic of the PPL is to allow commercialization, but on the basis of a demand for reciprocity. It is designed to enable and empower a counter-hegemonic reciprocal economy that combines commons that are open to all that contribute, while charging a license fee for the the for-profit companies who want to use without contributing. Not that much changes for the multinationals in practice, they can still use the code if they contribute, as IBM does with Linux, and for those who don’t , they would pay a license fee, a practice they are used to. It’s practical effect would be to direct a stream of income from capital to the commons, but its main effect would be ideological, or if you like, value-driven.

The entrepreneurial coalitions that are linked around a PPL commons would be explicitly oriented towards their contributions to the commons, and the alternative value system that it represents. From the point of view of the peer producers or commoners, i.e. the communities of contributors to the common pool, it would allow them to create their own cooperative entities, in which profit would be subsumed to the social goal of sustaining the commons and the commoners. Even the participating for-profit companies would consciously contribute under a new logic. It links the commons to a entrepreneurial coalition of ethical market entities (coops and other models) and keeps the surplus value entirely within the sphere of commoners/cooperators instead of leaking out to the multinationals. In other words, through this convergence or rather combination of a commons model for the abundant immaterial resources, and a reciprocity-based model for the ‘scarce’ material resources, the issue of livelihoods and social reproduction would be solved, and surplus value is kept inside the commons sphere itself. It is the cooperatives that would, through their cooperative accumulation, fund the production of immaterial commons, because they would pay and reward the peer producers associated with them.

In this way, peer production would move from a proto-mode of production, unable to perpetuate itself on its own outside capitalism, to a autonomous and real mode of production. It creates a counter-economy that can be the basis for reconstituting a ‘counter-hegemony’ with a for-benefit circulation of value, which allied to pro-commons social movements, could be the basis of the political and social transformation of the political economy. Hence we move from a situation in which the communism of capital is dominant, to a situation in which we have a ‘capital for the commons’, increasingly insuring the self-reproduction of the peer production mode.

The PPL is used experimentally by Guerrilla Translation! and is being discussed in various places, such as for example, in France, in the open agricultural machining and design communities.

PeerProduction

There is also a specific potential, inside the commons-oriented ethical economy, such as the application of open book accounting and open supply chains, would allow a different value circulation, whereby the stigmergic mutual coordination that already works at scale for immaterial cooperation and production, would move to the coordination of physical production, creating post-market dynamics of allocation in the physical sphere. Replacing both the market allocation through the price signal, and central planning, this new system of material production would allow for massive mutual coordination instead, enabling a new form of ‘resource-based economics’

Finally, this whole system can be strengthened by creating commons-based venture funding, so as to create material commons, as proposed by Dmytri Kleiner. In this way, the machine park itself is taken out of the sphere of capital accumulation. In this proposed system, cooperatives needing capital for machinery, would post a bond, and the other coops in the system would fund the bond, and buy the machine for a commons in which both funders and users would be members. The interest paid on these loans would create a fund that would gradually be able to pay an increasing income to their members, constituting a new kind of basis income.

The new open cooperativism is substantially different from the older form. In the older form, internal economic democracy is accompanied by participation in market dynamics on behalf of the members, using capitalist competition. Hence a unwillingness to share profits and benefits with outsiders. There is no creation of the commons. We need a different model in which the cooperatives produce commons, and are statutorily oriented towards the creation of the common good, with multi-stakeholders forms of governance which include workers, users-consumers, investors and the concerned communities.

Today we have a paradox that open communities of peer producers are oriented towards the start-up model and are subsumed to the profit model, while the cooperatives remain closed, use IP, and do not create commons. In the new model of open cooperativism, a merger should occur between the open peer production of commons, and the cooperative production of value. The new open cooperativism integrates externalities, practices economic democracy, produces commons for the common good, and socializes its knowledge. The circulation of the common is combined with the process of cooperative accumulation, on behalf of the commons and its contributors. In the beginning, the immaterial commons field, following the logic of free contributions and universal use for everyone who needs it, would co-exist with a cooperative model for physical production, based on reciprocity. But as the cooperative model becomes more and more hyper-productive and is able to create sustainable abundance in material goods, the two logics would merge.

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Posted in Original Content, P2P Collaboration, P2P Foundation, P2P Theory, Peer Production, Peer Property | 5 Comments »

Berlin as the Capital of the Social Share Economy

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
20th March 2014


Excerpted from Philip Oltermann:

“The notion of the “share economy” may have been coined as long ago as 1984, by Harvard economist Martin Weitzman. But there is a sense that the shift away from ownership towards functionality is nowhere as tangible in Europe as in Berlin.

If Berlin is establishing itself as the sharing capital of Europe, said futurologist Peter Wippermann, it is above all because of the unique intersection between the alternative green movement and old industry.

Elsewhere on the continent, the share economy may be defined by start-ups such as Airbnb, which matches travellers to people with rooms to rent, he argued, “but in Germany it’s driven by grassroots projects like Leila on the one hand and big companies like BMW and Daimler on the other, who were quick to latch on to the car-sharing idea”.

With 760,000 registered users, Germany is pioneering car-sharing in Europe – not least, experts say, because initiatives such as Car2Go, DriveNow or Tamyca tie in with more old-fashioned “hitch-a-ride” schemes that used to be popular with students and hitchhikers.

So far, most of these developments have taken place without the support of the city itself, said Dorothee Landgrebe, of the Heinrich Böll Foundation. “The state could do a lot more to support genuinely ecological projects such as borrowing shops and help identify those who exploit sharing schemes for their own profit.”

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Posted in Sharing | 1 Comment »

Responding to Stefan Meretz’s critique of the Peer Production License

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Michel Bauwens
20th March 2014


Stefan Meretz produced a critique of the Peer Production License, or more generically, Commons-Based Reciprocity Licenses, in the Keimform blog, to which I promised to respond.

Unfortunately, the critique is rather weak and misleading, so our responses will be rather short and inserted inline. Our responses are in bold and b-quote.

For context, I support the PPL, not in its full detail, but as a first of a kind, Commons-Based Reciprocity License (the concept is from Primavera de Filippi and Miguel Veira).

The key argument is the following: the present fully-sharing open licenses which allow unrestricted commercial exploitation create a ‘communism of capital’, i.e. a sphere of open knowledge, code and design, which is subsumed to the present dominant political economy. But what we need is an autonomous sphere of peer production, in which commoners and peer producers can create their own livelyhood, while staying in the sphere of the commons. In other words, we need a ‘capital for the commons’. The best way to achieve that is to converge the sphere of immaterial commons contributions, with a sphere of cooperative accumulation through which the surplus value can stay within the sphere of commons/cooperative production.

This is why we need a new type of licensing.

So, without further ado, Stefan Meretz writes:

“At first one has to understand the nature licenses have under the given conditions. Licenses are permissions, thus contracts, “granted by a party (‘licensor’) to another party (‘licensee’) as an element of an agreement between those parties”. It bases on the precondition of excluding all other people by the “rightholder”. The power of exclusion given by law can be converted into a “permission for all” by way of tricky constructions combined with the obligation to put derived works under the GPL as well (copyleft principle). Herein is nothing communist. The logic of exclusion is partially reversed and therefore new spaces of commons oriented practices can be created. Better than nothing. The license itself only protects these practices against proprietary destructions. From my point of view this can not be more under the given conditions. The outer world is ruled by the logics of valuation and exclusion, and every free zone to self-determine other practices has to be wrested from these dominant logics. Embryonic forms, precisely.”

This first critique is rather weak. Indeed, I am not talking about the legal, contractual basis of the GPL and similar licenses, but on the social logic that they enable, which is: it allows anybody to contribute, and it allows anybody to use. This is both consistent with Marx’s defintion of communism, and with the definition I use, that of communal shareholding by Alan Page Fiske. This logic of course only exists in the realm of abundant digital information, but it exists within the sphere of the political economy of capital. To deny this on the grounds of legal technicalities seems to me a feeble argument.

The second part of the thesis “…the more capitalistic the practice” fails as well. There is no comparative of “capitalistic”. If you replace “capitalistic” with “commodity-based”, then is becomes even clearer: Something is a commodity or not. Free software, for instance, isn’t a commodity. It can be appropriated and used by everyone, even by big corporations. However, they cannot transform the free software into a commodity, since this is prevented by the GPL. But they can use the software in order to realize their business models in another fields. This free use is a thorn in Bauwens side. He wants the commons to only be commercially used by those who have contributed beforehand.

This is also very weak, since I am not saying and never said, that the GPL turns free sofrware into a commodity. But what I’m saying, and what nobody can deny, is that non-commodified free software is subsumed to the capitalist economy that uses it. There is a thriving commercial company of products and services which is using and is based on GPL-generated code, as there is on open design. 75% of Linux developers are paid by commercial companies operating in the capitalist marketplace.

From my perspective the presentation of the GPL as “communist” is wrong, but this attribution has the function to propagate a milder license variant which then is called “socialist”: the PPL (Peer-Production-License). This license only grants external access to the resources to those who are using them non-commercially, while internally unlimited exploitation is allowed. The divide intern/extern usually refers to a firm. If external parties want to use the resources commercially, then they have to pay a license fee or make other contributions.

The GPL effectively enables a social logic of unlimited use, including by multinational companies. The peer production license resticts it. From my point of view this makes it a stronger and not a milder license. Let me point out that I do not take the PPL as perfect, but as a new kind of Commons-Based Reciprocity Licenses, whose detailed modalities can very well differ from the original PPL. Such licenses fully allow commercial exploitation, but ask for reciprocity. Think of a traditional indigenous community using a GPL of similar. This means any commercial entity can use the knowledge and commercialize it, without any benefit or profit-sharing with the creators of the knowledge. A CBRL would simply ask for reciprocity and would allow these traditional communities to generate autonomous living and livelyhoods, something which is harder to do with the GPL.

Is only exchange reciprocal? In order to justify the PPL the argument of reciprocity is claimed. The “communist” GPL is non-reciprocal, while the “socialist” PPL demands reciprocity. The word reciprocity nicely blurs what is actually meant: exchange. In fact, the GPL breaks the logic of exchange, while the PPL requires and enforces it — namely not only the exchange logic itself, but the societally valid form of equivalent exchange. Someone who wants to keep “the surplus value into the commons sphere” has to act that way, whereby “commons sphere” is a euphemism for an ordinary company.

This is the first valid critique. Indeed, the PPL / CBRL would indeed limit the non-reciprocity for for-profit entities, but no, Stefan is wrong, it does not demand equivalent exchange, but only some form of negotiated reciprocity. The important aspect is to generate a flow of realized value, necessary for social reproduction, from the sphere of capital accumulation to the sphere of the commons. The second aspect is organizational. It promotes the self-organisation of an ethical economy, and makes those who want to join it, conscious of that fact, including for-profit companies which can decide to ally with the ethical enterpreneurial coalition.

The notion of reciprocity is misused in an ideologically blurring way. Licenses are never reciprocal, only people can behave that way. Thus, the question can only be whether licenses encourage reciprocity between people or not, and if so, in what way. Then the evaluation of GPL and PPL looks completely different.The GPL creates and promotes direct reciprocity between people, because no exchange and also no compelled contribution stands between people.

This is absolutely wrong, the GPL doesn’t demand nor create direct reciprocity between people. It is entirely possible to use GPL material without any reciprocity, as the overwhelming majority of its users actually do. But the GPL requires what anthropologist call ‘general reciprocity’, i.e. at the collective level, a minimum of contributions is needed to sustain the system. But there is absolutely no requirement for direct reciprocity. The reciprocity is between the individual and the system as a whole. A coder or wikipedia contributor cannot expect any return from any particular individual but only expects the benefits of the whole system, which depend only on a general flow of contributions.

By contrast, the PPL limits direct reciprocity by putting exchange or compulsory contributions between people if they want to use resources commercially. But what is commercial? It is the same discussion which has taken place around the NC module of the Creative Commons Licenses. There the insight is: The NC module undermines sharing, and the same applies to the PPL (although trying to dissociate from the CC-NC).

The PPL only limits non-recicprocal use by for-profit companies. It does not prohibit commercial exploitation but actually encourages it, while the Non-Commercial CC license actually prohibits it. The NC does not undermine sharing, but commercialisation. The PPL encourages and allows both sharing and commercialisation.

To sharpen the point: Both licenses support reciprocal behavior of people. With respect to GPL it is positive reciprocity, because in this case it only counts how people behave socially and which rules they agree upon in a self-determined way, in order to bring all participants together. Concerning the PPL it is negative reciprocity, since a portion of people are subjugated to the alien form of exchange of equivalents (money) and are excluded from the cooperation to this end. Thus, the GPL is rather in accordance with the commons idea of self-determining own rules than the PPL.

From the above refutations follow that this conclusion is entirely erroneous. In fact, there is only self-determination of the contributory process in the GPL context, but full alienation to capital in the surrounding commercial sphere. By contrast the PPL not only allows full self-determination in the contributory sphere, but requires self-management in the cooperative sphere of self-reproduction, something which is much more difficult with the GPL, since it subsumes livelyhoods to capital accumulation.

This is the end of my response to the first part of the critique by Stefan Meretz. The critique in no way refutes any of the premises for the need of the PPL or similar Commos-Based Reciprocity Licenses.

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Posted in Copyright/IP, Ethical Economy, Free Software, P2P Business Models, P2P Legal Dev., P2P Theory, Peer Production, Peer Property | 2 Comments »

Paracity — A Peer-based Urban Organism in Taipei

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
19th March 2014


A commentary by Eric Hunting:

Paracity is a new project of Marco Casagrande which promises to be one of the first full scale demonstrations of a practical peer-to-peer urbanism. Taking advantage of a unique situation on the Danshui River Island in Taipei, Paracity explores a notion of positive urban parasitism, using a novel, freely adaptive, modular, volumetric structural skeleton serving as an urban ‘backplane’ that can subsume otherwise neglected/devalued urban environments, in this particular case an area prone to frequent flooding. Based on a fairly large span cubic structural grid made of cross-laminated timber, this backplane accommodates adaptation and habitation by retrofit, allowing for several possible tiers of social participation in the habitat from the high-level peer-managed deployment of the backplane structure and its key infrastructure elements to the more spontaneous and personalized retrofit deployment of individual dwellings, industry, and commerce. Here we see a totally evolvable urban habitat able to almost spontaneously accommodate any potential change in situation, environmental conditions, urban and domestic technology, and baseline standard of living without the strife associated with an anachronistic presumption of architectural permanence leading to ready obsolescence. This is ‘city’ as a verb. A freely evolvable urban organism with a declared evolutionary imperative of transitioning older urban habitats toward sustainable integration with the natural environment. A Post-Industrial habitat growing on the compost of Industrial Age urbanism.

I find this project concept quite exciting because it incorporates many concepts I have been proposing and exploring for a long time. This is an urban development concept based on truly 21st century sensibilities, questioning the dominant presumptions about property, space, the role of architecture, and the role of inhabitants as creators and managers of their own habitat that characterize the inherent dysfunctions of contemporary cities. I have always wondered why cities are not designed with the practical sensibility of the network/data center–with a recognition of the simple reality that they persist as an application–an activity–in a constantly changing medium of hardware and technology. We are no longer limited by primitive construction technology with no means to adapt. Why then are cities commonly, physically, designed to dogmatically resist the constant evolution that is their very life-blood? It is this very resistance that is the root of their dysfunctions. The modern city is not a collection of architecture. It is not a physical thing. It is an epiphenomenon. An attractor to an emergent form, like consciousness is to the brain and like an operating system is to a cluster of computers.

Paracity’s architecture is most interesting in how it lays bare this paradigm. One might accuse it of being, superficially, a throw-back to the ‘plug in’ architecture of the ’60s, and perhaps this is one of the reasons for a choice of a more organic primary structural material rather than the steel frame and concrete systems of the past. But it is more like one of those transparent ‘visible body’ models that turns our perspective inside-out by bringing its urban backplane out into the open as an overt, visible, architectural feature to be embraced for its bounty of adaptive use possibilities. This habitat revels in its nakedness and its perpetually unfinished state.

The personal computer ran into an evolutionary rut at the time when it had the most diversity of systems architectures, their very deliberate and often pointless incompatibilities wielded like clubs by corporate interests vying for monopolistic control of market share. It was the old Industrial Age mindset abusing a Post-Industrial technology with its quaint notions of value and fuddy-duddy ideas about how money is supposed to be made. The industry had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the realization that market share was, in fact, keyed to interoperability rather than propriety. That the personal computer existed in a non-zero-sum ecology and made more profit the more you shared and cooperated. Today we have but a few, mostly open, mainstream personal computer architectures and more physical diversity in design, a more rapid pace of advance, and greater potential for personalization and customization than was ever imagined possible in the late 1970s and early ’80s.

Relegated to an upper tier of peer organization largely independent of the individual human-scale retrofit use, the modular backplane of Paracity is not so much an overarching architectural scheme as it is a genome in which an unlimited number of urban situations can be ‘sequenced’, expressed, and evolved. It imposes order and standardization to facilitate its ease of use and change, but doesn’t impose any individual designer’s ego over the aesthetic of the habitat. It is not megalomaniaclemegabuild. It’s Lego.

If realized, I think Paracity has the potential to be a breakthrough on many fronts. The community planned for Taipei promises to be a great opportunity for exploring peer-to-peer urbanism and the cultivation of a Post-Industrial culture rooted in the new technologies of alternative energy, sustainable resource use, urban farming, and independent production and economy. Being right in the midst of one of the world’s most important and cosmopolitan cities, the catalytic potential is great. It could be an opportunity for people from around the world to converge on the experimentation and demonstration of a very new urban lifestyle without the hassles and hardships of retreating to the remote edge-of-wilderness locations so many intentional communities are relegated to. And it offers the prospect of creating a package of systems–a vernacular–that, like an urban version of OSE’s Global Village Construction Set, can be freely disseminated through the medium of the internet and applied most anywhere. By virtue of the kind of technology used–the standardization and ready reproducibility and repurposing of this urban backplane–one could contribute to this project in many ways from anywhere in the world. This is most definitely a project to keep an eye on.”

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Posted in P2P Architecture and Urbanism | No Comments »

Essay of the Day: Internet, Social Media and the Workplace

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
18th March 2014


* Article: The internet, social media and the workplace. By Martin Upchurch. International Socialism. Issue: 141

Republished from Martin Upchurch (without notes):

“There have been heated debates on the left over the last few years on the role of the internet and social media through web based communication (WBC). In an article in International Socialism two years ago Jonny Jones reviewed these debates and correctly highlighted the dangers of overestimating the impact of social media on social movements. While new information and communication technologies, including social media, have undoubtedly aided the organisational efforts of social movements, they have not created them-and it would be technologically deterministic to put the cart before the horse in assessing their value. Writing from a Marxist perspective against “techno-centrism”, a leading academic on social media, Christian Fuchs, has criticised explanations of rebellions in which social media is perceived as the engine, claiming it to represent a “fetishism of things…a deterministic instrumental ideology that substitutes thinking about society with a focus on technology”.

The tendency to inflate the value of WBC as a motor engine of movements reflects a body of thought which over-emphasises the societal impact new technology may have had in encouraging spontaneous protest and societal change. For example, Anthony Giddens, from a postmodern perspective, has argued in Runaway World that “instantaneous electronic communication isn’t just a way in which news or information is conveyed more quickly. Its existence alters the very texture of our lives, rich and poor alike”.3 Manuel Castells, in his monumental trilogy The Information Age, also places information technology as the root of modern social change, whereby the net replaces hierarchies as the dominant form of social organisation, and the individual constructs her self-identity within the same technologically based process.4 A vision of work in which material production has evaporated into a weightless world is also presented as “postmodernisation” by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in Empire, where they argue that there are now no fixed boundaries or territorial centres of power. Instead we are bounded by a world where power lies “both everywhere and nowhere”.

This new world is dominated by service work and “immaterial” labour, which itself embraces universal cultural “products”, knowledge and communication, to such an extent that industrial production has been informationalised and has incorporated communication technologies in a way that transforms the production process itself. Manufacturing is regarded as a service, and the material labour of the production of durable goods mixes with and tends toward immaterial labour.

Such approaches, of either the postmodern or postmodernisation variety, sidestep or corrupt not only the material basis for change, but also the importance of the agents of change historically rooted in class formations and class struggle. In his book New Capitalism Kevin Doogan describes such sidestepping of class as an academic expression of dematerialisation, whereby the “death” of distance and time lends to the concept of a weightless world, in which there is a separation of motion and matter. In such a vision we appear to move beyond technocentrism into a world where the transmission of knowledge becomes a fetish in itself. This is despite the important fact that “the production and consumption of knowledge remains materialist even if its circulation is immaterial”.

A task that confronts us, therefore, is to bring such theories of weightlessness and dematerialisation down to earth by examining the impact of communication technology in the everyday concrete existence of the workplace. More importantly, we need to examine these technologies in terms of processes of class-based struggle. In so doing we need to do more than rehearse the debates concerning the fetishisation of social media and social movements within the general cultural sphere. It is imperative to focus on the impact of communication technology in the workplace, at the point of production, if we are to fully understand its implications. A number of issues are of concern to contemporary Marxist analysis. First is the power of employers to use communication technology to intensify work through changes in the labour process. Second is the potential liberating power of communication technologies for collective workplace organisation against the employer through trade unions. Third is the effect such technologies may or may not have on tipping the locus of power between rank and file and bureaucracy within the trade unions themselves. In addressing these areas of concern some reflections will be provided on current industrial disputes where new communication technologies and social media have been a central feature.

* Routinisation and standardisation of work

For Marx, technology is a tool used by individual capital to produce reductions in the “socially necessary labour time” that capital must achieve if it is to remain competitive. “Socially necessary” refers to the labour time required under normal conditions with the average prevalent skill and intensity that determine the value of commodities. Individual capitals can thus gain by upgrading skill, increasing work intensity and reducing unit labour costs by improving productivity. Similarly capital can increase the length of working time expected of each worker in a week or year. The former acts to increase rates of relative surplus value and the latter increases rates of absolute surplus value. Socially necessary labour time is not a fixed absolute and is constantly moving in determining the parameters of value, so individual employers want to try to exceed the notional average to gain a competitive advantage. This is the root of competition between capitals, which reduces to continuous efforts by individual capital to intensify work in order to maintain or increase rates of exploitation.

In modern management this process is taken to its logical conclusion by construction of a “bell curve” in “performance management”. In this practice the bottom 10 percent of performers as identified by their appraisal scores are regularly culled in an organisation, in an effort to raise the overall level of performance. As Jack Welch, the retiring CEO of General Electric and an advocate of bell curve measurement, stated in his final shareholders’ letter, “We must remove that lower 10 percent, and keep removing it every year-always raising the bar of performance and increasing the quality of its leadership”.8 Thus the modern workplace has seen a shift towards individual performance measurement and performance related pay, not only in terms of measuring physical output but also in terms of attempting to measure abstracted forms of labour through soft competency measures such as ability to work with others in teams, attitude, “innovation” and “leadership”. This process has been accompanied with attempts to introduce “lean” production management, typified by the elimination of waste and buffers in the production process, not only in manufacturing but also in public services and education. “Doing more for less” has become the leitmotif of the new workplace. One key feature of new communication technologies in the workplace is the opportunity it presents to employers to further routinise and standardise everyday work tasks, and to simultaneously measure work performance in order to “weed out” the less productive. Labour productivity is enhanced, either through intensified work or by replacement of everyday tasks with technological innovation.

Of course, such processes of technology-related work intensification and measurement are not new. Efforts to standardise times and tasks follow practices first established in the inter-war years such as the application of the Bedaux system of measuring work and time, and Gilbreth’s time and motion study. Both systems deepened and extended F W Taylor’s system of “scientific management” whereby an ultimate division of labour was constructed under full management control. The effects on the labour process were enormous: by intensifying work effort, deskilling and establishing norms of output they acted to create standards of working by which capital could adjust to the socially necessary labour time in the production of manufactured goods.10 In the post-war period such forms of measurement rapidly expanded into service and clerical work, whereby the time taken to complete even the simplest work tasks was measured against banks of photographs for the task created under the Methods Time Measurement system established in the United States in 1948.

Digitalised communications technology takes the process of work measurement a number of steps further. First, instead of self-filled work diaries, or time and motion inspectors, work output and speed can be measured remotely and instantaneously.12 Thus the work output of checkout assistants at supermarkets can be measured by collating the swipes of barcodes, and the insurance or tax office “clerk” no longer works on a single claim but is confined to one discrete task which flashes up on her computer screen only to be replenished immediately as soon as the first task is completed. In such a way monitoring through computerisation not only fills in the “porosity” of the working day by restricting personal opportunities for down time but also reduces discretion of the individual worker by removing context from the decision-making process. Reducing porosity in the working day can even be taken to include time allowed, or rather time not allowed, for normal bodily functions such as going to the toilet. Warehouse workers and forklift drivers at Tesco, for example, alleged that radio-linked (RFID) armband tags were being used to monitor work rates and identify those staff spending too long in the toilet. In Ohio a security firm has gone one step further and implanted RFID chips in two of its employees.

Second, new communication and web-based technologies allow the employer the opportunity to extend the reach of monitoring and surveillance beyond the more easily measurable work output into all aspects of work. Such extended reach has been assumed by some theorists (we shall return to a critique later) to justify use of Foucault’s Panopticon effect borrowed from Bentham’s earlier writings on prisons.15 In this depressing and Orwellian scenario the envisioned prison tower, which enables all prisoners to be seen by the guards but which cannot be seen by the prisoners, is used to express hidden obedience in the workplace. It is argued that surveillance and monitoring induce internalised effects in employees whereby compliance is created even though the monitoring is unseen.16 In this perspective, new technologies increase the intensity of this effect through their extended reach over and beyond the traditional tools of compliance and control.
In addition, we have seen a rapid spread of web-based monitoring into professional and service related work, where output measures are less easy to define and more qualitative in nature. For example, the UK coalition government since 2010 has sought to increase the use of targets and “standard” setting in schools as a method by which to encourage “choice” in the sector and to intensify teacher workloads as a cost-saving exercise. Targets and scores are now openly published, thus commodifying both the school and with it each individual teacher’s “output”. In terms of target-setting an ICT system for monitoring student performance (SIMS-schools information management system) has been widely introduced throughout the school system. SIMS monitors student behaviour and attendance (linked to automatic text messages to parents and carers if a student is absent); creates a Schools Workforce Census of teachers’ professional qualifications and training and records students’ marks and achievements throughout the school year (giving the teacher an “alert” if not filled in on time). In such fashion information held on the teaching staff and their individual students is universal.

Most importantly, SIMS acts to “colour code” the achievement marks of the students set against expected grades based on past achievement. These “expected” grades are outside the control of the individual teacher as they are set at line manager level and measured for consistency across schools (taking postcodes into account) by external advisers. In this way students falling behind their “expected” grades are immediately identified, as are the teachers who are teaching the below expectation students. Should an individual teacher record too many codes of the “wrong” colour this will be made apparent to the headteacher through monitoring of the system. This information is then fed through to the performance objectives and targets set in the appraisal system, and can be used as both a disciplinary tool and as a potential indicator for performance related pay. In Marxist terms what emerges is an attempt, however clumsy and proxy, to measure the “abstract” labour of teachers and to utilise this measurement as a yardstick of socially necessary labour time. No matter that the quality of education to pupils might suffer, as teachers are now incentivised to focus on “borderline grades” and pay less attention to low achievers in the class. What count for the government are targets, outputs, and competition within the new market created by agendas of competition and commodification.

Similar processes can be found in social work, whereby targets are set for child adoption and protection, or caseload turn-around, irrespective of the need to ensure that the right decisions are made with due professional consideration.

In both cases a by-product of the process is an increased sense of alienation of teachers and social workers, as they are restricted in exercising professional judgement and forced to work more intensively and without considered reflection by cutting corners in order to meet targets.

* New technology and workplace surveillance

The ability of WBC to enhance opportunities for commodification of information comprises the third area where change is apparent. In particular the rise of social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, has given employers an extra opportunity to monitor, spy upon and ultimately discipline and control employees. Running in parallel are government efforts to monitor and spy on email and social media conversations by use of keyword driven technologies such as that used by Operation Tempora at the UK’s intelligence agency GCHQ. Twitter was launched in 2006, but now records over 360 million daily tweets, while Facebook recorded its one billionth user in October 2012, before losing 10 million users early in 2013 as privacy concerns began to worry users. In this brave new world of online social media, virtual “images” are bought and sold as opposed to any “physical embodiment of what they represent” in terms of value and labour. A process of commodification of culture is therefore engendered.

It is not just time and place of work that is eroding through the fleeting and flexible logic of networks, but labour itself is made controllable by its suppression to targets and abstract standards of performance and behaviour. Thus employers may use individual tweets and Facebook profiles as pre-screening before interview, picking up on our identities (however we may wish to construct them) and indiscretions, recording the types and number of friends, and scanning photographs and “likes” to build up a picture of social and political habits, gender, age and skin colour. A survey conducted in 2011 by the US Society for Human Resource Management found that 56 percent of companies surveyed used social media scans before engaging in recruitment trawls, up from 34 percent in 2008. A quarter of organisations explore social media profiles before offering jobs.21 The perniciousness and subjectivity of this process are plain to see. A further study in the US found, for example, that social media profiles which exhibited that an individual had a liking for alcohol consumption made them less likely to be offered a job than those whose profiles emphasised family orientations.

Of course, while employers use social media to their own advantage they are also aware of the threats it may pose to their authority and ability to control work time. As an attack on so-called “cyberloafing”, employers have now moved en masse to ban social media on workplace computers. A survey conducted in the UK in 2010 reported that 79 percent of the 1,765 employer respondents have now banned social network sites on their computers.23 In 2009 Portsmouth City Council banned its 4,500 employees from using social network sites such as Facebook after finding that the staff logged on to the sites up to 270,000 times a month between them (on average equivalent to three times a day). The council says that staff can apply to have their accounts unblocked if they use them for work purposes. Such an exemption might include a fraud officer carrying out checks on claimants to ascertain their lifestyles are what they claim they are.

However, coercion and Taylorisation as forms of control are not the only ways in which compliance and consent may be manufactured in an organisation. As Michael Burawoy suggested in his book Manufacturing Consent, employers may offer the “illusion of choice” to employees as a subtle form of co-optation.25 Rasmus Johnsen and Marius Gudmand-Høyer have turned conventional “control and compliance” arguments somewhat on their head. Instead of being coercive and alienative forms of constructing subjectivity, such processes of target-setting and organisational moulding of the employee may (depressingly) serve to fulfill a sense of “lack” in the individual.26 In other words, even though soft human resource management tools of control linked to communication technology may lack “humanity”, and engender alienation by quantifying abstract labour, it might be the very process of observation, target setting and feedback which instils in us a sense of worth.

Such potential insights have been enacted (albeit by default) by some employers who, rather than fear the internal uncertainties and threats from WBC, have embraced the technology and sought to utilise it to create an organisational atmosphere where the related sense of lack is converted for the benefit of the organisation. Indeed, the drift towards all-embracing digitalised information on ourselves is reinforced in the Quantified Self movement whereby individuals constantly self-track their vital health signs (blood pressure, heart rate, temperature, etc) and plot them against their self-observed moods or immediately after eating, physical exercise or sexual activity.27 Smartphone applications such as Vine now allow individuals to share immediately a range of information not only on their current activity but also on their immediate surroundings with their personal networks in a constant stream of video. While some may argue that such developments liberate the individual others will sense employers and corporations sniffing at the potential use.28 Health insurance companies may take particular interest. IBM already has a tool to identify “unhappy” employees.

It is not only before the employment contract is offered that the boundary between personal and work lives has been blurred by the onset of WBC and social media. Returning to the case of teachers, the current workload dispute has been partly fuelled by an insistence by the government that teachers adhere to new “Teachers’ Standards”. The new government issued standards, effective from September 2012, aim to “assess teachers’ performance against the standards to a level that is consistent with what should reasonably be expected of a teacher in the relevant role and at the relevant stage of their career”.30 Headteachers are expected to refer to the standards when making their judgements and to implement those judgements through the appraisal system. The colour coded SIMS information, described earlier, forms part of the performance assessment alongside a range of 25 competencies, which include a section on personal and professional conduct. It is this latter clause which affects the private sphere of teachers’ lives beyond the boundaries of the school gate and which focuses on “not undermining fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect, and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs”. There is no further definition of “fundamental British values” given but the inference is that any action outside the political mainstream might fall foul of an individual headteacher’s judgement.

Most trenchantly, the issue of teachers engaging with social media such as Facebook and Twitter more generally is very much to the fore. Argyll and Bute Council in Scotland has already banned its employed teachers from blogging about work after an incident when one head of department in a school blogged about three boys with Asperger syndrome in her class.

The case sits alongside other more high-profile dismissals of bloggers or internet-based social networkers that have already occurred in the UK, with employees of Waterstones bookstore, Argos retailers, the Prison Service, and Virgin Airways, to name a few. Such “inappropriate” use has usually involved alleged abusive remarks by employees directed at clients, customers or service users. However, for teachers and lecturers the problem of separating the public from the private is particularly severe. A US based sociology professor, for example, perhaps naively, allowed “friends of friends” to see her Facebook musings about students, leading to complaints from students. The professor was suspended, and, as her university policy document correctly if not sympathetically stated, social media sites “blur the lines between personal voice and institutional voice…privacy does not exist in the world of social media”.

The most high profile instance of an employer’s use of social media against employees came in the 2011-12 British Airways (BA) cabin crew dispute. The cabin crews’ tightly organised union Bassa (an affiliate of Unite) had organised 22 separate strike days and was beginning to have a real impact on CEO Willy Walsh’s ability to run the airline. In a desperate retaliatory move one weekend BA management moved decisively against both Bassa and individual supporters of the strike in a series of disciplinary moves aimed at the use of Facebook, email networks and text messages. The strikes had begun to force BA onto the back foot, so much so that BA were forced to ask pilots to volunteer for cabin crew training to act as strike-breakers. As pilots were being recruited BA made its move against the union activists. More than 40 cabin crew were disciplined as a result of their support for the strikes and 15 were dismissed.

Of the disciplinary cases 18 were connected to Facebook postings, text messages, emails and postings on Bassa or the airline pilots’ Balpa online forum, with three of the 18 specifically concerned with private Facebook postings to “friends”. The union suspected that BA’s internal security force, Asset Protection, had been involved in preparing these cases by covertly gaining access to private postings in email, Facebook or text message form. Despite the bitterness of the strikes, and what could have been said in the “heat of the moment”, the majority of postings chosen for disciplinary action were mild in content. An example is a female cabin crew staff member who asked on Facebook for a list of the pilots who had volunteered for training as strike-breakers. She was charged with bullying and harassment and given a three-year final warning, demoted one grade and barred from promotion. Another male cabin crew member said he had a list of “volunteer” pilots but did not know what to do with the list as “he knew one of them personally”. He was dismissed. A second male staff member was dismissed after he used the word “scab” in a text message sent in error to someone he thought was a friend.

Pilots posting much more derogatory material against the strikers received no disciplinary action, or at maximum mild rebuke. An example is a male pilot and Balpa representative who posted on Balpa forum “F*k off Bassa you lying malevolent bunch of hypocritical self-serving c*ts”. He received an informal verbal warning. All of those dismissed were known to be active strikers and these included a female cabin crew member and Bassa representative who was sacked for “gross misconduct” for the “way she represented” each of those members disciplined.

Such is the “dark side” of employers’ use of WBC and social media to monitor, spy and discipline worker activists. But what of the other side? Can workers collectively use social media and WBC to organise and fight back against the power of capital?

* Distributed discourse?

The self-disciplining effect of the Panopticon envisaged in the workplace and beyond by Foucault has already been described. For some commentators this nightmare is reality, with predictions of apocalyptic total management control in the workplace as every move and every mistake by employees is monitored and instantly recorded with the aid of information technology. ICT and WBC, in this perspective, increase the intensity of this effect through their extended reach over and beyond the traditional tools of compliance and control. Two academics at the London School of Economics, Sue Fernie and David Metcalf, for example, refer to the effects of computer telephony as rendering “perfect” the control in the hands of management in a call centre environment.

Their account of such an Orwellian nightmare has been rebutted by Phil Taylor and Peter Bain, who focus on the resistance offered by employees within call centres by individual or collective acts of sabotage and defiance.35 The authors identify a contradictory process defined by the tension between quality and quantity of service which allows for call centre workers to overcome the constant monitoring, either by individual acts of resistance, by the use of humour or by joining trade unions to fight collectively for better working conditions and pay. Measurements of both quality and quantity are, to a greater or lesser extent, dependent on employee goodwill rather than simple obedience if labour power is to be converted to the maximum surplus value. Orwellian scenarios must therefore be tempered with an understanding of how workers fight back against such subjugation.

We must also consider the impact that WBC has had on the ability of employees to “turn the tables” on employers by monitoring and exposing employers’ own (mis)behaviour and corporate negligence.36 Facebook and Twitter offer an unmediated and immediate tool for this “synoptic” effect and even a form of “reverse panopticon” whereby employer and corporate behaviour might be moderated. For individuals, the opportunity, means and propensity to whistleblow on the employer may be correspondingly enhanced, adding to already existing employer uncertainty towards policy approach. Most existing legislation on whistleblowing continues to be framed to address “conventional” forms. However, internet-based activity complicates matters. Instead of whistleblowing through third parties (such as the traditional media, trade unions, government regulators or employer-supported ‘hotlines’), WBC enhancement allows the immediate release of (unverified) information to a worldwide audience. Such information is therefore unmediated and unrestricted and has exploded not only in the Wikileaks/Bradley Manning/Julian Assange and Edward Snowden cases but also more generally in exposures of employer malpractice and corruption.

In presenting this counter-mobilising perspective, some commentators have returned to Foucault who links language, discourse and power in an “order of discourse”. This perspective presents a case for opportunities for collective action from below in a process of “distributed discourse” enhanced by the networked effect of providing counter-information and campaigning against the hegemony wielded by capital in globalised production systems:

Global organisation and coordination need no longer be solely the province of large companies, governments and international agencies. Global communication is now a routine everyday practice and it provides for a new speed or velocity in campaigning and bargaining.

It is also claimed that distributed discourse has the power not only to upset power relations against corporations within the global economy but also in the trade unions as rank and file networks can utilise WBC to challenge the bureaucratic conservatism of trade union leaderships. An oft-quoted example is the case of the long-running Liverpool dockers’ dispute (1995-8), and their use of the internet to create solidarity networks beyond the shores of the UK. It was argued that a polyphonic discourse of the oppressed and excluded was the key to undermining authority because such diffused discourses “are different from the discourse of power”.39 The order of discourse in trade unions, it is argued, is constructed by union leaders and expressed through channels of communication that reinforce leadership, hierarchical authority and the centralisation of power. The distributed discourse enabled by WBC, according to the model proposed by John Hogan and others, would thus break the cycle, and allow alternative voices to be heard from below and alternative discourses of struggle to emerge.

The advent of internet based communication, and then more interactive Web 2.0 technology, did spur a surge in trade union use of the web that allowed space for many commentators to champion the cause of cyberunionism. Contributions to these debates have been generally optimistic in terms of the potential of ICT and WBC to invigorate collective action.

Shostak’s recipe for cyberunionism encouraged unions to “get on board” the new information superhighway, promising a future which “enables unions to improve their image and vision of a successful 21st century union, including long-term goals, strategic options, and priorities needed to come closer to matching their profile”. This nirvana of trade union internet professionalism would be achieved through a programme of action that included-among other things-regular surveys of members’ opinions “to learn in depth their needs and wants, their dreams and nightmares”, and to learn from the rank and file by regular email correspondence with union officers that ‘promises personal responses within 72 hours”.

Cyberunionism was the promised vehicle not only for enhancing the union’s communications approach and sharpening debate about industrial strategy, but also a link to both a new wave global internationalism and a reinvigoration of the rank and file. A foremost advocate of internet internationalism is London-based Eric Lee, who established the LabourStart website in 1997 and had 500 subscribers a year later. The purpose of LabourStart was to provide a source of information and campaigning for global labour concerns and disputes. By 2010 the site had over 60,000 subscribers and was offered in 23 language editions with an average of 250 stories per day. PayPal is now used for solidarity fundraising. Alongside LabourStart, similar sites have emerged across the world such as Radio Labour, Labor Notes and UnionBook, some endorsed officially by trade union federations and some independent initiatives from labour activists.44 Unions have also used WBC extensively in anti-corporate campaigning, a good example being Making Change at Walmart established by the United Food & Commercial Workers International union in the USA.45 Trade unions themselves have also made extensive use of WBC employing the full range of multimedia to add impact. However, while union use of WBC has expanded, there are clear limitations to what “distributed discourse” can achieve, most especially with respect to strengthening the rank and file’s hand against conservative trade union bureaucracies.

* A tool for rank and file activists?

To rehearse the argument, the proponents of “distributed discourse” suggest that WBC will enable rank and file union members to organise and to obstruct the dead hand of conservative trade union bureaucracies by spreading information and challenging “official” discourse. Or, as Hogan and others have argued, new distributed technologies might: “not only permit the reshaping of power between capital and labour but also permit the reshaping of power within the labour movement itself”.46 However, there are a number of strong reasons to suggest this is far too optimistic a prediction. First, as Eric Lee himself has alluded to, there is a limit on the amount of information activists can digest and process, and internet fatigue may be apparent.47 Second, as others have highlighted, the problems of virtual passivity encompassed in the phenomena of “clicktivism” and “slacktivism” may give us a false impression of the power of WBC to convert ideas into action. In this critique, real time, real space activity is substituted by passive, virtual and physically isolating activity to the extent it is enacted through screen and keyboard interaction alone.

Slacktivism is cited by Evgeny Morozov as:

* Feel-good online activism that has zero political or social impact. It gives those who participate in “slacktivist” campaigns an illusion of having a meaningful impact on the world without demanding anything more than joining a Facebook group.

Micah White describes Clicktivism as a:

* Model of activism [that] uncritically embraces the ideology of marketing. It accepts that the tactics of advertising and market research used to sell toilet paper can also build social movements. This manifests itself in an inordinate faith in the power of metrics to quantify success. Thus, everything digital activists do is meticulously monitored and analysed. The obsession with tracking clicks turns digital activism into clicktivism.

Third, and most importantly, in terms of collective workplace action and solidarity, we must assess the ability of WBC to transcend not just the content but more importantly the form of power and authority in trade unions.50 A recent review of trade union use of the internet and WBC more generally concluded that trade union members are “more intense users of ICTs than their non-unionised counterparts”.51 However, the fact that union activists are more likely to use WBC should not automatically lead to the conclusion that unions will revive or that rank and file activists will be able to challenge union bureaucracies more effectively. We are under an illusion if we believe, for example, that only militant rank and file activists will make use of WBC. It is just as likely that trade union bureaucracies or right wing activists will effectively utilise information networks. Thus in the recent election for Unite general secretary Jerry Hicks and Len McCluskey both utilised the full range of platforms (websites, email listings, podcasts, videos, Facebook groups, tweets) to project their campaign. Sally Hunt, general secretary of the college lecturers’ union, UCU, utilised email surveys of members to attempt to reinforce her authority over the union’s left wing activists by circumventing branches and regional organisations and other democratic structures of the union.

Unite at official level used effective WBC to campaign against Willy Walsh and British Airways in the cabin crew dispute, including videos and spoof websites (“Brutish Airways”). A Facebook page was also established at unofficial level in March 2010 called “Support BA cabin crew’s Democratic right to strike!” which drew in more than 3,500 “likes” (followers of the page).53 The vast majority of posts on the site were supportive of the strikes, and the site regularly linked to press reports and, most importantly, fed full information of flight cancellations during strike days in an effort to counter the more customer “appropriate” tone and content communicated by BA management. A small minority of postings were hostile to the strikes, and went alongside a separate Facebook group for BA anti-strike “volunteers” established in May 2010. However, this particular site did not manage to take off and soon fell dormant with just ten “likes”. Probably the most important electronic forum used during the dispute remained the cabin crew union Bassa email forum, which acted to consolidate feelings of solidarity and give the geographically dispersed membership of Bassa a sense of common identity against the employer. Despite this internet battle the real power in the dispute rested on decisions taken at mass meetings of the cabin crew staff, but even this was not enough to ward off the ability of the Unite leadership under Tony Woodley to push through a deal with BA that compromised some of the demands established by the cabin crew themselves.
There are distinct limits to processes of distributed discourse. WBC may well act to engage more people in debate, and counter-information is spread and digested more quickly. But ability to challenge union hierarchies or change the direction of policy still rests with winning the majority argument in collective open debate. In this respect WBC may act as a useful tool to disseminate information and widen discussion, but may have distinct limitations in its ability to upset or transform democratic structures of debate and decision-making.

In conclusion we may argue that, far from being immaterial, the struggle over WBC and social media at the point of production is very much part of our material world. WBC and social media can be additional organisational tools in workers’ armoury against the employer and in the struggle for socialist ideas. However, it is not an open field. In particular, capital has mounted an offensive against subversion of its interests and has embraced WBC further to intensify work and close down the boundary between work time and personal time, and between the public and private sphere. As important to understand is that power to act within unions remains dependent (correctly so) on internal democratic procedures of decision-making. Social media, precisely because of its open and unmediated nature, is likely to be at odds with the principle of internal union democracy.54 This is an especially important point if we wish to understand how the rank and file may use WBC to challenge both global capital and collaborative trade union leaderships.

Rather than depend on the nirvana of WBC to rescue collective organisation we must recognise that rank and file independence and strength are based on really existing networks of militants based at the point of production, sharing and generalising from collective experience towards sectional and then cross-workplace solidarity. This implies a leap of consciousness for which historically the role of socialists as leaders of rank and file movements has proved crucial.55 In such a situation face to face contact and argument, democratic debate and mass meetings are the lifeblood of the social trust and reciprocity necessary to build a movement that transcends the virtual into the real.”

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Chris Cook on Property Protocols

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
17th March 2014


Chris Cook:

“The first thing to say is that – as that notable jurist and pedant Jeremy Bentham pointed out – “Property” is not an object.

It is to be observed, that in common speech, in the phrase “the object of a man’s property”, the words “the object of “are commonly left out; and by an ellipsis, which, violent as it is, is now become more familiar than the phrase at length, they have made that part of it which consists of the words “a man’s property” perform the office of the whole.

- ie Property is a relationship: it is the bundle of rights and obligations which links a subject person to an object.

Secondly, we have become used, at least West of Suez (I shall come back to East of Suez), to the use of the absolute property rights of ‘dominium’ which dates back to the Romans, with roots with the Greeks, and – where I agree with Pirsig that everything went wrong – with Aristotlean ‘subject/object’ metaphysics.

So we are used to two either/or absolute property rights of ownership:

(a) absolute permanent ownership of infinite duration, such as freehold land, and ‘equity’ shares in a joint stock company which confer what has been called the Divine Right of Capital;

(b) absolute temporary use for a defined term (‘date certain’) such as leasehold land, and dated interest-bearing debt or loan-stock such as preference shares..

But of course, it’s not a matter of ‘either/or’ is it? There is at least one further property right which must be accommodated, which is that of use for an indeterminate period, such as an ‘evergreen’ tenancy at will agreement to occupy land or the undated prepay credit instrument which is what actually constitutes currency.

In Scotland (uniquely as far as I know), this indeterminacy occurs in criminal law in the fact that there are three verdicts: ‘guilty’, ‘not guilty’ and ‘not proven’.

But as Martin Hay has pointed out, in his fascinating work on what he calls Chiralkine Logic there are in fact FOUR states, because the zero indeterminate property right may be resolved into two ‘chiral’ states of both/and and neither/nor.

The four states defining economic interaction are:

(0,0) = Not Mine/Not Yours;

(1,0) = Mine/Not Yours

(0,1) = Yours/Not Mine

(1,1) = Both Mine and Yours

But lets park that concept, important though it is, due to the way it will enable complete dis-intermediation in data flows. Unfortunately, Martin is applying his Chiralkine Logic to the existing paradigm of absolute property rights, illustrated by the fact that he has applied for a patent to protect the transaction engine he is building, but which is hopelessly mired in complexity as a result of trying to accommodate existing conflicted property rights, when the system can be defined without them.

But I digress.

My work for fifteen years or more has been in respect of the protocols which define property rights, and the development of protocols which work better in an era of direct instantaneous connection than the conflicting twin peaks of finance capital which essentially put us in the shit we are in.

I have come to the conclusion that these protocols are to be found not in the Western absolutes and Rule of Law but rather in the use of the consensual interactive associative protocols to be found East of Suez.

As has been said, there are as many Sumo wrestlers in the US as there are attorneys in Japan, and that is because when trust is assumed, and ‘face’ matters, it is an order of magnitude easier to write simpler consensual agreements to a common purpose, than to write prescriptive adversarially negotiated contracts based upon the necessity to protect the interests of the holders of conflicting absolute property rights.

As Lessig puts it, Law is Code.

Consensual machine programmable interactive protocols are already emerging, and I use the word Nondominium to describe how these may be used to define rights to use and usufruct in a way that replaces dominant positive rights over others, with negative veto rights.

When linked to generic use of the prepay (‘stock’) credit instrument – with indeterminate duration – which pre-dates the banking system, I believe that a new economic paradigm will rapidly come to replace the existing paradigm and dispel the Myth of Debt.”

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