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How to Rein in Monopoly-like Network Platforms?

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David Bollier
27th May 2015


fatcat_1-web

The latest issue of Boston Review has a lively forum on the growing power of network-based businesses such as Amazon, Uber and Airbnb.  These companies may not be monopolies in the strict conventional sense of the law, but they nonetheless use their market dominance and network platforms to extract all sorts of advantages from competitors, suppliers and consumers.

K. Sabeel Rahman, a professor at Brooklyn Law School, presented his assessment of the situation, and then nine people of various persuasions (including me) responded.  Rahman stated the problem succinctly:

The kinds of power that Amazon, Comcast and companies such as Airbnb and Uber possess can’t be seen or tackled via conventional antitrust regulations.  These companies are not, strictly speaking, monopolies; Urban and Airbnb, in particular, do not engage in the kind of price-fixing or market dominance that is the usual target of antitrust regulation today.  These companies are better understood as platforms or utilities:  they provide a core, infrastructural service upon which other firms, individuals and social groups depend.

The problem is that conventional antitrust regulation isn’t really equipped to deal with information economy platforms, which tend to connect buyer and sellers in more efficient ways while offering very low prices. What’s the problem with that? Well, the problem is open networks paradoxically result in “power law” outcomes in which a minority of players tend to dominate the universe of users. Some companies have used this network-based advantage to limit competitors’ access to the market, impose unfair conditions on consumers or producers, and evade consumer and labor-rights laws. 

Rahman calls for a re-purposing of Progressive era policies from a century ago that tamed large monopolies like railroads by subjecting them to public utility regulation. Is this the way to go? Juliet Schor of Boston College agrees that there is a problem, but considers the regulatory approach nostalgic and unimaginative. She argued:

“Peer-to-peer structure and peer ownership of capital undermine the argument for private ownership of platforms and, by extension, for the public utility model.  This is not to say there isn’t a strong public interest in this sector – there is.  But the compelling feature of these entities is that most of the value in the market is produced by the peers, not the platforms.  This suggests that platforms can and should be owned and governed by users.  If they are, we can worry less about rent extraction, concentrations of political power, and the other concerns Rahman raises.”

Economist Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research is similarly skeptical of a return to conventional utility regulation. He argues that companies like Amazon and Uber should simply be forced to observe the same laws that their smaller, conventional competitors do – such as paying the same sales tax, paying observing the same minimum wage and hour rules for drivers, and adhering to safety and health standards.

Here are some excerpts from my response (link to full statement is here), in which I suggest that “innovative schemes for cooperative self-provisioning and decentralized local control, also known as the commons,” can act as an antidote to market power:  “All sorts of quasi-autonomous, user-managed systems can provide shared rights of access outside the dominant market system and conventional government, [and] can mitigate the problem of network-based monopolies while mobilizing a diverse and politically consequential constituency.”

My brief note response continues:

….the rapidly diversifying world of open design and manufacturing holds promise for “out-cooperating” such companies in electronics, furniture, farm equipment, and other industries. Arduino is a vast global community of open source computer boards at the heart of wearable technologies, 3D printers, drones, and consumer electronics. The open design Wikispeed car gets a hundred miles per gallon of fuel, and the volunteers building it are pioneering new manufacturing techniques. The Farm Hack community has produced dozens of models of affordable farm equipment. The Open Prosthetics Project is designing innovative body limbs that major medical suppliers lack the creativity or profit incentive to develop. The recurrent theme: globally shared modular design that can be manufactured locally and inexpensively.

I do not wish to suggest that technology can solve all the problems of dysfunctional politics and policy. We still need government to use the antitrust and regulatory tools in its arsenal, and we would benefit from a resurgence of Progressive reform. But in the commons, individuals and groups collaborate in ways that, over time, can help remake our politics and policy. We saw a glimpse of this in the campaign for net neutrality, as a motley swarm of digital communities committed to an open Internet improbably prevailed (for now) over the cable and telecom giants, including Comcast.

As part of the forum there are also comments by Adam Thierer, a libertarian-minded tech policy expert at the Mercatus Center (“public utility regulation has discouraged competition and innovation”); Robin Chase, the cofounder of Zipcar (peer producers should share power and the value they create); and Arun Sundararajan of the Social Cities Initiative at NYU (rethink government’s role in the market); Sofia Ranchordas of Yale Law School (platform benefits are overstated); Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute (try worker cooperatives); and Richard White, an author about railroads (historical perspectives on Gilded Age reforms).

It’s great that there is a new dialogue in a prominent magazine about how regulatory approaches for abusive market power need to be reinvented for the digital age. The comments are insightful, but the outlines of a new regulatory structure that could be effective, politically achieveable and mindful of network dynamics, remain elusive.


Originally published at bollier.org
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Posted in Cognitive Capitalism, Commons, Commons Transition, Economy and Business, Ethical Economy, Featured Essay, Original Content, P2P Collaboration, P2P Labor, Politics | No Comments »

Essay of the Day: Ethnography of a Humanitarian Hacking Community

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Michel Bauwens
22nd May 2015


* Article: The Ethic of the Code: An Ethnography of a ‘Humanitarian Hacking’ Community. By Douglas Haywood. Journal of Peer Production, Issue 3, July 2013

From the Abstract:

“Hackers and computer hacking have become important narratives in academia and popular media. These discussions have frequently portrayed hackers as deviant, framing them ethnocentrically within North Atlantic societies. Recently, however, events such as the politicisation of hacking through ‘hacktivism’ and those who hack for humanitarian causes have forced us to reconsider such typologies, although the body of empirical research in such areas remains relatively sparse. The aim of this paper is to present the findings of an ethnographic study carried out during a hacking event in 2012 which focused upon those involved in ‘Humanitarian Hacking’. Online and offline research explored the events that hackers took part in, the technologies they produced and the individuals involved. Based around the ‘Humanitarian Hacking’ event, this paper explores the motivations of participants, contrasting against previous studies and theory, particularly the idea of a ‘hacker ethic’; the extent to which these groups comprise a ‘community’ and its nature; and finally the social shaping of the technological artefacts produced by these groups. These three themes are explored together as they were often interlinked and provide interesting insights into the nature of this group. Drawing upon the works of previous researchers including Gabriella Coleman, Christopher Kelty and Pekka Himanen, the author will provide ethnographic evidence which demonstrates that not only is the ‘hacker ethic’ an important element within narratives of open-source technology, but that elements of it are also increasingly seen in wider areas of society from open-data to crowd-sourcing to the Anonymous movement. By tracing the historical origins and context of ‘Humanitarian Hacking’ and exploring their practices, this paper seeks to explore something of the motivations behind this activity. By doing so, it will reveal the wider symbolic significance of hacking within a ‘network society’ in which informational networks hold a central role, and in which the ability of hackers to manipulate such networks can be both feared and revered. Such groups present a methodological challenge for ethnographers since they are multi-sited, mobile, and take place both online and offline. This paper therefore draws upon practices in the social sciences including internet ethnography, multi-sited studies, ‘shadowing’ actors and ‘following’ technologies as cultural artefacts. The hackers engaged with in this project were often themselves academics, with research taking place within the ethnographers ‘own tribe’ and the degree of separation between fieldwork and ‘everyday life’ constantly blurred. This made a more participatory style of ethnography essential and challenged pre-existing notions of ‘the field’.”

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Posted in Collective Intelligence, Culture & Ideas, Featured Essay, P2P Movements, P2P Research, P2P Subjectivity, Peer Production | No Comments »

Essay of the Day: Effects of Algorithm Awareness

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Michel Bauwens
21st May 2015


* Essay: A Path to Understanding the Effects of Algorithm Awareness. By Kevin Hamilton et al.

From the Abstract:

“The rise in prevalence of algorithmically curated feeds in online news and social media sites raises a new question for designers, critics, and scholars of media: how aware are users of the role of algorithms and filters in their news sources? This paper outlines an approach to studying how users perceive the algorithmic “curation” of their feeds, using Facebook as a sample case. Such a problem presents particular challenges when, as is common, neither the user nor the researcher has access to the actual proprietary algorithms at work.”

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Posted in Featured Essay, P2P Governance | No Comments »

Essay of the Day: Well-Being as the Key Concept in Political Economy

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Michel Bauwens
19th May 2015


* Article: If ‘Well-Being’ is the Key Concept in Political Economy… By Claudio Gnesutta. Economic Thought Vol 3, No 2, 2014

From the Abstract:

“If ‘well-being’ is to be the key concept in political economy, then economists are placed, from a methodological viewpoint, in an uncomfortable position. A well-being approach requires consideration of several non-economic dimensions strongly interrelated with the economic process, and failure to consider them means that the subsequent economic analysis cannot be based on steadily defined categories and, therefore, economists cannot value the full implications of their policy prescriptions. In this note, I show how an interrelated economic-social scheme able to analyse (sustainable) well-being calls for a broadening of the range of social factors interacting (in short and long term) with the market equilibria, and that this entails both new analytical categories and a new socio-economic relations model; in the absence of this apparatus, the effects of economic policies on society are not reliable and, therefore, ought to be systematically subject to a ‘precaution principle’.

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Posted in Economy and Business, Featured Essay, P2P Subjectivity | 1 Comment »

Essay of the Day: The Political Economy of the Substrate Network

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Michel Bauwens
15th May 2015


* Essay: This is not a Bit-Pipe: A Political Economy of the Substrate Network. By Rachel O’Dwyer and Linda Doyle. Fibreculture Journal, Vol. 138,

From the Abstract:

1.

“Critiquing ‘free culture’ as a utopian gesture that fails to engage with the material circuits of cognitive capitalism, this paper proposes a political economy attendant to the circulation of capital at all layers of the communications network. Applying the newly invigorated theories of ‘rent’ to the shifting commons/property dialectics of the information economy, we explore the role of network infrastructure in the extraction of surplus. How is surplus from the digital commons channelled through a material substrate? How is network infrastructure transforming in response to the fluid and fluctuating dynamics of cognitive capitalism? Finally, what possibilities for political engagement and material exploit are emerging?”

2.

“This paper explores the economic transformations to ICT business models, infrastructure and property relations emerging in tandem with an economy that places increasing emphasis on the circulation of user-generated content. Applying the newly invigorated theories of ‘rent’ to the shifting commons/property dialectics of the network economy (Harvey, 2001; Negri and Vercellone, 2007; Pasquinelli, 2008), we explore how various proprietary mechanisms facilitate the extraction of cognitive surplus. We then focus our attention on structural antagonisms emerging between competing modalities of rent and profit: where immaterial labour and tangible architectures intersect, diverge, and sometimes conflict. The diverse forms of surplus extraction across network layers are not always complementary, representative of a crisis of capital in which negotiations between fluid surplus and economic strictures threaten the consolidation of power in the substrate network. Political and economic control of infrastructure is changing as a result.

This paper provides a broad overview of the shifting terrain of physical media and as a consequence may seem to smooth many of the social and geographical particularities of information and communications technology in favour of overarching concerns: How is surplus from immaterial production channelled through a material substrate? What are the points of conflict and/or mutual enforcement between surplus extracted from infrastructure and surplus from cognitive capital? How are communications networks transforming in response to the fluid and fluctuating dynamics of the network economy? Finally, how might these transformations suggest opportunities for tactical engagement at the level of network infrastructure?”

An excerpt from the Conclusion:

“Earlier in this paper, we noted that access and control of communications presents a point of opposition to open networks. Contrary to the fluid circulation of digital content, the structural ingredients of the physical network are not so easily distributed. Instead, the necessary flexibility of an economy based on commons-based peer production, such as that which characterises the digital network, is at odds with the Fordist models that, until recently, consolidated core infrastructure. This has posed a significant obstacle to collectives hoping to scale a network that is free at all layers.

Today, the technological dispositif is transforming in fundamental ways. It is as yet unclear whether this reorganisation spells a potential dissolution of corporate power or simply its recombination through more flexible channels. From one perspective these changes depict a network inflected at all layers with the diagram of biopolitical production They also gesture to a decomposition of monolithic components, as rent destabilises property relations at the level of infrastructure. If a proprietary substrate underpins the expropriation of the digital commons, the current redistribution of property presents opportunities for structural exploit. Critically engaged during a stage of interpretative flexibility, alternative, commons or transient models of ownership might have positive implications for a networked information economy, emerging in a favourable position to disrupt the mechanisms of economic and political control channelled through its foundations.

Fully fleshed prescriptions are beyond the scope of this analysis, which is necessarily diagnostic. We can, however, identify possibilities for further areas of exploration, such as spectrum policy or future cellular networks, that draw on the conceptual framework of this paper.

Dialectical oppositions between licensed and unlicensed spectrum regimes have been discussed throughout this paper. Shifts toward dynamic spectrum access have significant implications as a disruptive technique. Cognitive radio – the signal processing and transmission techniques used for intelligent negotiation of available spectrum – presents the opportunity for unlicensed users to access spectrum that is owned by incumbents but substantially unutilised. This suggests a possible shift from inalienable property rights over a wireless channel towards a “spectrum commons”, where communicative capacities are distributed and partitioned as needed. Interestingly, the conceptual metaphor of “squatting” is sometimes used to describe the process of dynamic spectrum access, directly engaging the disruptive characteristics of the technique (Doyle, 2009). Dynamic spectrum access and/or an increase in unlicensed spectrum poses a direct sabotage on the rent applied over wireless infrastructure.

Another early possibility concerns the transfer of points of network control to end users. Moving from the centralised topology of traditional cellular networks, technologies such as the femtocell respond to network congestion by implementing miniature base station technologies for domestic use. 12 Users connect to the service provider’s cellular network over a personal network connection. Femtocells arguably cede aspects of network control to end users. The economic rationale behind this is controversial, based on the parasitic appropriation of user’s personal bandwidth capabilities to improve the range of a proprietary network. At the same time, it suggests a slackening of monopoly control, breaking a solid network into fluid components that might be accessed, shared, redistributed or otherwise modified.

Such proposals are tentative. When we encounter a new fluidity of property, it does not automatically follow that we encounter a diminution of corporate power, or that the consolidation of such power is necessarily “disorganised”. Instead physical networks often cede to the diagram of the networked organisation (Rossiter, 2006), as the tensions between monopoly and competition, between centralisation and decentralisation or between commons and property are negotiated in fundamentally new ways. By this we understand, as Harvey does, that capitalism might become ever more tightly woven through dispersal, geographic mobility and flexible responses in labour and consumer markets, all accompanied by hefty doses of institutional, product and technological innovation (Harvey, 1987:159). Such flexibility is the operand of post-Fordism. An observation of early innovations suggest that the growing flexibility in material property that threatens the conglomerate is often countered with a stronger enforcement of symbolic and legislative apparatuses. These might take the form of stricter intellectual property regimes, or the enforcement of communications policies and protocols that seek to ensure network surplus does not escape circulation within the capitalist system.

The recent innovations in cognitive radio, for example, have been tempered by highly conservative regulations that seriously constrain unlicensed transmissions. Even though software-defined radios present the possibility for dynamic access to licensed spectrum, proposing a commons infrastructure managed as a public good, a number of early legislations concerning power transmit regulations and questions of “occupancy” continue to limit this access.

Femtocells, as discussed, form part of the new wave of components that allow for a scalable architecture, ceding control of core cellular infrastructure to the end-user. At the same time, recent proprietary legislation appears to ensure that these possibilities are suppressed in favour of the interests of powerful corporations. When the user places a call this is sent through the proxy servers of the ISP. The user is billed (again) despite the fact that the connection is facilitated through their own wireless infrastructure. Network carrier AT&T currently occupies a monopoly position in femtocell development in the United States. Recently, independent hardware providers such as Wilson Wireless wished to supply femtocells that are service neutral. The hardware specifications for both technologies are almost identical, but the third-party innovation sabotages the closed circuit necessary for the extraction of rent. As a result, and despite identical hardware specifications, AT&T successfully lobbied the FCC to disallow transmission licences by third party developers (AT&T, 2012).

It should be clear that the tensions between monopoly and competition, between centralisation and decentralisation or between commons and property are negotiated in fundamentally new ways. The material landscape of affordance and constraint are also shifting, and new forms of critical engagement are necessary. We need to be cognisant of the mechanisms through which value is produced within and across all layers of the network. Not only do we wish to identify the techniques by which cognitive surplus is extracted through proprietary channels, but also to develop a political vocabulary that extends beyond the semiotic, towards the underlying material infrastructure of the network economy. If the ideology of free culture is to progress beyond a pipe dream, this requires an active engagement with such materially entrenched sites of production. This paper is not so much a program for future networked utopia, therefore, as an acknowledgement of the new sites of conflict through which alternative models of activism, policy or critical engineering might emerge. A conceptual framework is the first step in such an analysis.”

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Posted in Economy and Business, Featured Essay | No Comments »

The Care-Centered Economy: A New Theory of Value

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David Bollier
15th May 2015


Do You Still Care?

I recently encountered a brilliant new essay by German writer Ina Praetorius that revisits the feminist theme of “care work,” re-casting it onto a much larger philosophical canvas. “The Care-Centered Economy:  Rediscovering what has been taken for granted” suggests how the idea of “care” could be used to imagine new structural terms for the entire economy.

By identifying “care” as an essential category of value-creation, Praetorius opens up a fresh, wider frame for how we should talk about a new economic order.  We can begin to see how care work is linked to other non-market realms that create value — such as commons, gifts of nature and colonized peoples –all of which are vulnerable to market enclosure.

The basic problem today is that capitalist markets and economics routinely ignore the “care economy” — the world of household life and social conviviality may be essential for a stable, sane, rewarding life.  Economics regards these things as essentially free, self-replenishing resources that exist outside of the market realm.  It sees them as “pre-economic” or “non-economic” resources, which therefore don’t have any standing at all.  They can be ignored or exploited at will.

In this sense, the victimization of women in doing care work is remarkably akin to the victimization suffered by commoners, colonized persons and nature.  They all generate important non-market value that capitalists depend on – yet market economics refuses to recognize this value.  It is no surprise that market enclosures of care work and commons proliferate.

A 1980 report by the UN stated the situation with savage clarity:  “Women represent 50 percent of the world adult population and one third of the official labor force, they perform nearly two thirds of all working hours, receive only one tenth of the world income and own less than 1 percent of world property.”

But here’s the odd thing:  The stated purpose of economics is the satisfaction of human needs.  And yet standard economics don’t have the honesty to acknowledge that it doesn’t really care about the satisfaction of human needs; it’s focused on consumer demand and the “higher” sphere of monetized transactions and capital accumulation.  No wonder gender inequalities remain intractable, and proposals for serious change go nowhere.

“The Care-Centered Economy” asks us to re-imagine “the economy” as an enterprise focused on care. While Praetorius’ primary focus is on the “care work” that women so often do – raising children, managing households, taking care of the elderly – she is clearly inviting us to consider “care” in its broadest, most generic sense.  The implications for the commons and systemic change are exciting to consider.

I think immediately of the Indian geographer Neera Singh, who has written about the importance of “affective labor” in managing forest commons. Singh notes that people’s sense of self and subjectivity are intertwined with their biophysical environment, such that they take pride and pleasure in becoming stewards of resources that matter to them and their community.

Such affective labor – care – that occurs within a commons becomes a force in developing new types of subjective identities. It changes how we perceive ourselves, our relationships to others, and our connection to the environment. In Singh’s words:  “Affective labor transforms local subjectivities.” In this sense, commoning is an important form of care work.

By setting forth an expansive philosophical framework, Praetorius’ essay provokes many transdisciplinary, open-ended questions about how we might reframe our thinking about “the economy.” The 77-page essay, downloadable here, was recently published by the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin as part of its “Economy + Social Issues” series of monographs.

Praetorius begins by situating the origins of “women’s work – children, cooking and church – in the original “dichotomization of humanity” into “man” and “nature.” This artificial division of the world into realms of man and nature lies at the heart of the problem.  Once this “dichotmomous order” is established, the public realm of monetized market transactions is elevated as the “real economy” and given gendered meaning.  Men acquire the moral justification to subordinate and exploit all those resources of the pre-economic world – nature, care work, commons, colonized people.  Their intrinsic needs and dignity can be denied.

What’s fascinating in today’s world is how the many elements of the “pre-economic lifeworld” are now starting to assert their undeniable importance.  As Praetorius puts it, “Without fertile soil, breathable air, food and potable water, human beings cannot survive; without active care, humanity does not reproduce itself; and without meaning, people descend into depression, aggression and suicide.”

As the pre-economic lifeworld becomes more visible, it is exposing the dichotomous order as unsustainable or absurd.  Climate change is insisting upon limits to economic growth.  Modern work life is becoming ridiculously frenetic.  Questions of meaning arise that “free markets” are unequipped to address.  “Why work at all if working amounts to nothing more than functioning for absurd, other-directed purposes?” writes Praetorius.  “Why keep living or even conceiving and bearing children if there is no future in sight worth living?”

As the private search for meaning intensifies, the formal political system has little to say.  It is too indentured to amoral markets to speak credibly to real human needs; it is ultimately answerable to the highest bidders. This also helps explain why politics, as the helpmate of the market order, also has so little to say about people’s yearnings for meaning.

But new meaning are nonetheless arising as the credibility and efficacy of the old order begin to fall apart. Praetorius argues that the anomaly of a black man as US President and a woman as Germany’s chancellor makes it increasingly possible for people to entertain ideas of subversive new types of order. “The supposedly natural order of the hierarchical, complementary binary conception of gender is inexorably disintegrating,” writes Praetorius.  Other dualisms are blurring or becoming problematic as well:  “belief and knowledge, subject and object, res cogitans and res extensa, colonizer and colony, center and periphery, God and the world, culture and nature, public and private spheres.”

What’s exciting about this time, she suggests, is that the “dichotomous order” is opening up new spaces for new narratives that re-integrate the world. People can begin to “collectively dis-identify” with and deconstruct the prevailing order, and launch new stories that speak to elemental human and ecosystem needs.  If there is confusion and disorientation in going through this transition, well, that’s what a paradigm shift is all about. In any case, people are beginning to recognize the distinct limits of working within archaic political frameworks – and the great potential of a “care-centered economy.”

What exactly does “care” mean?  It means the capacity for human agency, individual initiative yoked to collective practice, shared identity and meaning-making.  It means “being mindful, looking after, attending to needs, and being considerate.”  It refers to “awareness of dependency, possession of needs, and relatedness as basic elements of human constitution.”

While some might regard the elevation as “care” as vague, I agree with Praetorius:  “Care” helps break down the dichotomous order and emphasize the “pre-economic” order of human need.  “The illusion of an independent human existence becomes obsolete,” she writes.  Relationships outside of markets become more important.

Introducing “care” into discussions about “the economy” can also have the effect of transforming ourselves.  We can begin to name the pre- and non-economic activities — care, commoning, eco-stewardship – that create value.  We can develop a vocabulary to identify those things that mainstream economics deliberately does not name.  In this sense, talking in a new way becomes a political act.  It begins to change the cultural reality, one conversation at a time.

Praetorius’ essay is a fairly long read, but a rewarding one.  I came away from it with a fresh, more hopeful perspective.  I also realized how care work and commoning are part of a larger enterprise of honoring, and creating, new types of value.


Originally publshed at bollier.org

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Posted in Activism, Collective Intelligence, Commons, Commons Transition, Culture & Ideas, Ethical Economy, Featured Essay, P2P Collaboration, P2P Gender Issues | No Comments »

Essay of the Day: Open Source 3D Printing as a Means of Learning

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Michel Bauwens
13th May 2015


* Article: Open source 3D printing as a means of learning: An educational experiment in two high schools in Greece Vasilis Kostakis, Vasilis Niaros and Christos Giotitsas. Telematics and Informatics, Volume 32, Issue 1, February 2015, Pages 118–128

From the abstract:

“This research project attempts to examine to what extent the technological capabilities of open source 3D printing could serve as a means of learning and communication. The learning theory of constructionism is used as a theoretical framework in creating an experimental educational scenario focused on 3D design and printing. In this paper, we document our experience and discuss our findings from a three-month project run in two high schools in Ioannina, Greece. 33 students were tasked to collaboratively design and produce, with the aid of an open source 3D printer and a 3D design platform, creative artifacts. Most of these artifacts carry messages in the Braille language. Our next goal, which defined this project’s context, is to send the products to blind children inaugurating a novel way of communication and collaboration amongst blind and non-blind students. Our experience, so far, is positive arguing that 3D printing and design can electrify various literacies and creative capacities of children in accordance with the spirit of the interconnected, information-based world.”

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Posted in Featured Essay, Open Hardware and Design, P2P Education, P2P Manufacturing | No Comments »

Book of the Day: Firm Commitment, beyond the selfish corporation ?

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Michel Bauwens
12th May 2015


* Book: Firm Commitment: Why the corporation is failing us and how to restore trust in it. By Colin Mayer. Oxford Universithy Press, 2013

Excerpted from review comments by Justin Fox:

“Mayer wrote a very interesting book called “Firm Commitment,” in which he argued that corporations had in the past succeeded and created economic value in large part by entering into commitments — with employees, customers, suppliers, shareholders and others — and that the modern ideology that corporations exist only to serve the interests of shareholders was endangering their ability to commit to anyone else.

As he summed up in his speech:

– From entities with persistent ownership beholden to their nation states, corporations have transitioned into organizations with investors with no commitment to any particular nation or generation other than the present. The result is that the interests of the corporation have progressively diverged from those of the societies within which they operate.

The less tangible a corporation’s assets, the freer it is to escape commitment. This is apparent in corporate tax bills, as corporations where intellectual property plays the biggest role (technology and pharmaceutical companies, mainly) are most able to shift income from country to country to avoid taxation.

Another worry, mentioned by Mayer but expounded upon at length elsewhere (and with brevity on Bloomberg TV yesterday) by another former business school dean, Roger Martin of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, is that corporations where the value is mostly intangible tend to funnel income to the relatively small number of talented people who are credited with creating that intangible value, thus fueling a sharp rise in income inequality.

Mayer’s proposed remedy to these problems is what he calls the “trusted corporation,” companies built on the model of Bosch and Bertelsmann in Germany and Tata in India, owned not by footloose shareholders but by an industrial foundation. Short of that, he argues, corporations should be required to articulate a purpose beyond just maximizing return to shareholders, and directors should hold executives accountable for fulfilling that purpose.

This isn’t just academic noodling. Similar ideas are at the heart of the burgeoning B Corporation and NewCo movements, in which entrepreneurs commit to goals other than (just) making money. Something about the evolution of the corporation over the past few decades has begun to convince a lot of people that companies need a grounding in something other than shareholder return. And part of that something may be the fact that we can’t rely on buildings and machines and property to ground corporations anymore.”

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Posted in Economy and Business, Ethical Economy, Featured Essay, P2P Business Models | No Comments »

Essay of the Day: On the Socio-Political Potentialities of Experimental Productive Alternatives

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Michel Bauwens
11th May 2015


* Article: On the socio-political potentialities of experimental productive alternatives. Yannick Rumpala. Paper presented at the inter-disciplinary workshop on “Political Action, Resilience and Solidarity” (18th-19th September 2014, King’s College London).

Two cases were presented: “The RepRap 3D printer and open-source hardware developed on contributory bases, and local initiatives in food production, such as “Incredible Edible”

From the summary:

““Peer to peer” practices are commonly thought of in reference to exchange and sharing of computer files, but they also overlap with other domains. Indeed, they appear to be in expansion in other areas and, in certain cases, pertain to political intent. For example, they currently serve as the basis for initiatives in the field of transportation (carpooling), energy production (in the form of collaborative projects) and food production (from seed sharing to product sharing).

These practices may bring about renewed modalities of coordination and cooperation between many actors, without necessarily being confined to informal registers. Different types of work are developping without the search for financial compensation, and without hierarchical or salary relations. They allow for new forms of production which seem to persist over time and for which denomination attempts have begun to be proposed. While being more oriented towards changes in the information economy that followed the development of the Internet, Yochai Benkler (2002 ; 2006), for example, refers to a new model of “commons-based peer production”.

This form has mainly been studied for immaterial products, such as free software, collaborative encyclopedias, etc, but rarely for more material productions. Therefore, considering their emancipatory appearances, this contribution aims at exploring the potentialities, especially in terms of relation to work, that peer production can have on more material aspects of human activities. This new model may in fact be another way of looking at needs and how to satisfy them, in this case without any monetary medium and appropriation. These productions are not intended to be placed on the market. With these practices, it is the very meaning of work that could change.

Some writers, as the philosopher Bernard Stiegler (2011), announce and describe the emergence of an “economy of contribution.” Bernard Stiegler also pinpoints a “deproletarianization” to try to report a “new organization of work and a new economy of work.” If this “commons-based peer production” can actually be considered to contain such potentialities, it seems useful to test such a hypothesis by studying it in a more sociological context, as regards both its ins and outs, particularly in a period of “economic crisis.”

A mode of production can be characterized by its inputs and outputs (what is necessary for its operation and what it is able to achieve). Three complementary angles can thus be taken to analyze these potentialities more precisely: the modalities of personal engagement and frameworks of relations, the conditions of coordination and organization, and the outputs as a support for (local) resilience.

What is indeed interesting is to understand the ways by which subjectivities can invest in this “commons-based peer production.” Related activities seem more likely to give the feeling that the work thus accomplished has a social purpose and may receive recognition. To what extent can these material practices then change the relationship to work, production and consumption? These activities also contribute to reconfiguring exchange relations and can be a way to renegotiate more practically the networks into which everyday life fits.

But the convergence of these activities and the organization of these relationships are not straightforward. How are such coordinations possible, especially if they are to be maintained over time? In this form of production, collective assemblages seem volatile and if they are based on an organization, the latter is rather flexible (but not as devoid of effectiveness). Community dynamics can play an important role. In keeping with this idea, how can we talk of division of labor? What are the devices that can help stabilize forms of organization?

Moreover, the outputs of these activities appear to be more difficult to qualify with the usual categories. To what extent can these non-conventional forms of work contribute to the emergence of a mode of production with new or original features? How do these initiatives contribute to making new resources available, which could be considered socially and ecologically valuable? One can wonder wether this production method can become sustainable and lasting, particularly with regard to the availability of potential contributors.

This study is based on an exploration of two types of peer-to-peer collaborations: those which have begun to help build projects of machines and equipment, such as the RepRap 3D printer and open-source hardware developed on contributory bases, and local initiatives in food production, such as “Incredible Edible”, an idea which originally started in 2008 in the town of Todmorden, North of England, to transform available public spaces into areas for growing food products and put them into open access.”

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Essay of the Day: Italian Operaismo and the Information Machine

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
18th April 2015


‘machines don’t explain anything, you have to analyze the collective apparatuses of which the machines are just one component’

* Article: Italian Operaismo and the Information Machine. Matteo Pasquinelli.

From the abstract:

“The political economy of the information machine is discussed within the Marxisttradition of Italian operaismo by posing the hypothesis of an informational turn already at work in the age of the industrial revolution. The idea of valorizing information introduced by Alquati (1963) in a pioneering Marxist approach to cybernetics isused to examine the paradigms of mass intellectuality, immaterial labour and cognitive capitalism developed by Lazzarato, Marazzi, Negri, Vercellone and Virno since the 1990s. The concept of machinic by Deleuze and Guattari (1972, 1980) is then adopted to extend Marx’s analysis of the industrial machine to the algorithms of digital machines. If the industrial machine can be described as a bifurcation of thedomains of energy and information, this essay proposes to conceive the informationmachine itself as a further bifurcation between information and metadata. In conclusion, the hypothesis of the society of metadata is outlined as the current evolution of that society of control pictured by Deleuze (1990) in relation to the power embodiedin databases.

* Excerpt: Some Hypotheses on the Society of Metadata

In conclusion, as a set of provisional hypotheses within the risingsociety of ‘big data’, metadata are said to be used for: 1) measuringthe value of social relations; 2) improving the design of machines andmachinic intelligence; and 3) monitoring and forecasting massbehaviours.

1. Metadata as the measure of the value of social relations. The accu-mulation of information via the mediation of digital machines mirrorsand measures that production of those social relations which Marx himself considered the very nature of value (‘capital is not a thing, but asocial relation between persons which is mediated through things’; Marx,1867: 932). Digital technologies like social networks provide today apunctual cartography of these productive relations (see, for instance,how Facebook and Twitter turn collective communication into attentioneconomy). As much as thermo-machines have been used to measurevalue in terms of quantity of energy per time, info-machines appear tomeasure value in terms of number of links per node. This is evident, forexample, in the case of Google PageRank algorithm and in many rankingand rating techniques employed today (see Pasquinelli, 2009). The extrac-tion of metadata describes here a ?ow surplus value (Deleuze andGuattari, 1972: 233) or a sort of network surplus value.

2. Metadata as implementation of machinic intelligence. The extractionof metadata provides also precious information to optimize machinicintelligence at any level: from software programs to industrial manage-ment, from advertisement campaigns to logistics. In this sense the digitalsphere is still very similar to Alquati’s computer factory: the ?ows of information are used to improve its internal organization and to createmore e?cient algorithms. Also within the infrastructure of the internet,the ?ows of valorizing information are transformed into ?xed capital;that means that knowledge is transferred and incarnated into machinery.See once again Google’s PageRank algorithm and the way it has beenevolving according to data tra?c and the collective behaviours of theglobal audience. Metadata describe here a code surplus value (Deleuzeand Guattari, 1972: 233).

3. Metadata as new form of biopolitical control (dataveillance). Ratherthan pro?ling individual inclinations, metadata can be used for crowdcontrol and prediction of mass behaviours, as happens today with anygovernment tracking usage of social media, spin doctors mapping polit-ical elections, city councils measuring tra?c ?ows and companies follow-ing supply chains. Online real-time statistics of speci?c search keywordscan map the spread of diseases across a country as much as social unrest(see Google Flu and Google Trends services, for instance, and imaginethe same algorithms applied to political and social issues). If Deleuze(1990a) had already warned against the speci?c techniques of a society of control based on the power virtually embodied in the collective infor-mation of databases, today the new regime of dataveillance can bedescribed as a society of metadata, as it is no longer necessary to targetindividual behaviour but just collective trends (see the PRISM scandalin 2013).

An analysis of the new political dimensions of metadata or ‘big data’ isstill to come. In conclusion, the algorithms governing the new society of metadata have been properly illuminated thanks to one of operaismo’s most important intuitions: applying the theoretical and political point of view of valorizing information (that is living labour) rather than the perspective of a mere technological determinism. As Deleuze reminds us in the interview with Negri quoted at the beginning of this essay:‘machines don’t explain anything, you have to analyze the collective apparatuses of which the machines are just one component’.

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