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Archive for 'Culture & Ideas'

POC21: Eco-hacking a Fossil-Free, Collaborative Future

photo of David Bollier

David Bollier
8th October 2015

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At the upcoming COP Summit in Paris (the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change), no one expects the world’s governments to make serious headway against global climate change. Neoliberal-obsessed governments are more concerned with propping up collapsing capitalist structures than in reducing carbon emissions (which have doubled over the past generation).  Corporations are more intent on preserving their market share and investors in preserving their net worth than in entertaining an environmentally benign economic paradigm shift.  We can be sure, following COP21, however, that world leaders will declare the event a success and let loose their own copious emissions of PR blather.

Let’s face it – we’re more or less on our own.  The impetus for change has to come from the bottom and the local.  Which brings me to the inspirational work of POC21 – Proof of Concept 21 – which stands for “a proof of concept that the future we need can be built with our own hands.” For five weeks – August 15 to September 20 – more than 100 makers, designers, engineers, scientists and geeks converged on Château de Millemont, an ancient castle near Paris.  Their mission:  to work together in developing prototype machines that could radically reduce our dependence on carbon fuels.

The idea of POC21 is to invent inexpensive, modular household devices, farm tools, energy systems and other appropriate technologies that can be replicated cheaply, repaired easily and copied and shared by anyone. “Imagine a new breed of open source products available in your neighborhood,” POC organizers have announced. “This is our vision.”

Among the tools they have in mind:  portable solar power systems, low-waste self-filtering showers, DIY resource-sufficient homes, urban food production systems, affordable electric bicycles and human-powered agricultural machines.  From nearly 200 proposed projects, the POC21 organizers selected twelve prototypes to be developed during the innovation camp.

Consider the Bicitractor project:

Regular tractors do not go well with organic farms. They are expensive and they pollute. They force farmers to take loans from banks and depend on big oil. Bicitractor on the other hand is a small pedal-powered tractor built so small and midsized farms can grow our food without polluting. Each tractor can use multiple modules with different tools for pronging, drilling, weeding. In addition to that, its open source, efficient, and really affordable to build.

Or consider Faircap, a portable antibacterial water filter that can screw on to the top of any plastic bottle, allowing people to safely drink from a stream or pond. Or Sunzilla, a diesel generator without the diesel, that uses solar photovoltaic and can be easily to installed by anyone. Another POC21 project is a $30 wind turbine that uses “upcycled” parts to generate electrical current at 1 kW in a 60 km/h wind.  Anyone can assemble it with a few common hand tools.

The point of all these prototypes is to meet real needs in ways that get beyond the producer/consumer dualism and the unsustainable waste of current business models. The goal is to get beyond planned obsolescence and strict patents and copyrights that prevent people from improving and freely disseminating the tech. By producing things that are durable, versatile, inexpensive, locally sourceable and environmentally benign, the POC21 systems seeks to build basic tools for a new sort of economy.

Convened by Ouishare and Open State, POC21 fashioned itself as an “innovation camp” to make “open-source, sustainable products the new normal.” Here is a video trailer for POC21, “The World We Need.” And here is a story about the project in The Guardian, by Tristan Copley-Smith.

It’s heroic that eco-geeks are stepping up to pioneer new open-source hardware that, if replicated widely, could have enormous impact. But it’s also sad that prevailing institutions of government and business are so indifferent or hostile to exploring paradigm-shifting technologies. Planet-saving innovation devolves to hackers, dismissed as marginal until they’re not. So COP21 delegates will broker the terms of continued planetary decline; POC21 will push forward some intriguing here-and-now solutions.


Posted in Activism, Commons, Commons Transition, Cooperatives, Copyright/IP, Culture & Ideas, Ethical Economy, Featured Movement, Networks, Open Content, Open Hardware and Design, Open Innovation, Open Standards, Original Content, P2P Art and Culture, P2P Business Models, P2P Collaboration, P2P Development, P2P Ecology, P2P Energy, P2P Lifestyles, P2P Manufacturing, P2P Research, P2P Technology, Peer Property, Sharing | No Comments »

Now Organizing: A Chicago Chamber of Commons

photo of David Bollier

David Bollier
8th October 2015


The coming together of commons-oriented projects seems to be intensifying.  Even as the Le Temps des Communes festival in dozens of Francophone cities convenes thousands of commoners, an organizing meeting for a Chicago Chamber of Commons in planned for Saturday, October 10. (You can register for the event here.)

This idea has been kicking around for a while – see this 2013 blog post  – but it seems that the folks in Chicago are serious about making it work. They want to foster deeper collaboration among the many groups focused on shared ownership, the collaborative economy, co-operatives and other mutual-benefit initiatives. The organizers say they want to “connect social entrepreneurs, L3C’s, B-Corps and other enterprises focused on triple bottom line, sharing-economy approaches to commerce and community development.” People involved with economic transformation, environmental protection, community life and culture are also invited.

The day will start with a consensus workshop that will try to come up with a shared definition of the commons. This will be followed with discussions for startup plans for a Chicago Commons, which organizers hope will be the first of many Chambers of Commons across the nation and globe.

In May, Huffington Post writer Sally Duros wrote a piece about the envisioned Chamber of Commerce in which she quoted Michel Bauwens, founder of the P2P Foundation:

“The old way is this. Here’s a problem. We need resources to solve that problem. We create a hierarchy to direct resources at the problem,” Bauwens says.

“Here’s another way. There are enough people in the world with time, skills and energy who would be willing to work to solve that problem. The new solution is to create a commons and a platform that allows people to self-aggregate and collaborate to solve that problem.”

Here’s hoping that the organizing meeting is productive!


Posted in Collective Intelligence, Commons, Commons Transition, Conferences, Cooperatives, Culture & Ideas, Economy and Business, Ethical Economy, P2P Action Items, P2P Business Models, P2P Collaboration, P2P Development, Peer Property | No Comments »

The Future of Work: Owning What We Share

photo of Nathan Schneider

Nathan Schneider
7th October 2015


The latest entry in a special project in which business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace.

The culture surrounding the Internet has a way of changing the meanings of common words. “Democratizing” now means that more people can book air travel or buy stocks online, rather than the older connotations of jury trials or ballot boxes. “Disruption” is suddenly an unabashedly good thing—referring not to the cataclysmic layoffs and displacement that occur when one industry undermines another, but only to the happy story of a David beating a Goliath. Then there is “sharing.” We used to share common resources with the people in our communities. Now sharing is the word we use for paying a tech start-up to connect us with people who, in turn, we can pay for using their house, car, or Legos.

The so-called sharing economy was barely born before many people began to recognize its slogans about trust and relationships as a rent-seeking ruse. But this ruse is still transforming how we work. Labor-sharing platforms like Uber and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk have used the fact that they are on the Internet to bypass both customs and laws about what constitutes fair employment. They’re poised to set workers’ rights back a century or more. But, thanks to that very same Internet, there has never been a better time to build an economy in which participants can share real ownership and real control.

Imagine how Mechanical Turk, a digital clearinghouse for short-term gigs, would be different if the thousands of people working on it were also co-owners of the platform. They could use decision-making apps like DemocracyOS or Loomio to determine the policies that employers would have to follow. They could manage their shares online. When the platform does well, they could decide how much to pay themselves in dividends and how much to invest in R&D. They would have every reason to be enthusiastic advocates of the platform with potential clients. Its success would be their success. How, too, would Facebook be different if its users owned it and could decide what is done with their data? What about Uber?

All of this is possible. The Denver-based worker cooperative Green Taxi, for instance, has its own app for hailing a cab—the convenience of Uber, except drivers aren’t at the mercy of rules set by a faraway company that takes a hefty cut. A little more sci-fi is La’Zooz, an Israel-based ride-sharing system that uses the technology underlying Bitcoin to make co-owners of drivers and riders alike. As the on-demand “gig economy’’ leaves us with jobs that are lower-paying and more precarious than their predecessors, cooperatives are a way of putting participants first. With the help of the Bay Area’s Sustainable Economies Law Center, a company called Loconomics is creating a worker-owned alternative to TaskRabbit.

For just about every old-fashioned corporate platform we rely on, there’s a more cooperative way of doing things. The Amazon-like marketplace Fairmondo, based in Germany, is owned by its users rather than by a near-monopoly waging war on book publishers. Federated social media networks like Diaspora and Friendica show that we can have all the functionality of Facebook and Twitter without losing control over the personal information we share.

There are offline reasons why the big online platforms are not generally like this; it’s not for lack of technology. The most popular financing model among tech companies is to sell ownership and control to moneyed investors, whose primary interest is in a big, fast profit. Venture capitalists like companies that can grow quickly without having to worry about a lot of workers demanding to be treated humanely. Uber’s investors can’t wait to replace its drivers with self-driving cars.

Walk into the offices of a leading tech company, and one might think that the egalitarian utopia has arrived. Developers scooter around on open floor-plans, choosing how to spend their time in ever-evolving project groups. They talk about “do-ocracy” and “holacracy.” Internet culture has taught us a lot about working collaboratively. But—except for some stock options here and there—this utopia doesn’t extend to ownership or control. In the end, the company’s purpose is to maximize profits for investors who may or may not have any relationship to what it actually does in the world. The Internet’s equalizing front-end obscures a depressingly familiar back-end business model.

We have a choice. We can veer toward Uber and Mechanical Turk, where work is insecure, impersonal, and on someone else’s terms. Or we can create online workplaces that a democratic society deserves. This means that the people who work to cultivate them—whether they’re users at home or programmers in an office—can help make decisions and reap the benefits. This means financing projects through resources that we manage together as a commons, rather than relying on inequality-producing markets. This might also mean deflating a dot-com bubble or two.

A more cooperative Internet can only happen if we re-align our culture and incentives—as well as changing the meanings of the words we use. Governments, for example, can give priority to contractors that practice real democracy in their own governance. The tech press can refuse to celebrate disruptions that don’t give workers more control over their lives. And sharing-economy boosters can insist that sharing must extend to ownership.

This is a practical challenge more than an ideological one. The goal is not to enforce a rigid orthodoxy. Rather, it’s to have a world in which a can-do young entrepreneur—the kind who wants nothing more than to create something new and excellent—will conclude that the best way to proceed is to practice democracy.

For the Future of Work, a special project from the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace, and what anxieties and possibilities they might produce.

Nathan Schneider writes about technology and the economy for publications including Vice, the New Republic, and the Nation. He is co-organizer of “Platform Cooperativism: The Internet, Ownership, Democracy,” a convergence at the New School on November 13-14.

Originally published in the Pacific Standard



Posted in Collective Intelligence, Commons, Commons Transition, Cooperatives, Economy and Business, Ethical Economy, Free Software, Guest Post, Mobile Developments, Open Innovation, Open Models, Open Standards, P2P Business Models, P2P Collaboration, P2P Development, P2P Infrastructures, P2P Technology, Peer Property | No Comments »

Sustainable Development: Something New or More of the Same?

photo of Charles Eisenstein

Charles Eisenstein
7th October 2015


Two years ago when he was 14, my son Matthew grew six inches. Last year he only grew two inches, and this year he has only grown half an inch. Should I be worried?

Of course not. At a certain stage of maturity, quantifiable physical growth slows and stops, and a new mode of development takes over.

Imagine that I did not understand that, and fed Matthew growth hormones in a desperate attempt to keep him growing taller. And imagine that this effort was harming his health and depleting my resources. “I have to find a way to make his growth sustainable,” I would say. “Maybe I can use herbal hormones.”

Our civilization is at a similar transition point in the nature of its development. For thousands of years we have grown — in population, in energy consumption, in land under cultivation, in bits of data, in economic output. Today we are beginning to realize that this kind of growth is no longer possible, nor even desirable; that it can be maintained only at greater and greater cost to human beings and the planet.

The time has come to shift to a different kind of development, development that is qualitative rather than quantitative, better and not more. I wish our policy elites would understand this. Case in point: the new U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) convey real concern and care for the environment. Yet at the same time they are wedded to the ideology of economic growth — more GDP, more industrial infrastructure, roads, ports, etc. — without considering whether other forms of development could better meet their goals of poverty elimination and ecological sustainability.

The way out of poverty for the “least developed countries,” the SDG prescribes, is to develop export industries to raise GDP (targeting 7% growth). Unfortunately, in many countries this strategy has proven to be a recipe for more poverty, not less. The wealth usually ends up in the hands of local elites, the corporations who extract the resources, and the financial institutions that lend the money for the development. How else to make one’s country “attractive to investors” but to guarantee that they will extract more money than they put in? It is no wonder that while global GDP has nearly tripled since 1990, the number of people suffering food insecurity has also risen, and the middle class has stopped growing or even shrank in many countries.

Then there are the environmental consequences. What are these countries going to export, if not timber, mining products, and other natural resources, along with raw labor power? What else could the roads and ports be used for? The SDGs propose more of the same while hoping for a different result – a good definition of insanity.

A closer examination of what economic growth really is will illuminate the point. Economic growth, as conventionally measured, refers only to goods and services exchanged for money. That means that when indigenous peasants or self-sufficient villagers stop growing and sharing their own food, stop building their own houses, stop making their own entertainment, etc., and instead go to work at factories or plantations and pay for all of these things, GDP rises and they are considered better off. Their cash incomes may have risen from nearly nothing to five dollars a day, but they are now at the mercy of global markets. When commodity prices plummet (as they are now), when their nation’s currencies fall (as they are now), local prices rise and they are plunged into destitution. This would not happen if they retained some independence from the global commodity economy.

Only if we take the standard development model for granted is economic growth a necessity to alleviate poverty. In a system where all money is created as interest-bearing debt, it is a mathematical certainty that poverty and wealth inequality will increase unless income (the ability to service debt) grows faster than the debt itself. The income of many countries and people is now falling, leaving only one option to make debt payments: austerity. Austerity and (conventional) development are two sides of the same coin. Both are geared to opening a country to export its wealth. The prescriptions of austerity – privatization of public assets, removal of trade barriers, removal of labor protections, deregulation, cutting of pensions and wages – are precisely the same as the neoliberal prescription for economic development. These measures make a country more “attractive to investment.”

So let’s stop taking this system for granted. First, let’s address poverty by encouraging resiliency and independence from global markets, in particular through local food autonomy, local control of resources, decentralized political institutions, and decentralized infrastructure that isn’t predicated on generating foreign exchange. Second, let’s remove the underlying driver of the compulsion to monetize – the national and private debts that have been the prime implements of colonialism since explicit colonialism ended in the 1960s. (The SDGs, laudably, make mention of debt reduction. This needs to happen on a massive scale.) Third, let’s start talking about fundamental reform of our broken, debt-based financial system, which both drives economic growth and requires growth to survive. It throws everyone into competition with everyone else, propelling a “race to the bottom” that cannot end until the entire planet has been converted into product.

Switching from chemical to herbal growth stimulants (“green” or “sustainable” development) isn’t going to solve the problem. If development equals growth, then “sustainable development” is an oxymoron. Poverty and ecocide are baked into the cake. It is time to transition to a world in which wealth no longer means more and more.

Originally published in the Huffington Post.


Posted in Activism, Campaigns, Collective Intelligence, Commons, Commons Transition, Culture & Ideas, Economy and Business, Ethical Economy, Guest Post, Open Models, P2P Action Items, P2P Business Models, P2P Collaboration, P2P Development, P2P Ecology, P2P Localization, P2P Movements, Peer Property | No Comments »

Robin Hood Coop funds 3 commons building projects

photo of Stacco Troncoso

Stacco Troncoso
6th October 2015

Great news from Robin Hood Coop. Needless to say, we’re very excited about continuing with our part of the CIC/Commons Transition project, and we’d like to thank the board at Robin Hood for having chosen it. This press release was originally published on the Robin Hood Coop blog. You can read the full text of our proposal here, or through the links below.

Robin Hood Coop is proud to announce its first round of funding for commons producing projects. The coop supports Casa Nuvem in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, with 5000 euros, the P2P Foundation’s project with the Catalan Integral Cooperative and Commons Transition in Spain with 4000 euros, and the Radio Schizoanalytique and the Steki in Northern Greece with 6000 euros.

Robin Hood Asset Management Coop was founded in 2012 as an investment bank for the precariat. The goal of the coop is to build new economic space by giving its members access to investment banking (just 60€ is enough) and by allocating a part of the profits to building the commons through sponsoring projects.

Casa Nuvem (see also here) is an autonomous self managed space in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, resulting from the convergence between art, activism, sound, audio-visual and new technologies experimentation. It was born early 2013 from the desire to think and build the future collectively, and to provide grounds for resilience and mobilization in the context of Rio’s wide social injustice and lack of basic rights, continuously intensified by the state policies related to the mega events such as the upcoming Olympics next year. Casa Nuvem is a place of work, research and production that hosts several independent collaborative projects focused on the creation of new exchanges between people and the public space, guided by a festive occupation of the city. Regular actions, workshops, seminars and other open activities are organized in the house, besides frequent interventions in outside target locations. It cooperates intensively with other groups and actors in a network of interactions that values above all the respect towards differences, respect for freedom of expression, freedom of the body, multiplicity of gender, the right to the city and alternative mobility.
(Project proposal)

The P2P Foundation in involved in a practical, grassroots effort to animate a Commons Transition strategy, in real time and real community. The foundation is working as a team with the Catalan Integral Cooperative (aka the CIC) to achieve a self-managed, post-capitalist society based on P2P principles and environmental and social realities. The ultimate goal is to realize a well-expressed, researched and tested set of plans and proposals, ultimately providing concrete examples in real time. In the project, CIC expands and implements the theoretical material proposed by the P2PF in the Commons Transition platform, and the P2PF produces an updated body of work to reflect the experience and shares it with other collectives.
(Project proposal)

Radio Schizonalaytique and the Steki are a project in the Skouries-­Kakkavos mountains in Northern Greece, where the Canadian “low-­cost” gold mining company Eldorado owns and operates mining sites. Local communities have been organized against the construction of an open pit mine and processing plant since 2006. After a house built to monitor the activities of the mine was destroyed, the main organizers transformed an empty storefront into a community action center for hosting workshops, lectures, screenings and cultural events, and as a social center to nurture the creation of a sustainable future for the region. One of the key features of the Steki is the online and FM radio project “Radio Schizoanalitique”, a collaborative project between the activists in Megali Panagia and artists in Berlin, designed to break the control the mining company and its proponents have on the local media.
(Project proposal)

Robin Hood Coop is an activist hedge fund with a twist. Individuals who buy shares become members and decide how the coop is run. One member, one vote. Per the Robin Hood principle, part of the profit generated by the fund is invested into projects building the commons. Third, the money put into the fund is placed in the stock exchange by a big data mining algorithm.

During its first two years of operation, 2012 – 2014, the coop’s portfolio was able to generate enough profit so that the coop decided to allocate 15 000 euros to projects that build and augment the commons. Members of the coop made proposals of projects to fund during March 2015. In total there were 49 proposals. The selection was done in two steps. First, a committee of three members was chosen by lottery out of volunteers. The committee went through all the proposals, discussed on criteria and negotiated, and came to an unanimous agreement of suggesting 3 projects to be funded. The committee’s proposal was then ratified by a general member’s meeting of the coop.

For more info, contact: projects@robinhoodcoop.org



Posted in Activism, Commons, Commons Transition, Cooperatives, Culture & Ideas, Ethical Economy, Guest Post, Networks, Open Content, Open Models, P2P Action Items, P2P Collaboration, P2P Development | No Comments »

If Thomas Edison was Alive Today, The US would Ban Electricity to Protect Lantern Makers

photo of Stacco Troncoso

Stacco Troncoso
6th October 2015


John Robb, writing for HomeFree America, examines the dangers of state-enfoced monopolies.

There’s a growing majority of business owners in the US who would rather cheat that compete (despite what you might be thinking, it wasn’t always this way in the US).

Business owners willing to bribe a politician in order to protect their company from competition.

Most recently, we’ve seen Michigan, Texas, New Jersey, Maryland, New Mexico, and Iowa block Tesla Motors, the electric car company, from selling directly to customers in the state.

In New Jersey’s case, the Republican governor, Chris Christie, claimed he was taking this action in order to protect consumers from the perils of direct sales.  The result was legislation that dictated that all cars must be sold through dealer networks.

“This administration does not find it appropriate to unilaterally change the way cars are sold in New Jersey without legislation…” New Jersey Governor, Chris Christie’s spokesman.

It was obvious why New Jersey did this.

Tesla is building a revolutionary product.

It’s not revolutionary because it is a well designed and reliable car (it’s has topped the ratings on Consumer Reports in the past).

Its revolutionary because it greatly improves the economics of driving. First off, it’s a fully electric car, not a hybrid car that uses gasoline and electricity.

This means it costs less to drive, a lot less. Based on current gasoline and electricity prices, it costs 90 percent less to run an electric car than it does a gasoline car. That’s an important savings for every American household.

It turns refueling from $70 weekly (or biweekly) visit to the local gas station into a $7 event. It’s a savings that could easily provide tens of thousands of dollars in savings to the owner over the life of the car (a friend of mine who owns a Tesla, saved $6,000 in fuel costs in the first year of ownership).

However, that savings is not the improvement that got it into trouble in New Jersey. Tesla is also trying to improve the economics of maintaining cars by changing how we buy them.

Here’s how the company’s CEO, Elon Musk, explains it:

“I have made it a principle within Tesla that we should never attempt to make servicing a profit center. It does not seem right to me that companies try to make a profit off customers when their product breaks.” Elon Musk, the Chairman and CEO of Tesla, in a letter to New Jersey.

From this statement alone, it’s easy to see the influence of the American Way on the decision making going on at Tesla.

Musk is driving his company forward based on the force of moral conviction and a belief in a vision of a better future for all Americans.

To make this future a reality, Tesla sells its cars directly to the customer to cut out the costs of the dealer network. The company can do this because since it doesn’t need a dealer repair network to keep its cars running. Electric cars don’t have spark plugs, belts, oil filters, and air filters that need constant replacement.

Tesla can diagnose many problems remotely and can often fix them by using updates, patches, and improvements sent over the air automatically to the car.

This is what set off alarm bells in New Jersey. Tesla’s approach to selling cars is clearly the future of the automobile industry and the car dealers know it.

So what happened?  Rather than innovating on ways to build a better future for themselves and their customers, these dealers opted to use clever legal reasoning to rig the game in their favor.

In this case, they campaigned for legal protection from the government based on an outdated state law. The type of protection that makes it possible for them to a profit at the expense of almost every other American.

This corruption isn’t isolated.

Just a few years ago, the financial industry became so corrupt, it led to a global financial disaster. This wasn’t any ordinary market crash. It was a financial disaster so big that it impoverished millions of American families.

Despite the severity, the bankers involved were not punished.  Worse, these banks have received trillions in subsidies from the Federal reserve since the crisis.

Unfortunately, this is yet another sign that bureaucracy and corruption in the US has become so severe, it’s very clear why the middle class that built the modern world is dying.


Posted in Cognitive Capitalism, Collective Intelligence, Commons, Copyright/IP, Culture & Ideas, Economy and Business, Open Hardware and Design, Open Models, Open Standards, P2P Business Models, P2P Collaboration, P2P Development, Peer Property, Sharing | No Comments »

New report by STWR challenges the official discourse on ending global poverty

photo of Rajesh Makwana

Rajesh Makwana
6th October 2015

SDGs - UN celebrations

The Sustainable Development Goals – despite their positive and progressive rhetoric – by no means constitute a transformative agenda for restructuring the global economy and meeting the basic needs of all people within the means of our shared planet.

As we explain in STWR’s latest report, the basic assumptions that define the SDGs discourse – that life is improving for the majority of humanity, that unfettered economic growth and development-as-usual can continue indefinitely into the future, and that the world is on course to completely eradicate poverty by 2030 – are fatally flawed and misleading.

According to estimates highlighted in the report, almost 4.2 billion people still live in severe poverty, and more than 46,000 people die needlessly every day simply because they do not have access to life’s essentials – totalling around 17 million avoidable deaths each year. For how much longer can we allow this daily tsunami of fatalities to continue unabated, while policymakers and agenda-setting institutions are failing to adequately address (or even recognise) the full extent of this global emergency?

The weak outcomes in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development underline how it is futile to place faith in the aspirations and vague commitments of the world’s governments, who continue to follow an outmoded economic paradigm while failing to enact the urgent measures that are necessary to end needless human deprivation within an immediate time-frame.

As the report concludes, now is the time to pursue a strategy for global transformation based on solidarity with the world’s poor through a united demand for governments to guarantee the basic rights set out in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: for adequate food, shelter, healthcare, and social security for all. The responsibility for change falls squarely on the shoulders of us all – ordinary engaged citizens – to march on the streets in enormous numbers and forge a formidable public voice in favour of ending the injustice of hunger and poverty in all its dimensions.

You can read the report here:

Beyond the Sustainable Development Goals: uncovering the truth about global poverty and demanding the universal realisation of Article 25


Posted in Activism, Campaigns, Collective Intelligence, Commons, Commons Transition, Culture & Ideas, Economy and Business, Ethical Economy, Food and Agriculture, Guest Post, Open Content, P2P Action Items, P2P Collaboration, P2P Development, P2P Ecology, P2P Localization, Peer Property, Sharing | No Comments »

The Cryptocurrency-Based Projects That Would Pay Everyone Just for Being Alive

photo of Nathan Schneider

Nathan Schneider
5th October 2015


Creating a decent basic income system now, even if it had only a little money in it at first, would give every potential beneficiary an incentive to see it grow.

For a policy proposal that has an approximately 0 percent chance of being passed by the US Congress right now, universal basic income is an uncommonly hot topic. The idea that every body should receive a paycheck simply for being alive is fast becoming a darling of several factions: tech investors who expect millions of jobs to be automated out of existence, libertarians who see it as a way to avoid the inefficiencies of the traditional welfare state, and certain lefties who have embraced it as part of a way to separate government benefits from work. Dylan Matthews of Vox has produced a string of primers on the subject, and The Atlantic recently profiled a Reddit-famous basic income advocate. Yet the idea goes against everything Republicans are supposed to believe about no free rides, as well as Democrats’ preference for welfare programs designed from on high. Even if there were solid mainstream support for basic income, Congress can barely do anything these days, much less consider a wholesale redistribution of wealth.

This may not be such a dead end for the concept as it seems. Over the past few months, basic income advocates tinkering with Bitcoin and other online currencies have created a series of experiments under the premise that we can start playing with basic income now, whether the government gets in on it or not.

Greg Slepak, for instance, is the sort of Bay Area software developer who reads the Yelp reviews of homeless shelters to learn about their conditions. “We cannot say with a straight face that we provide welfare to Americans,” he has concluded. “We don’t.” His response, of course, is software—in particular, Group Currency, a specification for online currency systems that provide basic income–like distributions of funds to all their users. He believes that the technology underlying Bitcoin—a database called a blockchain, shared among its users without need for central authority—makes this possible in ways that it wasn’t before. When based on a blockchain, money itself can be a shared resource. “For the first time in the internet’s history, mass ownership is possible,” Slepak says. “It gives individuals back their self-determination, back their dignity, back their freedom.”

So far the two projects Slepak recognizes as fitting the Group Currency spec are uCoin, which gives every member of the system a “Universal Dividend,” and (possibly) Swarm, a cryptocurrency investment platform that refers to its payouts for all participants as a basic income. But there are other digital currencies being developed or discussed that include their own variants on the basic income idea, including the Kiwicoin in New Zealand, Cubecoin, Strangecoin, the Worldwide Globals Organization, and the Basic Income Project, LLC. The ones using cryptocurrency have their own subreddit.

In San Diego, Alex Goodwin has more than just a schematic. The initial implementation of his idea, FairShare, is already up and running—it uses a bot on Reddit to pass out portions from a stash of donated bitcoins. Payouts are still small, but they’re there for the taking. Slepak considers the FairShare specification “vague,” but Goodwin wants to develop the project through practice, not theory. He takes as his motto an utterance of Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonymous inventor of Bitcoin: “We shouldn’t delay forever until every possible feature is done.”

Perhaps the most eyecatching digital basic income out there is the one associated with BitNation—”a collaborative platform for do-it-yourself governance” led by Susanne Tarkowski Tempelhof, a Swedish entrepreneur whose resume includes contracting stints in Afghanistan and Libya. The idea is to use blockchain technology to provide opt-in, state-like services free from the constraints of borders. Basic income is to be one of those services alongside pensions, marriage contracts, and “contract enforcement”—though the program has fallen short of its initial $20,000 crowdfunding goal.

Tempelhof is outright opposed to a basic-income scheme coming from a government. “At Bitnation everything is done through voluntary means, rather than through forcing people through the use of—or threat of—violence,” she says. “We believe voluntary participation is the only morally defendable way of doing things.”

In principle, a DIY basic income scheme need not require cryptocurrency. For instance, one could set up a trust of some sort that would take donations and distribute dollars to, say, every active Social Security number. Of course, just the cost of cutting and mailing checks would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. And that’s one of the advantages of using cryptocurrency, which can be transferred at zero or negligible expense. Given the legal ambiguity of cryptocurrencies, too, they offer a means of bypassing the regulations and taxes that would come down on such a fund based in regular money.

Another advantage of cryptocurrencies is that they can accrue value as they become more widely adopted. (The 10,000 bitcoins used to buy a pizza in 2010, when only a few people were on the network, are worth almost $2.4 million now.) When more people have them and use them to exchange with each other, they tend to become more valuable. Basic income, since it involves wide distribution, could be a very good way to make a cryptocurrency valuable. Already, similar kinds of giveaways have been used to create pump-and-dump schemes using Bitcoin clones, where a free giveaway ratchets up the value just long enough for the founders to sell off their coins and make the currency worthless again.

Another downside of these pseudonymous blockchain systems is their vulnerability to what is called a “Sybil attack”: With no obvious way of confirming who is who, one person could claim the payouts for multiple accounts. This is a defining challenge for basic income schemes based on cryptocurrencies, and some have addressed it more convincingly than others.

For those wary of cryptocurrency, there are other ways to fund a basic income program that don’t require an act of Congress. UNICEF has been testing basic income payouts in India; the organization GiveDirectly turns donations into direct cash transfers in poor regions. Alaska already has a basic income–like program with its Permanent Fund, which pays out about $1,000 in dividends from the state’s oil revenues to every resident, every year. This is an idea that progressive businessman Peter Barnes adapted into his “Sky Trust” proposal, which would use carbon permits to curb emissions while putting the fees into a basic-income fund. Barnes calls for using such trusts to treat resources like clean air, intellectual property, and the electromagnetic spectrum as commons—from which we are entitled to ” liberty and dividends for all.”

Barnes’s proposals, however, would require government intervention of one kind or another, such as California’s cap-and trade program. In lieu of that, a Citizen’s Permanent Fund might be seeded with voluntary contributions. Wealthy corporations and individuals could contribute to such a fund as part of their charitable portfolio. Activists could also target entities that take advantage of the commons—energy companies, internet giants, pharmaceutical firms profiting from publicly funded research—and hold sit-ins outside their doors until they pay into the fund. Finance hackers like Robin Hood Minor Asset Management could pitch in by co-opting financial markets.

One way or another, creating a decent basic income system now, even if it had only a little money in it at first, would give every potential beneficiary an incentive to see it grow. We’d get creative, because the more creative we got, the more we’d get. And having such a system (or systems) in place would change the conversation from whether to consider basic income than the more interesting questions of how.

We’d also start to notice some of the things that can go wrong. Cryptocurrency schemes run the risk of leaving us with a system in which you’d get your check only if you play by the founders’ rules. Many of us would also want to make sure that the redistribution goes the right way—from the top down.

Imagine, for instance, that a small group of investors holds half of the tokens in a cryptocurrency, and then distributes the other half to the whole world as a basic income. The value rises as people use the currency, and everyone gets money for nothing—but the investors get a whole lot more, and their behavior could have seismic effects on the currency’s value.

A universal payout to everyone on earth could do much to reverse global inequality—in regions with low costs of living and high rates of poverty, what seems like a little in the United States could mean a lot.

Another issue with blockchain-based basic income is that the people who need the money most may be the ones least likely to have the gizmos or knowhow needed to become fluent with digital currencies; as with the Bitcoin economy itself, the beneficiaries are likely to be white, male, and affluent. At the same time, a universal payout to everyone on Earth could do much to reverse global inequality—in regions with low costs of living and high rates of poverty, what seems like a little in the United States could mean a lot. For people without the necessary technology, funds could be held in escrow until they find a way to access them.

All this is just speculation, however. It’s difficult to know what the strengths and weaknesses of various plans are until we try them out—and this new wave of digital experiments are an opportunity to do just that.

Originally published in Vice.


Posted in Collective Intelligence, Economy and Business, Ethical Economy, Featured Trend, Guest Post, P2P Architecture and Urbanism, P2P Development, P2P Money, Peer Property, Sharing | No Comments »

“Don’t Owe. Won’t Pay.” Everything You’ve Been Told About Debt Is Wrong

photo of Charles Eisenstein

Charles Eisenstein
5th October 2015


This article first appeared in Yes! Magazine (August 20, 2015)

The legitimacy of a given social order rests on the legitimacy of its debts. Even in ancient times this was so. In traditional cultures, debt in a broad sense—gifts to be reciprocated, memories of help rendered, obligations not yet fulfilled—was a glue that held society together. Everybody at one time or another owed something to someone else. Repayment of debt was inseparable from the meeting of social obligations; it resonated with the principles of fairness and gratitude.

The moral associations of making good on one’s debts are still with us today, informing the logic of austerity as well as the legal code. A good country, or a good person, is supposed to make every effort to repay debts. Accordingly, if a country like Jamaica or Greece, or a municipality like Baltimore or Detroit, has insufficient revenue to make its debt payments, it is morally compelled to privatize public assets, slash pensions and salaries, liquidate natural resources, and cut public services so it can use the savings to pay creditors. Such a prescription takes for granted the legitimacy of its debts.

Today a burgeoning debt resistance movement draws from the realization that many of these debts are not fair. Most obviously unfair are loans involving illegal or deceptive practices—the kind that were rampant in the lead-up to the 2008 financial crisis. From sneaky balloon interest hikes on mortgages, to loans deliberately made to unqualified borrowers, to incomprehensible financial products peddled to local governments that were kept ignorant about their risks, these practices resulted in billions of dollars of extra costs for citizens and public institutions alike.

A movement is arising to challenge these debts. In Europe, the International Citizen debt Audit Network (ICAN) promotes “citizen debt audits,” in which activists examine the books of municipalities and other public institutions to determine which debts were incurred through fraudulent, unjust, or illegal means. They then try to persuade the government or institution to contest or renegotiate those debts. In 2012, towns in France declared they would refuse to pay part of their debt obligations to the bailed-out bank Dexia, claiming its deceptive practices resulted in interest rate jumps to as high as 13 percent. Meanwhile, in the United States, the city of Baltimore filed a class-action lawsuit to recover losses incurred through the Libor rate-fixing scandal, losses that could amount to billions of dollars.

And Libor is just the tip of the iceberg. In a time of rampant financial lawbreaking, who knows what citizen audits might uncover? Furthermore, at a time when the law itself is so subject to manipulation by financial interests, why should resistance be limited to debts that involved lawbreaking? After all, the 2008 crash resulted from a deep systemic corruption in which “risky” derivative products turned out to be risk-free—not on their own merits, but because of government and Federal Reserve bailouts that amounted to a de facto guarantee.

The perpetrators of these “financial instruments of mass destruction” (as Warren Buffett labeled them) were rewarded while homeowners, other borrowers, and taxpayers were left with collapsed asset values and higher debts.

Continue reading the article here.

Illustration by Steve Brodner.


Posted in Activism, Cognitive Capitalism, Collective Intelligence, Commons, Culture & Ideas, Economy and Business, Guest Post, P2P Collaboration, P2P Money, P2P Subjectivity, Peer Property, Sharing | No Comments »

Essay of the Day: Urban Revolutions and the Network Commons

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
5th October 2015

“Citizen networks, wireless or not, could become a transversal infrastructral layer, reaching across society and different domains, becoming a revolutionary enabler of a new urban life in a way that points beyond capitalism as we knew it. … Rather than having corporations and the state who centrally organize production and consumption, in such a commons mode of production peer-to-peer forms of cooperation link infrastructural, political and cultural layers. The decentralized utopia envisioned by the 68 generation can now become a concrete project. With citizen networks and decentralized computing power localized exchange economies can be organized.”

This is an absolutely stellar, important and recommended text, to read in full here.

* Article: Cities of the Sun: Urban Revolutions and the Network Commons. By Armin Medosch. The Next Layer, 24 September 2015

Introductory Citation

Excerpted from Armin Medosch:

“The network commons1 is part of a swell of initiatives to create a digital commons: this includes free and open source software, open data, open sensor networks, or what is called by industry the internet of things; in this area a lot is happening that has not received a proper name, a bricolage of technologies and collaborative methods; when this applies to design and everyday objects it is called critical making; it is part of a wider DIY – or do-it-with-others – culture which does not necessarily use high-tech but deploys common but underused knowledge such as fermentation, agricultural and green technologies, permaculture, alternative energies. There exists also another type of innovation which has more to do with democracy and participation, with economy and politics. The notion of the digital commons has emerged from cooperative hacker culture within computing. But meanwhile this starts to develop links with another discourse on the commons which comes from what was once called the developing world. In poor nations mainly of the global south, ecologies based on the sharing of common resources are still pretty much in place. There, primitive accumulation is still happening every day, the process described by Marx whereby subsistence farmers are turned into worker-consumers. As a reaction to that, as well as in crisis hit countries such as Greece and Spain, economies of solidarity are developed. The commons of all types and shapes and economies and ecologies of solidarity have become an alternative vision of a post-capitalist economy in a peer-to-peer culture. All those visions, however, are usually addressed separately. The people behind those initiatives are from different demographic groups. They rarely meet in one place and discuss common strategies. For this reason, each of those initiatives, left to its own devices, will be either absorbed and co-opted by capitalism or fought, destroyed, made impossible by legal changes, sidelined by other innovations. What is thus necessary is a coherent and collective vision that brings those alternative strands together.” (http://www.thenextlayer.org/node/1358)

* The City as Utopia and Project

“I will now turn to a brief genealogy of the city as a project. This will necessarily have to be a sketchy version. The city as utopia has a deep history in human thought, but this utopia has often been tainted by its association with class society and its need to repress aspects of its social life on which it was based. This can be traced back to the very place where we stand now, Athenian democracy. The Greek Polis is widely seen as the cradle of democracy, but what also has been recognized is that this ideal was tainted by the exclusion from the political Agora of women and slaves.

The Greco-French philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis3 has provided the most vivid and insightful description of Athenian democracy. Castoriadis emphasized that voting was one of the least important aspects of Athenian democracy. What mattered more was that large numbers of people participated in political life and negotiated subjects in intense exchanges, forming large ad-hoc committees on specific subjects, often voting by acclamations – expressing a majority decision reached by other means than that of voting. Speeches were often short and sharp, and the outcome of decisions was determined by educated, lucid and rational judgements achieved at collectively. The democratic society for Castoriadis was the self-instituting society. It was, in a Hegelian sense, a society that became conscious of itself as a political unity which produced its own institutions, but was also capable of changing those institutions when needed. Politicians, while democratically elected, could also be removed from positions relatively quickly. The self-instituting society, Castoriadis stresses, had the means of educating itself to create a collective social imaginary. In the educational process also women and slaves participated. But it was not to last.

Learning from Athens means also to learn how democracy degenerated into tyranny. Plato’s ideal city state was a dictatorship of philosophers. Even Sokrates supported tyranny, the rule of the few over the many, on the basis of their superiority. As Hannah Arendt has pointed out, Greek philosophy was shaped by the class structure of its society.4 The separation into a leisurely class of philosopher-politicians and a class of enslaved producers was constitutive for a tendency to give preference to intellectual over manual labour. This found analogy in the philosophical domain, where metaphysics was regarded to be more important than practical ideas. The technologies of the ancient Greeks did not achieve the high levels it might have, simply because the Greek ruling class saw no need for it.

I touch upon the medieval city only very briefly. We note that this was a city idealized as an organic community based on sharp separations between the city and the countryside. It was a religious community whose highest expression was the building of cathedrals, which were built through a huge intergenerational and interdisciplinary effort of builder-engineer-artists.

The Renaissance city reached again the level of urbanism already achieved in antiquity. It re-rediscovered architectural and urbanistic concepts based on the sensual and rational concepts of Greece and Rome, using grids and perspectives. The Renaissance was also the era of the rebirth of the ideal city. Urban utopias were in plentiful supply, among those the one that provided 50% of the inspiration for the title of this talk, Tommaso Campanella’s City of the Sun. The City of the Sun was conceived as a form of theocratic dictatorship. However, Campanella also engaged in an “explicit polemic with Aristotle and Plato, who had excluded artisans, peasants and those involved in manual labor from the category of full citizenship and from the highest levels of virtue.”

In the City of the Sun all occupations were of equal dignity—in fact, those workers who were “required to expend greater effort, such as artisans and builders, received more praise.”7 There were no servants, and no service was regarded as unworthy. It was also a community where everything was held in common, from food to houses, from the acquisition of knowledge to the exercise of activities, from honors to amusements, and, somehow disconcertingly for us today, a form of free love that must appear as sexual slavery for women. What strikes most readers of this dialogue is that the city walls are also the curtains of an extraordinary theater and the pages of an illustrated encyclopedia of knowledge. The citizens of the City of the Sun were engaged in a permanent process of education and all knowledge was always publicly accessible.

The Great European City of the second half of the 19th century had inequality written into its structure. It was based on the destruction and undoing of parts of the medieval city, destroying grown working class communities. The Haussman Boulevard’s were designed to counter the tendency of the urban masses to spontaneously erupt in revolution. But it was also a city that was only possible because of another great revolution that took place in the 19th century. As is often forgotten, the industrial revolution was based on an industrial revolution in agriculture. New techniques in agriculture achieved huge increases in output with ever fewer people. As people moved from the country to the city, they became proletarians, forced to live by selling their labour power.

Fredrick Engels has described the horrible conditions in which the English working class lived around mid century.8
This caused various counter-movements: – the hygienic movement, a movement of the educated bourgeoisie, of doctors and planners, who argued for rooms with high ceilings painted in white, for an architecture of light and air to counter the spread of epidemic diseases such as tuberculosis. – the Garden City movement formed a specific version of this approach, proposing grand schemes for new urban dwellings – the working class movements formed themselves, asking not only for typical trade unionist goals such as better wages and a shorter working day, but also for political emancipation.

At the beginning of the 20th century those movements converged to create functionalism and the Fordist city. The political working class movements changed the course of history successfully claiming universal voting rights after 1918 in many countries, bringing socialist administrations into government. The Fordist city was based on an alliance between the reformist sectors of the educated bourgeoisie who believed in rationalism and the ability to plan a better world, the political emancipation of the working classes and the functionalist spirit of what Reyner Banham calls a New Machine Age.9 The Fordist city led to achievements such as Red Vienna in the 1920s and 1930s, large scale public housing developments which provide working people a decent standard of living together with amenities for sports and leisure, education, political gatherings and entertainment.

The Fordist city comes more fully into force only after the Second World War. It is a space where the political emancipation of the working class is brought together with the functionalist and technological spirit of the new machine age. The Fordist city is also a very fragmented city, divided into areas for production and leisure, into working class and middle class quarters. It continues the destruction of grown working class communities, for instance in London, where people from the East End were resettled in New Towns just outside London. While planned according to some of the ideals of the Garden City movement, the new spatial arrangements destroyed networks of kinship, as a famous study from the 1950s was called,10 therefore making life actually more difficult for working class people.

The Fordist city was the city of the atomized individual or at best of the family as the nucleus of society. The atomized structure was overlaid by force fields of mass media communications through radio, television and illustrated mass media magazines and the yellow press. It was a city characterized by the separation between producers and consumers, order givers and order receivers, senders and receivers. As Henri Lefebvre has pointed out, the Fordist city was of a destructive effect on forms of everyday life which had existed in the older forms of city life.11 A political critique that was oriented towards Praxis, towards a realisation of political philosophy in life, could not only focus any longer on those domains traditionally associated with politics, such as political parties, and the state. It would also have to proceed from the critique of everyday life. Lefebvre’s rebellious disciples, the Situationists actually claimed that political revolution had to be raised from the ground up, through the decentralized passions of the many revolutions of everyday life.

The ideas of Lefebvre and the SI were put to the test by the revolutions of 1968, from the Parisian May to the many revolutions and revolts that broke out simultaneously nearly all over the world. It was a revolution against the social and political forms of Fordism, its one-dimensionality and its one-directedness. What we have now in Europe is in many ways the long term result of those revolutions on the micro-scale of where the personal becomes political.

As Fordism has been replaced by the Network Society – a term by Manuel Castells – this has brought forward the networked city, also to be understood as the projective city (to be differentiated from the city as project). The projective city is part of the analysis brought forward in The New Spirit of Capitalism by Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiappello. It is based on a new flexible regime of accumulation, a term introduced by David Harvey and elaborated by Brian Holmes. In this flexible regime the life-long job is replaced by a succession of projects in which networked individuals come together for a limited period. The project creates a highly activated segment of a network with dense connections between protagonists which intensify into a critical mass of active connections which are able to create new forms, what Boltanski and Chiappello call … “a temporary pocket of accumulation.” Moreover, the authors claim that those pockets of accumulation actually realized the demands of the revolts of 68, albeit in commodified form. The changes demanded by the 68 generation in those areas where the personal becomes political have been captivated by the new spirit if capitalism and streamlined into new products and services. What they describe is how capitalism is capable of mobilizing terms and concepts that have developed outside it, autonomously.

I find it debatable if the 68 generation can really be blamed for everything that goes wrong in networked capitalism, especially if the claim is made that the decline of those ideas was already contained, in seed form, at the point of their inception. I agree with Brian Holmes that this would constitute a denunciation of the radical social imaginary of ’68. At the same time we can witness that something of the kind they are describing is actually happening. But it is not the spirit of 68 that is becoming commodified, but individual aspects of it, which are taken out of context and then realized in a commodifying form.

As a holding remark, lets recapitulate: I have advanced the idea that the current city, the city of informational capitalism, is the projective city, where a new regime of flexible accumulation reigns. Capitalism is a dynamic and creative force which has the capacity to appropriate concepts developed outside itself and turn them into new sources of profit, by creating temporary pockets of accumulation. We need to leave the urbanist discourse and turn to a technological discourse.”

* The Rise of the Network Commons

“At the moment of the demise of the New Economy, a new cycle started with new projects and new ideas. In London in the year 2000, and in Athens independently from London, two years later, movements started to build wireless community networks. Using a license exempt part of the electromagnetic spectrum and Wifi – Wireless Local Area Networks — network enthusiasts built their own networks. Based on the property of the Internet protocols that allow creativity at the edges, they could create networks of their own. Athens Wireless Metropolitan Network was initially started mainly by technology experts. They knew about other initiatives, such as Seattle Wireless, but developed their own “technological style”. Using the urban topology of Athens with its hills and cooperation with radio amateurs, they could create a network that covered a vast area, the Attica peninsula and beyond. The social model was based on the liberal utopia of individual ownership. Each node was built and maintained by its users, all the nodes together formed – and continue to do so – a network commons. The particular idea of AWMN was that it did not offer Internet access. Some nodes were connected to the Internet but this was not publicized as a reason to join the network. The idea was that the network builders would together create a network which would be attractive to its users because of its services. Services offered include mirrors of free software repositories, file sharing, streaming services, games, voice over IP and much more.

Consume in London proposed a slightly different idea. Informed by experiences with Backspace, a net art creative hub in central London, the idea was to have synchronous broadband networks which offer also gateways to the Internet. The net should become a shared resource, both as an Intranet and as a network that connected with the wider world. Backspace, initiated by James Stevens, was a place that allowed many initiatives to thrive, where people could realize their own projects, people such as net.art artists Rachel Baker and Heath Bunting. But it also hosted the Vulcano free film festival, a website for a transgender-cyborg club, and a festival for Buskers (street musicians). A particular noteworthy initiative that emerged from Backspace was Indymedia London. On June 18th 1999 a global “Carneval against Capitalism” was organised by the collective Reclaim the Streets. This protest brought together the multitudes – a new social class that substituted the working class as a new social subject. The size of the protest took police by surprise, and also the decentralizing tactics of protesters, marching out in three different columns, so that for several hours the City of London, the seat of multinational financial capital, was taken over by protesters dancing to samba drums. It was a happy day, until a police van drove over a woman who was seriously injured. This afternoon was filmed by artist activists, among them Austrian multimedia artist Manu Luksch. Couriers cycled back and fourth between the sites of protest and Backspace, where video tapes were transcoded and live streamed by techno-activists such as Gio d’Angelo. Half a year before Seattle, where Indymedia was officially founded, Backspace had become an Independent Media Centre which presented a different viewpoint on the protest of the Multitudes against financialized capitalism. While mainstream media focused only on the police’s failure to keep control and the stupid acts of a minority who smashed some windows – possibly police agent provocateurs anyway – the videos streamed from Backspace showed a different reality, a Bakthinian carneval, where the multitudes became aware of its political agency and its mass creativity as a form of opposition against bureaucratic capitalism, the grey men and women of the City of London.

To cut a long story short ? for a fuller account I have to refer you to my forthcoming text “Shockwaves in the New World Order of Information and Communication (Wiley-Blackwell 2016) – we saw a relatively short period of the prospering of Consume in London and the UK, where the network commons was merged with ideas by avant-garde digital artists and media activists.

In 2002, the Consume idea was transplanted to Berlin, Germany, where able technician-activists started the initiative Freifunk (free radio). Freifunk adapted the Consume idea to German reality. There were two issues: on one hand, there were areas in East Berlin and East Germany, which could not get ADSL connections for broadband because of the existence of proprietary fibre optics technology of the telecom incumbent. So this was a big motivating factor. Secondly, Berlin in particular and Germany in general has a large reservoir of what I would call ethical hackers, creative free software people, who are happy and willing to carry out free voluntary labour. Those two factors allowed Freifunk to spread rapidly, so that within a few years Berlin alone had more than 1300 free radio nodes and many more users. However, after a phase of rapid growth in the early 2000s, this development slowed down in the second half of the 2000s, some networks even started to shrink. The Deutsche Telecom had recognized the issue with its fibre optical technology and pushed other broadband technologies such as ADSL and cable. Freifunk was no longer needed to get affordable broadband Internet.

At around 2003, Guifi.net started in the rural area of Catalunia, near the small town of Vic. At the time, it was impossible to get broadband Internet in the villages. An initiative started to build wireless community networks. Guifi.net developed around similar ideas of AWMN, Consume and Freifunk, but with a number of differences. It set itself the explicit goal to bring good internet service to the highest number of people at the cheapest price; it developed a system where people could pay technicians to install a network node. Guifi.net did not see this as in contradiction with the idea of the network commons. As long as the nodes built by small service providers joined the network commons, the fact that some money was paid for installation was not an issue. This idea enabled Guifi.net to grow more rapidly than any of the other systems. It now stands at 30.000 nodes.

The projects just described constitute the counter-thesis to the network model offered by the ISP and telecom corporation with their centrally managed operations and their practices of metering and controlling the data flow in their networks. The atomized ethical technologist recognizes him or herself as a community networker who becomes a builder, owner and maintainer of a network node. Those network nodes together form a network commons, a network, where each node transports data according to the original Internet utopia, in two-way synchronous forms, without any discrimination between types of data and users. The network created by the community networker realizes the decentralized utopia. Its political structure was, depending on your viewpoint either anarchist or libertarian, an abdication of centralized control, but also a rejection of strong social regulation mechanisms. While some of those networks have created some form of legal entity, an association for instance, the association usually does not create the network. It does fund-raising, and it is there to assist in fending off political and legal challenges, but it does not own and run the network.

The technological and economic foundation of those networks, however, rest on the production mechanisms of advanced capital exploiting global imbalances and cheap labour. Advanced capitalist production methods using automated machine labour and cheap energy, mainly derived from fossil fuels reduce the socially necessary labour time to such a degree, that people in the capitalist core countries are freed up to devote their time to innovation practices and to participate in peer-based-commons production. The beautiful achievements of the network utopia are built on silicon sand, since those conditions are subject to change. The boom and bust of the New Economy was followed by a relatively mild recession in the early 2000s. New ideas about a commons based economy started to flourish.”

* The Automatic Utopia of Mesh Networks and the Social Development of Technologies

“At around 2004, citizen technologists from Freifunk in Berlin and Funkfeuer in Austria started to experiment with the mesh network routing protocol OLSR. Mesh network routing protocols such as OLSR and BATMAN and its recent variations are special routing protocols, optimized for the conditions of wireless networks. They do not need manual configuration, but automatically recognize when new nodes join the networks or existing ones drop out. Their capacity to automate route-finding allows the development of fixed and mobile wireless ad-hoc mesh networks.

The rise of the network commons in general and the development of mesh network protocols by the community in particular illustrate that technologies are inherently social. We have been made to believe that the development of technology is somehow autonomous, that technology follows a course of its own and that people have to adapt to the technologies that are created by corporate research labs and universities, who are often closely interlinked. Yet the development of wireless community networks in Athens, London and Berlin followed trajectories of the social development of the communities it was connected with, communities of practitioners (the ethical hackers who write the code and build the networks) but also the social structures those technological developments are embedded in, which includes the communities of users, but also wider social structures. This can have positive and negative consequences.

The Consume way of developing networks, for instance, was strongly emphasizing workshops and local knowledge. Through those workshops people came together and formed ideas about how to grow the network locally and to what uses to put it. In the process as such, the technology became socialized. Non-techies, like me, became knowledgeable about technology, started to understand networking technology better and began proselytizing about those social technologies. As such knowledge spreads, it contributes to the demystification of technologies. In capitalist societies, technologies are mystified. Technology is surrounded by an aura of being complex and difficult to understand. This creates the fetishized believe in technologies which makes people think that they are either ruled by technology or that they can solve any problem by technology alone. The technologies are understood as things outside us that have a power over us. But once we take developments into our own hands, we learn that those objects are man-made and relatively simple. The overall social complex that produces those objects and how they are deployed in the fabric of society, these things are much more difficult to understand. As we become techno-social communities we discover that the development of a technology is not separated from the social sphere but influenced and guided by it.

The developers of mesh network protocols in Berlin, Vienna and Catalonia first analyzed the needs of the wireless community networks and found an answer. In order for those networks to spread and become more efficient, they thought they needed to create firmware that would contain mesh network technology. Based on the Linux firmware distribution OpenWRT, each of those communities developed their own firmware. With so called firmware flashing, the firmware on a cheap WiFi router can be replaced by a high-end free firmware running mesh network technology turning a piece of industry hardware into, as Freifunk called one such hack, a “Freedom Box”. It is without doubt that community networks have been key drivers of the development of wireless mesh network technology.

As Elektra, one key developer in Berlin put it:

“The sleeping beauty of mesh network protocols has been kissed awake by the community networks”

No company, corporation or university has been as efficient and as good in developing those protocols than the community networkers. Those developments, as beautiful and commendable they are, also have several dark undersides. First, the distributions and the mesh network protocols are all open source. That means that everybody can use them, change them, as long as they publish again the source code. The technology of mobile ad-hoc networks has originally been developed by the US military. There is no doubt that those circles are watching what is being done and that the code produced by ethical hackers potentially can find entry into new weapon systems that deploy wireless mesh networks in the battle field, especially as military technology is becoming ever more automated and autonomous. The peer-to-peer based methodology of ethical community hackers offers no way of resisting this form of adaptation.

Secondly, the achievements of open source hackers have also no resistance against being appropriated by the advanced forces of informational capitalism. The freedom on the level of infrastructure gets harnessed on the application layer for commercial gain, by Google, Facebook and other players. The activities of community hackers, guided by an ethical sense, contribute to an economy that creates ever more inequality.

Since the network commons does not exist in a political and economic vacuum, the achievements of community networkers are of a temporary kind only and always in danger of being reversed – the negation of the negation. We can say that wireless decentralized community networks are the antithesis to the broadcast model of communication. Rather than one-sided flow of commands, they allow egalitarian two-way communication. Yet the ethical hackers often claim to be apolitical. They say that they are not interested in politics, they just care for the politics of technology. As long as the network is held in a commons, and every packet of information is routed freely, the hacker’s utopia is in good order.

In the past, when non-techies such as me encountered a problem, hackers used to tell me RTFM: Read the fucking manual. Now I tell techies also RTFM: Read the Fucking Marx.

The mesh network utopia is an automated utopia. You take the device, you flash it and up you go. The idea was promoted that firmware with good mesh routing protocols would make it easy to create large scale ad-hoc communities. Indeed, the technology has matured and technically speaking, the utopia is a utopia no more, it is here and real.

In recent years, Freifunk in Germany has experienced rapid expansion. After the revelations of Edward Snowden about the scale of surveillance by governments with the complicity of informational capital a second wave of German community networkers has become active. Those groups have developed their own firmwares, using mesh network protocols, but they do not share the anarchist spirit of the original Freifunk cell. They are growing, and at a very fast speed, but the question remains, what is growing here. Through the use of mesh routing protocols, the user does not need to do anything at all. The automatic utopia creates mesh networks, but the users are left behind. The type of knowledge transfer envisioned and practiced by Freifunk and Consume does not take place anymore. Some of those new networks have become like veritable service providers, they even have the capacity to update the software on all routers from remote.

Mesh network technology, rather than becoming the boon of community networks, tends to reinforce the separation between producers and consumers, between network builders and those who just passively use them. Rather than engaging with the network commons, they enjoy whatever commercial services they receive from the Internet, which itself has become thoroughly commodified. The new Freifunk initiatives have even started to call the groups who started Freifunk “legacy”. In software development legacy is something you need to acknowledge exists and may still be in use so you have to offer backward compatibility. But at some point you will start to consider if you still want to offer backward compatibility or if you simply detach yourself to offer faster growth and greater efficiency. A new generation who has never known anything else but neoliberal informational capitalism follows the patterns of the start-up mentality and of a competitive commercial environment. In this environment, mastering the technology becomes a pretext of commercial success and mastery over other people.

The network commons is embedded in the current political economy and exposed to its force fields. Athens Wireless Metropolitan Networks are suffering from the general economic and social crisis in Greece. Since the model of network freedom they have chosen is based on liberal capitalism, which means individual node ownership and responsibilities, the network deteriorates, as some node owners are affected by the economic crisis and cannot maintain adequately the rather high-tech installations they have built.

The impact of the overall social development on the wireless utopia reaches a particular poignancy in Global Cities such as London, where the city itself is subject to rapid change. As gentrification moves through the districts of London like a wildfire, people have to move to ever more remote areas (or abroad). The maintenance of a community and a network becomes an impossibility. Donating free voluntary labour becomes ever more difficult when rents are so high that you are working day and night just to keep a roof over your head. The urban space itself becomes completely reshaped by a form of aestheticized hipster consumerism. As the open culture of the Internet becomes substituted for the closed commercial world of Apps, and the cities ever more saturated with bandwidth on commercial mobile frequencies, the conditions for a sharing culture deteriorate.

The network commons is also threatened by practices such as Wifi off-loading practiced by mobile telcos. Whenever a phone detects a free open WiFi network it uses that rather than its own infrastructure. Commercial providers thus contribute to the tragedy of the open spectrum commons. Other threats are of a political nature. A new EU directive has been released which would make firmware flashing illegal. Although mesh networking appears to have solved the technical issues, the network commons is in peril through political, sociological and economic threats.”

* From Community Networks to Citizen Networks

“There is a notable change going on regarding the way in which community networkers start to understand themselves as political networks. The “old” groups behind Freifunk have drafted a memorandum of understanding which defines the network commons less technologically rather than politically. The Freifunk umbrella association has also started to organise itself better, and is constantly engaged in lobbying efforts, trying to shape public opinion and the opinions of their political representatives, the members of parliament. Whilst the network commons had initially been built by ethical hackers, they now start to recognize themselves as citizen networkers. Freifunk have begun setting up free and open WiFi in refugee accommodation centers throughout Germany.

Community networks, with their decentralized forms of organisation, have set up mesh networks, technically and socially decentralized networks. The economic crisis that developed in the wake of the financial crash of 2008 has led to an economic crisis which now has become a social crisis. The social crisis undermines the capacity to participate with voluntary labour. The business environment, under lobbying influence by mobile telcos, who have to pay billions for spectrum licenses, and in a climate that is generally sharpening, makes the conditions for the network commons ever more difficult. Under those conditions, the network commons has to become political. Rather than being just another project in the projective city of network society, the citizen networkers who build the network commons need to consciously join other commoners to build the city as utopia and project. As the network commons joins forces with civil society, it could turn into an infrastructure that supports a new commons-oriented mode of production. Areas that immediately come to mind are alternative energy and networks of food provision.

Rather than having corporations and the state who centrally organize production and consumption, in such a commons mode of production peer-to-peer forms of cooperation link infrastructural, political and cultural layers. The decentralized utopia envisioned by the 68 generation can now become a concrete project. With citizen networks and decentralized computing power localized exchange economies can be organized.


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