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Essay of the Day: The More-Than-Human Commons: commoning is caring

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Michel Bauwens
28th July 2015

A really excellent and well-written (draft) essay on the implications of the commons for how we relate to each other and to other natural beings:

* Source: The More-than-Human Commons : From Commons to Commoning. Patrick Bresnihan. Forthcoming Chapter in Space, Power and the Commons, Routledge.)

Excerpted from Patrick Bresnihan:

“Where the more-than-human commons departs from other interpretations is in recognizing how the starting point is not an individual subject separated from other people and the world around them, but a relational subject who is always already caught up in a world that is intimately shared . This understanding is not based on an ideal but on the materially and socially constituted relations and practices that tie humans and non-humans together within a particular collective or territory. If we talk of ‘use-rights’ in the commons then these must be contingent on ongoing participation in the production and care of the commons understood as the entire collective of humans, animals, artifacts, elements that are necessary to maintain life processes. This meaning can already be found in the roots of the word ‘commons': ‘com’ (together) and ‘munis’ (under obligation). First, this tells us that the commons is produced together, reflecting our inter-dependence, the assumption that our world is already shared. Second, and arising from this, the obligation that such inter-dependence demands of us. The commons is not a ‘thing’ that we have access to because we hold a title deed or authorization, but something that is ours because we produce and care for it, because we common.”

The Social Commons as a perspective on the commons:

“A second perspective on the commons that has become popular within and outside the academy shifts attention away from the so-called ‘natural’ commons, focussing instead on the emergent possibilities of the ‘social’ or ‘immaterial’ commons. These include the knowledge and cultural commons (Hyde 2010), the digital commons and peer-to-peer production (Bauwens 2005) and the biopolitical commons (Hardt & Negri 2009). While the political perspectives that inform these analyses differ, they all assume an analytic distinction between the ‘immaterial’ commons and the ‘material’ commons. In his article ‘Two Faces of the Apocalypse’, for example, Michael Hardt describes the difference between anti-capitalist activists and climate change activists at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 15) in Copenhagen (Hardt 2010). While the former insist that ‘another world is possible’, the latter adopt the slogan: ‘There is no Planet B’. Hardt traces these different political positions to their contrasting notions of the commons. On one hand, anti-capitalists consider the commons as a social/economic commons, representing the product of human labor and creativity, including ideas, knowledge and social relationships. On the other, environmental activists speak for the ecological commons, identified as the earth and its ecosystems, including the atmosphere, rivers, forests and forms of life which interact with them. Hardt argues that the former does not operate under the logic of scarcity, while the latter does. While the first perspective on the commons emphasizes the natural resources on which we all rely, the second emphasizes the social resources that have become increasingly central to contemporary forms of capitalist accumulation. In the first case, nature (commons) is a stock of bio-physical resources which, as Hardt identifies, is subject to the logic of scarcity, bringing us into the domain of liberal political economy and the institutions of formal and informal property rights. In the second, nature is no longer represented as a material background limiting human activity but becomes something malleable and infinitely reproducible, subject to re-combinant technologies and human creativity. This is the domain of neoliberal political economy and the fantasies of contemporary capitalist (re)production (Cooper 2007). The problem with this distinction is that we end up with one form of the commons that appears to be asocial (excluding the socially productive and reproductive labor of humans involved in caring for the ÔnaturalÕ resources they rely on), and another that appears to be anatural (excluding the material limits and properties of more-than-human bodies involved in the (re)production of the ‘social’ commons). While the distinction between the material/natural commons and the immaterial/social commons can be analytically helpful it tends to be over-stated, obscuring the continuity and inseparability of the material and the immaterial, the natural and the social.” (https://www.academia.edu/11778318/The_More-than-Human_Commons_From_Commons_to_Commoning)

The commons is not a resource, but a relation:

“A third perspective on the commons does not admit such a distinction and thus takes us in a different direction. From feminist scholars (Federici 2001; Mies & Bennholdt-Thomsen 1999, 2001; Shiva 2010; Starhawk 1982), geographers (Blomley 2008; St. Martin 2009) and historians (Barrell 2010; Linebaugh 2008, 2011; Neeson 1996; Thompson 1993) we learn that the commons was never a ‘resource’. The commons is not land or knowledge. It is the way these, and more, are combined, used and cared for by and through a collective that is not only human but also non-human. That the commons can continue to be identified as a ÔresourceÕ and not as a complex of relations between humans and non-humans attests to the long history of invisibility associated with Ònonrepresentational, affective interactions with other-than-humansÓ (De la Cadena 2010 : 346). The ÔinvisibilityÕ of peasant and indigenous cultures and forms of life has been well documented by historians and anthropologists (Brody 2002; Bird Rose 2006; De la Cadena 2010; Escobar 1995; Linebaugh 2008; Thompson 1993); colonialism begins with the erasure of any existing claims to territory or history on the part of those who are being colonized. The concept of terra nullius refers to the identification of ÔwasteÕ land, or land that has not been inscribed with human culture and production. This term was not just used in the conquest of territories in the ÔNew WorldsÕ but also in the enclosure of common lands, moors and heaths, that took place in Britain during the eighteenth century (Goldstein 2013). Silvia Federici, for example, argues that enclosure relies on the epistemological separation of the social and the natural spheres, the productive and the reproductive. She reads this separation-through-enclosure as something far more fundamental than simply the privatization of land. The relegation of ‘women’s work’ (childbirth, child rearing, cleaning, cooking, caring) to the domestic sphere outside of the ‘productive’ economic sphere represents the ‘naturalizing’ of this kind of labour : “[a]ll the labour that goes into the production of life, including the labour of giving birth to a child, is not seen as the conscious interaction of a human being with nature, that is a truly human acivity, but rather as an activity of nature, which produces plants and animals unconsciously and has no control over this process” (Mies 1998: 45). While reproduction is most often associated with human reproduction and the management of the ‘household’, from childbirth, to childcare and healthcare, cleaning and cooking, reproduction also extends beyond the confines of the house narrowly construed as four walls. Federici herself describes how her time in Nigeria observing and documenting the labor and activity of women in mostly subsistence economies led her to extend the notion of reproduction (Federici 2012): the household, or oikos, was not just a home or family but a wider sphere of communal reproduction that involved direct relations with the land, water, plants and animals, for exampleii. The conclusions that are drawn from these insights is that capitalist enclosure and biopolitical control necessarily involve the de-valorizing and ‘invisibilizing’ of those myriad, situated relations and practices of (re)production that exist between people and the manifold resources they rely on (De Angelis 2007; Federici 2001; Shiva 2010). What is significant is that this understanding of the commons focuses on the particular relations and practices that are characterize the commons as a different mode of (re)production.

As Peter Linebaugh explains, “[t]o speak of the commons as if it were a natural resource is misleading at best and dangerous at worst, the commons is an activity and, if anything, it expresses relationships in society that are inseparable from relations to nature. It might be better to keep the word as a verb, rather than as a noun, a substantive” (Linebaugh 2008: 279). This is why the noun ‘commons’ has been expanded into the continuous verb ‘commoning’, to denote the continuous making and re-making of the commons through shared practice. In this way the commons is not a static community that exists a priori or a society to come a posteriori but something that is only ever constituted through acting and doing in common. At the heart of this relational, situated interdependence of humans and non-humans is not an impoverished world of ‘niggardly nature’, nor an infinitely malleable world of Ôtechno-nature,Õ but a more-than-human commons that navigates between limits and possibilities as they arise (Bresnihan forthcoming). Nor is the more-than-human commons a pre-modern ideal that has been lost or marginalized. It arises wherever there is an immediate and intimate understanding that the world is shared, that human and non-human life is interdependent. This not an ideal norm but a materially and socially constituted reality that has been documented in many different settings (Linebaugh 2008; Scott 1990)

There are new fields of research that can help us to decipher what is going on in the more-than-human commons. These include the work of anthropologists examining indigenous cosmologies and relations with nature and territory (De la Cadena; Escobar 1999; Viveiros Castro 1998; Rose 2004), as well as post-humanist and vital materialist theory (Barad 2003; Bennett 2010; De la Bellacasa 2010, 2012; Papadopolous 2010, 2010a) that help shift the methodological and epistemological lens away from subjects and objects to the relata, the relations that constitute our world (Barad 2003). These rich literatures can help us disrupt the liberal humanist epistemologies that both individualize and place humans at the centre of world-making processes. In terms of the more-than-human commons this also means making an intellectual leap into contexts where social and material resources are already immediately and intimately shared between humans and non-humans.”


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Essay of the Day: Open Source Finance Hacking

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Michel Bauwens
27th July 2015

“The hacker drive for de-alienated self-empowerment throws up tricky issues. As people with a hacker impulse gain confidence, they can become increasingly intolerant towards conventions, but also towards institutions like large welfare systems, which are viewed as being alienating in their own way. When combined with the individualistic streak, this can make for a libertarian political impulse. At its best, that can be a left-leaning libertarianism concerned with how to empower the underdog from the bottom up, showing solidarity with those in less empowered positions, similar to anarchist mutual aid. In its negative incarnation, though, hacker culture can fetishise personal liberty, a conservative ‘don’t tell me what to do’ libertarianism associated with people who already have power and who do not particularly go out of their way to help spread it. We see this in the likes of libertarian activist Adam Kokesh, who says ‘fuck you’ to authorities, but without really offering much empathy to those who are not empowered, skilled, or connected enough to be as bold as he.”

* Article: Open source finance hacking: The potentials and problems. Brett Scott. Spanda Journal, Special Issue: Spanda Journal special issue on “Systemic Change”, VI, 1, June 2015. Edited by Helene Finidori.

This essay is part of a throroughly excellent special issue of the Spanda Journal on systemic change edited by Helene Finidori, In case of more interest for the issues in this essay contact the author at please contact the author at Twitter https://twitter.com/Suitpossum and or check the blog at: http://suitpossum.blogspot.co.uk/

An excerpt from the introduction, by Brett Scott:

“The global financial system is a notoriously opaque and alienating complex. The system is implicated in social injustice and ecological destruction around the world, and the key financial institutions, such as banks and funds, wield unhealthy levels of political power. The financial sector – that cluster of institutions that sit in the centre of the financial system – have at least five problematic dimensions.

Firstly, the financial sector routinely steers money into projects that are hardwired to breach planetary ecological boundaries. It is thus premised on ecological unsustainability. Secondly, it is an active agent of inequality. Not only do financial professionals reap outlandishly large salaries, but financial instruments like shares and bonds are conduits for powerful cartels of investors to direct money into the powerful corporate sector, often in ways that do not benefit ordinary people.

Thirdly, even if you do not believe that the sector creates inequality, it exhibits high levels of complexity and opacity, which, when combined with the fact that the system is highly interconnected, translates into high levels of systemic risk, the ability for financial crashes in one country to shake the entire global economy.

Fourthly, the sector hosts a particular culture of finance. This tends to be portrayed in the press by pictures of obnoxious traders swilling champagne, but the much deeper issue is the pervasive denial of agency and responsibility found in the sector: Financial institutions like to portray their profession as an apolitical agent of economic efficiency, rather than accepting the highly political nature of allocating credit and facilitating investment processes around the world.

Fifthly, there is the process called financialisation. In basic terms it is the creeping sense that the culture and drives of the financial sector are taking over many aspects of life previously untouched by it, turning everything into investable and tradable commodities. Thus, land and atmospheric pollution rights become parcelled into land investment funds and commodity investment baskets, while people’s life insurance policies get parcelled into structured investment products for hedge funds to speculate on.

These trends, when taken together, have a way of creating ever more alienating and obscure financial phenomena, which appear incomprehensible and uncontrollable to the average citizen. Take, for example, high-frequency algorithmic trading, portrayed by those involved as a force for rational efficiency, but creating hitherto unknown levels of systemic risk.”

* Discussion: Applying the concept of open source to finance

Brett Scott:

Open source culture thus might be a useful way of framing the initial broad changes we might want to see in the financial system. After all, we are stuck within a massively powerful incumbent system, and need to find ways to build anew from that starting point.

Software code is used to build rule systems that steer energy into activating hardware towards particular ends. So, extending this as an analogy, what might financial ‘code’ look like? A financial system, in a basic sense, is supposed to distribute claims on human energy and resources (‘money’), via financial instruments (often created by financial intermediaries like banks), into new economic production activities (‘investments’), in exchange for a return over time.

Here, for example, is a rough financial circuit: A person manages to earn a surplus of money, which they deposit into a pension fund, which in turns invests in shares and bonds (which are conduits to the real world assets of a corporation), which in turn return dividends and interest over time back to the pension fund, and finally back to the person.

Shares and bonds are extractive financial conduits that plug into a corporate structure, but if you look for how they are coded, you’d discover they are built from legal documents that are informed by regulations, acts of parliament, and social norms. They are supported by IT systems, payments systems and auxiliary services.

But it takes more than clearly-worded documentation to be able to create financial instruments. The core means of financial production, by which we mean the things that allow people to produce financial services (or build financial instruments), includes having access to networks of investors and companies, having access to specialist knowledge of financial techniques, and having access to information. It is these elements that banks and other financial intermediaries really compete over: They battle to monopolise relationships, monopolise information, and to monopolise specialist knowledge of financial techniques.

And indeed, that is why production of financial services mostly occurs within the towering concrete skycrapers of the ‘financial sector’, spinners of webs of financial code that is mostly unknown to most people. We have very little direct access to the means of financial production ourselves, very little say in how financial institutions choose to direct money in society, and very little ability to monitor them. We have, in essence, an intense concentration of power in financial intermediaries, who in turn reinforce and seek to preserve that power. And while I may be happy to accept a concentration of power in small specialist industries like Swiss watchmaking, a concentration of power in the system responsible for distributing claims on human society’s collective resources is not a good thing. It is systematically breaking our planetary hardware, whilst helping to fuel a culture of bland individualistic materialism in increasingly atomised communities.”


Posted in Economy and Business, Featured Essay | 2 Comments »

Essay of the Day: Reconsidering the University Invention Ownership Model

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Michel Bauwens
24th July 2015

* Essay: Reconsidering the Bayh-Dole Act and the Current University Invention Ownership Model. By Martin Kenney and Donald Patton.

From the abstract:

“The current model within which universities own the inventions made by their researchers was enshrined in the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980. This paper finds that the current system, in which universities maintain de jure ownership of inventions, is not optimal either in terms of economic efficiency or in advancing the social interest of rapidly commercializing technology and encouraging entrepreneurship. We demonstrate that this model is plagued by ineffective incentives, information asymmetries, and contradictory motivations for the university, the inventors, potential licensees, and university technology licensing offices (TLOs). We suggest that these structural uncertainties lead to delays in licensing, misaligned incentives among parties, and delays in the flow of scientific information and the materials necessary for scientific progress. The institutional arrangements within which TLOs are embedded have encouraged some of them to become revenue maximizers.

We suggest two invention ownership models as superior alternatives to the conventional model. The first alternative is to vest ownership with the inventor, who could choose the commercialization path for the invention. For this privilege the inventor would provide the university 5 percent ownership stake in any returns to the invention. The inventor would be free to contract with the university TLO or any other entity that might assist in commercialization. The second alternative discussed is to make all inventions immediately publicly available through an open source strategy or, through a requirement that all inventions be licensed non-exclusively. Both alternatives would address the current dysfunctional arrangements in licensing university technology .”


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Essay of the Day: How the Student as Producer is Hacking the University

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Michel Bauwens
23rd July 2015

* Paper: Student as Producer is hacking the university. Winn, Joss and Lockwood, Dean (2013) Student as Producer is hacking the university. In: Rethinking pedagogy for a digital age. Routledge.

From the abstract:

“This chapter discusses the Student as Producer project at the University of Lincoln and provides two case studies of how Student as Producer is infiltrating quite different areas of university life. The first discusses Student as Producer in the context of Deleuze and rhizomatic curriculum design, while the second looks at how the project is being applied to the development of an open institutional infrastructure, in which Computer Science students are redesigning and developing the tools used for research, teaching and learning.”


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Policies for the Commons: Issue #7 – Journal of Peer Production

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Vasilis Kostakis
16th July 2015

Schermata-2012-07-19-a-16.22.26It is our great pleasure to announce the public release of Issue #7 of the Journal of Peer Production. This issue, which has been edited by George Dafermos and me, features several articles which explore how the principles of the commons, of peer production and of the social economy can form the basis for a paradigm shift in society.

New issue — Journal of Peer Production #7: Policies for the Commons

A spectre is haunting the world – the spectre of the Commons. Without a doubt, the world system is in a crisis of such magnitude that the existing state of affairs cannot possibly be maintained for much longer. At the same time, models based on the collective management of common goods and the social economy have sprung up amidst this state of permanent crisis, which suggest that another world is possible. Taking the policy proposals originally developed by the FLOK Society project in Ecuador as a starting point, this JoPP issue explores how the principles of the ?C?ommons, of peer production, of free software and of the social economy can constitute the basis for the development of appropriate policies enabling the transition to alternative, post-capitalist social and economic models.

The articles collected in this issue address some crucial aspects of this transformation: the transition process from a capitalist knowledge economy towards a social knowledge economy; the transformation of the secondary sector of the economy, with an emphasis on manufacturing and energy; and the reconfiguration of the state and the commonification of public services in the direction of a “Partner State” in which the resources and functions of the state are primarily used to enable and empower autonomous social production?.?

| T A B L E  O F  C O N T E N T S |

+—–Editorial section———————————————————————+

“Editorial notes: Public policy proposals for a society of the commons” by George Dafermos and Vasilis Kostakis [here]

“The FLOK doctrine” by David Vila-Viñas and Xabier Barandiaran [here]

+—–Peer-reviewed papers————————————————————-+

“Transforming the productive base of the economy through the open design commons and distributed manufacturing” by George Dafermos [here]

“Transforming the energy matrix: Transition policies for the development of the distributed energy model” by George Dafermos, Panos Kotsampopoulos, Kostas Latoufis, Ioannis Margaris, Beatriz Rivela, Fausto Paulino Washima, Pere Ariza-Montobbio and Jesús López [here]

“Public policy for a social economy” by John Restakis [here]

“ICT, open government and civil society” by John Restakis, Daniel Araya, Maria José Calderon and Robin Murray [here]

“Towards a new configuration between the state, civil society and the market” by Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis [here]


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Research: Economic and Energy Consumption Aspects of Additive Manufacturing

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Michel Bauwens
15th July 2015

* PhD Thesis: Economic aspects of additive manufacturing: benefits, costs and energy consumption. Martin Baumers. Doctor of Philosophy of Loughborough University, 2012.

From the abstract:

“Additive Manufacturing (AM) refers to the use of a group of technologies capable of combining material layer-by-layer to manufacture geometrically complex products in a single digitally controlled process step, entirely without moulds, dies or other tooling. AM is a parallel manufacturing approach, allowing the contemporaneous production of multiple, potentially unrelated, components or products. This thesis contributes to the understanding of the economic aspects of additive technology usage through an analysis of the effect of AM s parallel nature on economic and environmental performance measurement. Further, this work assesses AM s ability to efficiently create complex components or products.
To do so, this thesis applies a methodology for the quantitative analysis of the shape complexity of AM output. Moreover, this thesis develops and applies a methodology for the combined estimation of build time, process energy flows and financial costs. A key challenge met by this estimation technique is that results are derived on the basis of technically efficient AM operation.

Results indicate that, at least for the technology variant Electron Beam Melting, shape complexity may be realised at zero marginal energy consumption and cost. Further, the combined estimator of build time, energy consumption and cost suggests that AM process efficiency is independent of production volume. Rather, this thesis argues that the key to efficient AM operation lies in the user s ability to exhaust the available build space.” (https://dspace.lboro.ac.uk/dspace-jspui/handle/2134/10768)

Here is an excerpt from the conclusion of the research:

” Tuck et al. (2008) suggests that AM possesses two advantages over other, more conventional manufacturing techniques. Firstly, AM is able to efficiently generate geometrically complex components; and secondly, the technology is able to produce very small production quantities at a relatively low average cost.

This research has demonstrated a methodology for the quantification of measures associated with complexity. Using a measure reflecting shape complexity, as proposed by Psarra and Grajewski (2001), it has been shown that the energy inputs to the AM variant EBM do not correlate with the complexity found in the layers of a test part. This gives reason to believe that in some AM processes, such as EBM, the financial production cost will also be independent of product complexity. As noted by Hague et al. (2003), this is a novel feature for manufacturing processes and is unlike most conventional processes.

Contributing to the on-going debate on AM’s ability to efficiently manufacture products in low volumes (down to a single unit), this research has discussed the determinants of energy consumption and financial production cost. In terms of pure process energy consumption, it is demonstrated that the degree of capacity utilisation is highly important for summary metrics of energy consumption on some platforms. The presented evidence reveals that especially powder bed fusion AM technology, such as LS, SLM, DMLS and EBM are subject to severe economic penalties if the available build volume capacity is not fully used. On the other hand, the economics of the FDM process appear to be relatively independent of the degree of build volume capacity utilisation.

However, unlike some previous models of manufacturing cost, this thesis argues that is not possible to infer a relationship between manufacturing unit cost and production quantity. The reason for this is that the underlying behaviour would not be rational. In reality, empty capacity is avoided by the users of AM systems (Ruffo and Hague, 2007). This can be achieved by postponing builds, selling excess capacity to external demanders or adopting a smaller AM system.

Thus, this thesis suggests that the AM users’ ability to fill the available machine capacity is the linchpin for favourable manufacturing economics on most AM platforms, apparently with the exception of FDM.

Motivated by the need to reduce the energy consumption associated with the manufacture and use of durable goods, there is an increased tendency to take into account the whole life cycle in engineering design.

This thesis appreciates that the environmental impact of durable goods is not restricted to the production processes. It extends „upstream? to the raw material generation process and „downstream? to the 229 product?s use-phase and to its disposal. Here, the adoption of AM may be beneficial in two ways: due to its ability to create complex products in a single step the wastage of raw material is minimised. Moreover, its ability to fully differentiate products to the function they will perform during their use phase should ultimately result in highly effective and functional products. These gains may be large enough to compensate for disadvantages in terms of manufacturing cost or manufacturing energy consumption.

According to Stoneman (1995), an important research puzzle deals with the issue of whether environmentally benign technologies may be privately profitable. The evidence presented in this thesis, especially the outcomes of the combined energy consumption and cost model, points to the conclusion that the minimum cost configuration in AM is also the configuration that minimises the energy inputs during the manufacturing stage.

Hence, from an ecological standpoint, AM adoption may come with the side-effect of correcting production configurations with non-minimal energy inputs. This aspect may be an important prerequisite for energy efficiency gains in manufacturing (Lovins, 1996). Moreover, a corrective of this kind is perhaps also a hallmark of a particular class of technology described as „Mumfordian biotechnics?. It has been argued that these technologies may in the distant future replace conventional mass production by a more benign, scalable and product performance oriented manufacturing approach (Mumford, 1971). Aspects of AM that support this classification are the qualitative richness of products enabled by AM (Hollington, 2008) and the freedom from quantitative pressures associated with the absence of sunk tooling costs present in traditional mass production (Ruffo et al., 2006b).”


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Essay of the Day: Comparing Successful Grassroots Innovations in Renewable Energy

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Michel Bauwens
12th July 2015

* Article: Of solar collectors, wind power, and car sharing: Comparing and understanding successful cases of grassroots innovations. By Michael Ornetzeder and Harald Rohracher, Linköping University Post Print, 2013

From the Abstract:

“Grassroots activities so far have not been sufficiently appreciated as sources of innovation. Transition processes towards more sustainable socio-technical energy, transport or production systems, however, are hardly imaginable without a broader participation of engaged citizens. This paper presents and compares three cases of successful grassroots innovations for sustainability. In particular we compare the development of wind technology in Denmark, the solar collector do-it-yourself movement in Austria, and the development of car sharing in Switzerland. The paper aims at a better understanding of the preconditions, patterns of growth and change and factors of success of grassroots innovations for more sustainable socio-technical regimes such as energy and transport. In the analysis we focus on dimensions such as the structural conditions and resources of origin, motivations of social actors involved, learning processes and outcomes, competences and activities of those actors, processes of institution-building, and the relationships to mainstream market actors. Based on the empirical background the paper discusses implications for the theorisation of grassroots innovations for greater sustainability and draws implications for further research.”


Posted in Featured Essay, P2P Energy | No Comments »

Essay of the Day: The Scored Society

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Michel Bauwens
7th July 2015

* Essay: The Scored Society: Procedural Due Process for Automated Predictions. Frank Pascuale and Danielle Keats Citron.

John Danaher summarizes the article:

“The article looks at the recent trend for using big data to “score” various aspects of human behaviour. For example, there are now automated “scoring” systems used to rank job applicants based on their social media output, or college professors for their student-friendliness, or political activists for their likelihood of committing crimes. Is this a good thing? Citron and Pasquale argue that it is not, and suggest possible reforms to existing legal processes. In short, they argue for a more robust system of procedural due process when it comes to the use of algorithms to score human behaviour.” 9http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2376209)

An excerpt from a discussion by John Danaher:

“Citron and Pasquale recommend that we think of the scoring process in terms of four distinct stages:

(i) the data gathering stage, in which personal data is gathered;

(ii) the score-generating stage, in which an actual score is produced from the data;

(iii) the dissemination stage, in which the score is shared with decision-makers; and

(iv) the usage stage, in which the score is actually used in order to make some decision.

Once we are clear about the process, we can begin to think about the remedies. Citron and Pasquale suggest that new procedural safeguards and regulations be installed at each stage. I’ll provide a brief overview here.

First, at the data-gathering stage, people should be entitled to know which data are being gathered; and they should be entitled to challenge or correct the data if they believe it is wrong. The data-gatherers should not be allowed to hide behind confidentiality agreements or other legal facades to block access to this information. There is nothing spectacular in this recommendation. Freedom of information and freedom of access to personal information is now common in many areas of law (particularly when data are gathered by governments).

Second, at the score-generating stage, the source code for the algorithms being used should be made public. The processes used by the scorers should be inspectable and reviewable by both regulators and the people affected by the process. Sometimes, there may be merit to the protection of trade secrets, but we need to switch the default away from secrecy to openness.

Third, at the dissemination stage, we run into some tricky issues. Some recent U.S. decisions have suggested that the dissemination of such information cannot be blocked on the grounds that doing so would compromise free speech. Be that as it may, Citron and Pasquale argue that everyone should have a right to know how and when their information is being disseminated to others. This right to know wouldn’t compromise the right to free speech. Indeed, transparency of this sort actually facilitates freedom of speech.

Fourth, at the usage stage, Citron and Pasquale argue for a system of licencing and auditing whenever the data are used in important areas (e.g. in making employment decisions). This means that the scoring system would have to be licenced for use in the particular area and would be subjected to regular auditing in order to ensure quality control. Think of the model of health and safety licencing and inspection for restaurants and you’ve got the basic idea.

Criticisms and Reflections:

Citron and Pasquale go on to provide a detailed example of how a licencing and auditing system might work in the area of credit-scoring algorithms. I won’t go into those details here as the example is very US-centric (focusing on particular regulatory authorities in the US and their current powers and resources). Instead, I want to offer some general reflections and mild criticisms of their proposals.
In general, I favour their policy recommendations. I agree that there are significant problems associated with the black box society (as well as potential benefits) and we should work hard to minimise these problems. The procedural safeguards and regulatory frameworks proposed by the authors could very well assist in doing this. Though, as the authors themselves note, the window of opportunity for reforming this area may not open any time soon. Still, it is important to have policy proposals ready-to-go when it does.

Furthermore, I agree with the authors when they reject certain criticisms of transparency and openness. A standard objection is that transparency will allow people to “game the system”, i.e. generate good ratings when they actually present a risk. This may happen, but its importance is limited by two factors. First, if it does happen, it may just indicate that the scoring system is flawed and needs to be improved: reliable and accurate systems are generally more difficult to game. Transparency may facilitate the necessary improvements in the scoring system by allowing competitors to innovate and learn from past mistakes. Second, the costs associated with people “gaming the system” need to be considered in light of the costs of the present system. The current system did little to prevent the financial crisis in 2008, and its secrecy has an impact on procedural fairness and individual lives. Is the “gaming” worry sufficient to outweigh those costs?

Nevertheless, I have two concerns about the authors’ proposal. One is simply that it may be too idealistic. We are already drowning in information and besieged by intrusions into our personal data. Adding a series of procedural safeguards and rights to review data-gathering systems might do little to prevent the slide toward the algocratic society. People may not exercise their rights or may not care about the (possibly deleterious) ways in which their personal data are being used. In addition to this, and perhaps more subtly, I worry that proposals of this sort do little to empower the individuals affected by algocratic systems. Instead, they seem to empower epistemic elites and technocrats who have the time and ability to understand how these systems work. They will then be tasked with helping the rest of us to understand what is going on, advising us as to how these systems may be negatively impacting on us, and policing their implementation. In other words, proposals of this sort seem to just replace one set of problems — associated with a novel technological process — with an older and more familiar set of problems — associated with powerful human elites. But maybe the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.”


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Essay of the Day: In Search of Democratic Academic Publishing Strategies

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
5th July 2015

* Essay: The Power of Free: In search of democratic academic publishing strategies. Jan Blommaert.

Summary of the thesis:

“In this polemical essay, I intend to engage with the current system of academic publishing, in light of the debates about possible Open Access publishing strategies. I write my remarks from my own position in the field: as an Arts scholar (a linguistic anthropologist to be precise), tenured at a European University (Tilburg University, to be precise), with a degree of seniority in my field and with a reasonably full publishing track record. It is my view that the debate on Open Access, which currently opposed in a rather random way a “Gold” versus a “Green” strategy, should consider some fundamental issues related to the economic dimension of academic publishing, of the motives and rationale for publishing as an academic, and on available alternatives. Lacking such reflections, the debate risks becoming a reiteration of stereotypes and “inevitabilities” and may lead not to improvement but to a “race to the bottom”.”


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Book of the Day: Self-Organizing Processes, Neoliberal Fantasies, and Democratic Activism

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
25th June 2015

* Book: William E. Connolly, The Fragility of Things: Self-Organizing Processes, Neoliberal Fantasies, and Democratic Activism (Duke University Press, 2013)

Excerpted from a review by Zachary Loeb:

“Connolly argues for an “ethic of cultivation” that can show “both how fragile the ethical life is and how important it is to cultivate it” . “Cultivation,” as developed in The Fragility of Things, stands in opposition to withdrawal. Instead it entails serious, ethically guided, activist engagement with the world – for us to recognize the fragility of natural, and human-made, systems (Connolly uses the term “force-fields”) and to act to protect this “fragility” instead of celebrating neoliberal risks that render the already precarious all the more tenuous.

Connolly argues that when natural disasters strike, and often in their wake set off rippling cascades of additional catastrophes, they exemplify the “spontaneous order” so beloved by neoliberal economics. Under neoliberalism, the market is treated as though it embodies a uniquely omniscient, self-organizing and self-guiding principle. Yet the economic system is not the only one that can be described this way: “open systems periodically interact in ways that support, amplify, or destabilize one another”. Even in the so-called Anthropocene era the ecosystem, much to humanity’s chagrin, can still demonstrate creative and unpredictable potentialities. Nevertheless, the ideological core of neoliberalism relies upon celebrating the market’s self-organizing capabilities whilst ignoring the similar capabilities of governments, the public sphere, or the natural world. The ascendancy of neoliberalism runs parallel with an increase in fragility as economic inequality widens and as neoliberalism treats the ecosystem as just another profit source. Fragility is everywhere today, and though the cracks are becoming increasingly visible, it is still given – in Connolly’s estimation – less attention than is its due, even in “radical theory.” On this issue Connolly wonders if perhaps “radical theorists,” and conceivably radical activists, “fear that coming to terms with fragility would undercut the political militancy needed to respond to it?”. Yet Connolly sees no choice but to “respond,” envisioning a revitalized Left that can take action with a mixture of advocacy for immediate reforms while simultaneously building towards systemic solutions.

Critically engaging with the thought of core neoliberal thinker and “spontaneous order” advocate Friedrich Hayek, Connolly demonstrates the way in which neoliberal ideology has been inculcated throughout society, even and especially amongst those whose lives have been made more fragile by neoliberalism: “a neoliberal economy cannot sustain itself unless it is supported by a self-conscious ideology internalized by most participants that celebrates the virtues of market individualism, market autonomy and a minimal state”. An army of Panglossian commentators must be deployed to remind the wary watchers that everything is for the best. That a high level of state intervention may be required to bolster and disseminate this ideology, and prop up neoliberalism, is wholly justified in a system that recognizes only neoliberalism as a source for creative self-organizing processes, indeed “sometimes you get the impression that ‘entrepreneurs’ are the sole paradigms of creativity in the Hayekian world”.

Resisting neoliberalism, for Connolly, requires remembering the sources of creativity that occur outside of a market context and seeing how these other systems demonstrate self-organizing capacities.

Within neoliberalism the market is treated as the ethical good, but Connolly works to counter this with “an ethic of cultivation” which works not only against neoliberalism but against certain elements of Kant’s philosophy. In Connolly’s estimation Kantian ethics provide some of the ideological shoring up for neoliberalism, as at times “Kant both prefigures some existential demands unconsciously folded into contemporary neoliberalism and reveals how precarious they in fact are. For he makes them postulates”. Connolly sees a certain similarity between the social conditioning that Kant saw as necessary for preparing the young to “obey moral law” and the ideological conditioning that trains people for life under neoliberalism – what is shared is a process by which a self-organizing system must counter people’s own self-organizing potential by organizing their reactions. Furthermore “the intensity of cultural desires to invest hopes in the images of self-regulating interest within markets and/or divine providence wards off acknowledgment of the fragility of things” (118). Connolly’s “ethic of cultivation” appears as a corrective to this ethic of inculcation – it features “an element of tragic possibility within it” which is the essential confrontation with the “fragility” that may act as a catalyst for a new radical activism.

In the face of impending doom neoliberalism will once more have an opportunity to demonstrate its creativity even as this very creativity will have reverberations that will potentially unleash further disasters. Facing the possible catastrophe means that “we may need to recraft the long debate between secular, linear, and deterministic images of the world on the one hand and divinely touched, voluntarist, providential, and/or punitive images on the other”. Creativity, and the potential for creativity, is once more essential – as it is the creativity in multiple self-organizing systems that has created the world, for better or worse, around us today. Bringing his earlier discussions of Kant into conversation with the thought of Whitehead and Nietzsche, Connolly further considers the place of creative processes in shaping and reshaping the world. Nietzsche, in particular, provides Connolly with a way to emphasize the dispersion of creativity by removing the province of creativity from the control of God to treat it as something naturally recurring across various “force-fields.” A different demand thus takes shape wherein “we need to slow down and divert human intrusions into various planetary force fields, even as we speed up efforts to reconstitute the identities, spiritualities, consumption practices, market faiths, and state policies entangled with them” though neoliberalism knows but one speed: faster.

An odd dissonance occurs at present wherein people are confronted with the seeming triumph of neoliberal capitalism (one can hear the echoes of “there is no alternative”) and the warnings pointing to the fragility of things. In this context, for Connolly, withdrawal is irresponsible, it would be to “cultivate a garden” when what is needed is an “ethic of cultivation.” Neoliberal capitalism has trained people to accept the strictures of its ideology, but now is a time when different roles are needed; it is a time to become “role experimentalists”. Such experiments may take a variety of forms that run the gamut from “reformist” to “revolutionary” and back again, but the process of such experimentation can break the training of neoliberalism and demonstrate other ways of living, interacting, being and having. Connolly does not put forth a simple solution for the challenges facing humanity, instead he emphasizes how recognizing the “fragility of things” allows for people to come to terms with these challenges. After all, it may be that neoliberalism only appears so solid because we have forgotten that it is not actually a naturally occurring mountain but a human built pyramid – and our backs are its foundation.

William Connolly’s The Fragility of Things is both ethically and intellectually rigorous, demanding readers perceive the “fragility” of the world around them even as it lays out the ways in which the world around them derives its stability from making that very fragility invisible. Though it may seem that there are relatively simple concerns at the core of The Fragility of Things Connolly never succumbs to simplistic argumentation – preferring the fine-toothed complexity that allows moments of fragility to be fully understood. The tone and style of The Fragility of Things feels as though it assumes its readership will consist primarily of academics, activists, and those who see themselves as both. It is a book that wastes no time trying to convince its reader that “climate change is real” or “neoliberalism is making things worse,” and the book is more easily understood if a reader begins with at least a basic acquaintance with the thought of Hayek, Kant, Whitehead, and Nietzsche. Even if not every reader of The Fragility of Things has dwelled for hours upon the question of “How do you prepare for the end of the world?” the book seems to expect that this question lurks somewhere in the subconscious of the reader.

Amidst Connolly’s discussions of ethics, fragility and neoliberalism, he devotes much of the book to arguing for the need for a revitalized, active, and committed Left – one that would conceivably do more than hold large marches and then disappear. While Connolly cautions against “giving up” on electoral politics he does evince a distrust for US party politics; to the extent that Connolly appears to be a democrat it is a democrat with a lowercase d. Drawing inspiration from the wave of protests in and around 2011 Connolly expresses the need for a multi-issue, broadly supported, international (and internationalist) Left that can organize effectively to win small-scale local reforms while building the power to truly challenge the grip of neoliberalism. The goal, as Connolly envisions it, is to eventually “mobilize enough collective energy to launch a general strike simultaneously in several countries in the near future” even as Connolly remains cognizant of threats that “the emergence of a neofascist or mafia-type capitalism” can pose (39). Connolly’s focus on the, often slow, “traditional” activist strategies of organizing should not be overlooked, as his focus on mobilizing large numbers of people acts as a retort to a utopian belief that “technology will fix everything.” The “general strike” as the democratic response once electoral democracy has gone awry is a theme that Connolly concludes with as he calls for his readership to take part in helping to bring together “a set of interacting minorities in several countries for the time when we coalesce around a general strike launched in several states simultaneously” (195). Connolly emphasizes the types of localized activism and action that are also necessary, but “the general strike” is iconic as the way to challenge neoliberalism. In emphasizing the “the general strike” Connolly stakes out a position in which people have an obligation to actively challenge existing neoliberalism, waiting for capitalism to collapse due to its own contradictions (and trying to accelerate these contradictions) does not appear as a viable tactic.

All of which raises something of prickly question for The Fragility of Things: which element of the book strikes the reader as more outlandish, the question of how to prepare for the end of the world, or the prospect of a renewed Left launching “a general strike…in the near future”? This question is not asked idly or as provocation; and the goal here is in no way to traffic in Leftist apocalyptic romanticism. Yet experience in current activism and organizing does not necessarily imbue one with great confidence in the prospect of a city-wide general strike (in the US) to say nothing of an international one. Activists may be acutely aware of the creative potentials and challenges faced by repressed communities, precarious labor, the ecosystem, and so forth – but these same activists are aware of the solidity of militarized police forces, a reactionary culture industry, and neoliberal dominance. Current, committed, activists’ awareness of the challenges they face makes it seem rather odd that Connolly suggests that radical theorists have ignored “fragility.” Indeed many radical thinkers, or at least some (Grace Lee Boggs and Franco “Bifo” Berardi, to name just two) seem to have warned consistently of “fragility” – even if they do not always use that exact term. Nevertheless, here the challenge may not be the Sisyphean work of activism but the rather cynical answer many, non-activists, give to the question of “How does one prepare for the end of the world?” That answer? Download some new apps, binge watch a few shows, enjoy the sci-fi cool of the latest gadget, and otherwise eat, drink and be merry because we’ll invent something to solve tomorrow’s problems next week. Neoliberalism has trained people well.

That answer, however, is the type that Connolly seems to find untenable, and his apparent hope in The Fragility of Things is that most readers will also find this answer unacceptable. Thus Connolly’s “ethic of cultivation” returns and shows its value again. “Our lives are messages” (185) Connolly writes and thus the actions that an individual takes to defend “fragility” and oppose neoliberalism act as a demonstration to others that different ways of being are possible.

What The Fragility of Things makes clear is that an “ethic of cultivation” is not a one-off event but an ongoing process – cultivating a garden, after all, is something that takes time. Some gardens require years of cultivation before they start to bear fruit.”


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