Book of the Week (2): What is the Nature of Freedom in A2K demands?

* Book: Access to Knowledge in the Age of Intellectual Property. by Gaelle Krikorian and Amy Kapczynski (eds.). Zone Books, 2010

This book takes as its subject this new field of activism and advocacy and the new political and conceptual conflicts occurring in the domain of intellectual property.

In this second and last excerpt, co-editor Amy Kapczynski reflects on basic questions that the A2K movement is asking itself.

Amy Kapczynski:

* Question 1: What is the nature of the freedom that a2k demands?

Often, A2K thinkers speak of freedom (such as the freedom of the public domain)

as a place free of permission.

Lawrence Lessig states it most plainly:

“The opposite of a free culture is a ‘permission culture.’”

But are A2K advocates really committed to a vision that posits freedom as a space where one never needs permission— as a space beyond control? If so, what of the very substantial controls that some groups, from free-software programmers to proponents of traditional knowledge, seek to impose upon certain forms of knowledge? Creative Commons, a high-profile organization that Lessig himself founded, offers individuals a set of copyright licenses that they can use to give others more freedoms than copyright law otherwise would. But some of these licenses—not uncontroversially within A2K circles— preclude others from creating derivative works, making use of precisely the power of permission in the service of authorial control.

In fact, no such simple principle of opposition to control can be derived from

the thought of A2K. If it could, it would commit A2K also to a series of what are

likely to be untenable positions with respect to nonproperty forms of control that

can be described as demands for “permission,” such as those related to privacy and

network security. Is it in fact possible to assume a simple opposition between free-

dom and control, or are the two instead intimately interconnected and interdepen-

dent in the age of digital networks?89 A2K advocates must envision a particular

mode of control or demand for permission that they oppose. How, though, should

this be characterized?

The A2K movement’s conception of freedom also contains within it a certain

fractured relationship to markets. The public domain, for example, is sometimes

figured as a space free from markets, a space where noncommercially motivated

creators have the resources and room to play.90 At other times—and perhaps more

often—it is figured as a space free for markets where not only amateurs can for-

age, but where corporations can compete without monopolies, to the benefit of

the public as consumers.91 Can the same domain be both the space of freedom

from commerce and the space of freedom for commerce?

When A2K advocates articulate the public domain as a space that is equally—

and properly—open to the exploitation of capital and communities alike, it sug-

gests that this competition is itself a free and equal one. But is the public domain

in fact universally “free” in a substantive fashion, when those who create from

its resources may enclose the results? Does leaving the public domain free in this

sense simply mean that those with resources will be able to make use of this (pub-

licly renewed and subsidized) resource and then enclose the results, to the sys-

tematic disadvantage of those who continue to operate outside of the confines of

property? Is this freedom a structurally unequal freedom, one that can be rem-

edied only by a positive concept of public property (or of a commons) that cannot

be the subject of such extraction?

This question is raised most acutely by groups focused on the Global South, such

as the farmers’ rights group GRAIN, which expresses skepticism about “the mer-

its of concepts such as the ‘public domain’ . . . if putting seeds in the public domain

means Monsanto can inject them with Terminator genes to destroy peasant agri-

culture.”92 The muted (or repressed) debate within the A2K movement over the

proper status of traditional knowledge (is it rightfully the property of local com-

munities, or part of the public domain open to all?) also evinces the strains

of this tension.

Finally, can the freedom imagined by A2K be produced by merely formal lack

of (the wrong kind of) constraint, for example, by the lack of the constraints

imposed by intellectual property law? Or does it require something more substan-

tive, an affirmative ability, for example, to access works in the public domain, or

the tools of the new “remix culture”?94 Is the freedom of the public domain or the

commons really worthy of the name if the majority of the world has no access

to the means needed to participate in it—for example, education, computers, and

affordable access to digital networks? At the close of 2007, only one-fifth of the

world’s population was using the Internet, and this use was highly skewed geo-

graphically: Only 4 percent of people in sub-Saharan Africa had such access.95

Although A2K thinkers invoke a robust conception of freedom that would require

the ability in fact to access the goods of which they speak, in practice, they devote

little attention to the profound inequalities in access to digital networks. Can

A2K advocates really claim to have a vision of freedom in the digital age if they do

not do more to theorize and demand affirmative access to the tools to create and

exchange information and knowledge?

* Question 2: is a2k committed more to the model of the public domain or of the commons? can it be committed to both?

The A2K movement valorizes the space of both the public domain and the com-

mons, and yet as we’ve seen, these two spaces are governed in importantly different

ways. The commons is controlled, often through the use of intellectual property

law itself. The public domain is instead a space beyond intellectual property law,

where no one has the right to extract permission or price.

Can the A2K movement be committed to both? If so, this would require

restructuring how the commons and public domain are each understood. A2K

rhetoric today arguably pastoralizes the commons, eliding the degree to which

communal decision making may be characterized by hierarchy and exclusion,

rather than by equality and open participation. To put it differently, why should

we view a collective despot as an improvement over an individual despot?

In fact, A2K advocates cannot and most of the time do not envision the com-

mons as just any kind of collectivity. Some systems of collective management are,

after all, fully compatible with expansive conceptions of intellectual property

rights, such as the collective rights organizations that enforce the rights of copy-

right holders in music.97 Corporations that mobilize intellectual property norms in

the service of exclusivity and maximal profit are of course in some sense “collec-

tive” entities, governed by groups of corporate officers and answerable to share-

holders. The A2K commons thus cannot be understood simply as a preference for

collective over individual governance. Some content must be given to the concept

of the collective and its terms of engagement. Like the concept of freedom, the

concept of the commons (if it is to lay claim to an ethic that differs substantially

from that of intellectual property) must be more substantively defined.

As the example of free software discussed above suggests, when A2K advo-

cates invoke the commons, they conjure forth a community that labors cooper-

atively and that labors under shared norms. Those norms differ not just in their

recognition rule—the metarule that determines what counts as valid law—but also

in their substance from the rules of intellectual property. 98 The commons of soft-

ware in fact has much in common with the public domain, because its rules of

engagement are similar to those that characterize the public domain. Still, they

are not identical. Individuals can take from the public domain and not replenish

it with their creations. Moreover, its contours and rules are not established by

a community of creators, but rather by a community of citizens who authorize

the law of intellectual property—which in turn defines the limits of the public

domain. Which is the appropriate community of lawmakers, and which the appro-

priate relation to what came before?

* Question 3: is information really different enough ?

Within the emerging ideology of the A2K movement is a strand that envisions

it as postideology, even, perhaps, postpolitical. This is evident particularly in the

self-styled political agnosticism that characterizes the free and open-source soft-

ware movement and in the writings of A2K thinkers who are most immersed in

the discourses of open source and the revolutionary potential of the networked

digital age.99 In this volume, Benkler, for example, argues that the ideas of A2K,

and in particular of “the information commons and the rise of networked coopera-

tion” can “subvert the traditional left-right divide . . . and provide the platform on

which political and economic interests meet around a common institutional and

organizational agenda.” A2K can appeal, he argues, to “libertarians, liberals, the

postsocialist left, and anarchists,” unifying forces on the left and right that usually

understand themselves to be at odds with one another.100

Such ideological catholicism, even pragmatism, is perhaps one of the most

appealing aspects of the A2K movement, particularly at a time when some on the

left are calling for a more serious reckoning with the benefits of well-regulated

markets and the dangers of ideological rigidity. 101 But the notion that the A2K

movement can exceed the traditional divide between classical free-market liberals

and the progressive left, that A2K can embrace both the market and the nonmar-

ket, and that A2K advocates need not decide between frames of freedom, justice,

or efficiency is surely contestable.

At its core, the sense that the A2K movement can exceed these divides rests

crucially on the claim that information is subject to different dynamics than the

world of material goods, particularly in the networked digital age. For Benkler,

for example, it is “the rise of the networked information economy [that] has cre-

ated the material conditions for the confluence of freedom, justice, and efficacy

understood as effective learning and innovation.” That is because in this new

environment, productivity and efficiency can be achieved through increasingly

open dynamics of sharing and cooperation, both within and outside of markets.

“Freedom and efficacy, then, will be the interface with both liberalisms, market

and social. Justice and freedom in the sense of the dissipation of structured, stable

hierarchical power will be the interface between liberalism and the left.”102

But the question is, is information different enough? As noted above, some

within the A2K movement doubt that the poor can compete in a realm of “free”

information if that freedom is granted equally to the powerful and the powerless.

To paraphrase Anatole France, is this just a kind of majestic equality that leaves

the rich and poor equally free to exploit the potential of biotechnology and soft-

ware engineering? Will resources determine, ultimately, who is heard in the space

of “free and open” networks? Can true democratization emerge from spaces of

creation and meaning making that are not themselves first radically democratized?

Or is the point of A2K thinkers instead that in the realm of information, we are

relatively more free and can do more than ever before—if not everything—to recon-

cile our commitments to freedom, justice, and efficiency? There is a difference, after

all, in a competition between the subsistence fisherman and the commercial fishing

fleet and between the unknown garage band and the corporately manufactured pop

star. There are only so many fish to go around, but there is no limit, theoretically, to

the number of songs that can be written. As importantly, according to A2K advo-

cates, garage bands can increasingly compete with studio-driven stars because of

the power of digital networks to give creators access to a public and the power of

these same networks to lower dramatically the costs of production of informational

goods. In the information realm, in a sense, there are always more fish, because the

fish there are subject to the rules of immaterial, rather than material goods. And

the advent of ubiquitous digital networks means a less unequal competition in the

struggle to create new information and to gain access to new publics.

The claim that the A2K movement can move beyond the traditional ideologi-

cal battles between formal and substantive conceptions of freedom, between the

freedom of the market and freedom from the market, is thus intimately bound up

with the idea that we can move beyond scarcity in the information age. As Verzola

puts it, material abundance is limited because “it must eventually express itself in

terms of biomass,” but information abundance “is of the nonmaterial variety. Thus,

information goods offer the promise of practically unlimited abundance.”103

In what sense is it useful to conceptualize information as having a kind of

abundance that exceeds the material or that is “practically unlimited”? Verzola

allows that the realm of information is in fact constrained, in his view “mainly by

the limits of human creativity, the storage capacity of media, and the availability

of electricity to power servers on the Internet twenty-four hours a day.”104 But

there is a utopian strand in A2K thinking that tends to minimize such constraints

of mind and environment, suggesting that they need not stand in the way of our

ability to think and compute our way to a more just and equal world.

The most enthusiastic proponents of the biotech and open-source software

revolutions imagine an era when biology and informatics merge to move us beyond

the limits of the physical. But today, half a million women each year still die in

childbirth, almost all in developing countries and more than fifty years after the

technologies to avert almost all such deaths were developed.105 We already have

the technologies and resources to feed and care for many more people than we

currently do, suggesting that there is a primary and prominent set of problems that

are not technological, but political.106 The dynamics of networked informationalism

might help overcome political problems where those problems are rooted in strug-

gles over scarce resources. They could also facilitate more transparency and politi-

cal participation, addressing failures of political accountability more directly.107

But critical to the postscarcity aspirations of the A2K movement are ques-

tions of degree, distribution, and velocity: Will the informational component of

our world advance rapidly or evenly enough to overwhelm the persistent inequali-

ties in the material? Will such advances be distributed evenly enough to make the

promise of living beyond scarcity a reality for any but the world’s richest? Can we

expect a leveling of the pervasive material inequalities in the world if the poor lack

access to the labs, computers, and textbooks that would allow them to do more for

themselves and if they also lack access to the kind of political power and voice that

would allow them to change the terms on which resources and informational goods

are currently distributed? Can A2K advocates build a theory of freedom that is

based upon the radical political possibilities of the immaterial while also account-

ing for the crucial moment when the informational intersects with the material in

the places that we create and communicate, that we live and die?

* Question 4: can a2k create a politics of knowledge? what are the proper limits of the politics of a2k?

The A2K movement was deliberately structured around a demand for access to

“knowledge.” And yet this introduction and the pages that follow make it clear

that A2K actors operate routinely in the idiom of “information,” for example,

extolling the importance of the information commons or the lessons of informa-

tion economics. What difference might this difference make? There are at least

two ways to approach the question—by asking what A2K activists invest in their

own choice of terms and by investigating the etymological implications of the dis-

tinction between information and knowledge.

If A2K theorists talk often about information, why isn’t the A2K movement

instead the A2I movement—a mobilization for “access to information”? Ahmed

Abdel Latif, in his account of how the term “A2K” was chosen, explains that “at

the conceptual level, knowledge, rather than information, is at the heart of the

empowerment of individuals and societies. While information is certainly a pre-

requisite in the generation of knowledge, acquisition of knowledge remains the

ultimate goal. Knowledge processes information to produce ideas, analysis, and

skills that ideally should contribute to human progress and civilization.”108

The decision to articulate the movement’s demands in relation to knowledge

was in part a response to perceived conceptual differences between knowledge

and information. Knowledge is a capacity that is central to empowerment—one

that relies upon, but is not reducible to information.

How precisely, though, should we understand the difference between knowl-

edge and information? A2K theorists such as Benkler define the distinction in this

way: Information is “raw data, scientific reports of the output of scientific discov-

ery, news, and factual reports,” while knowledge is “the set of cultural practices and

capacities necessary for processing the information into either new statements into

the information exchange, or more important in our context, for practical use of

the information in appropriate ways to produce more desirable actions or outcomes

from action.”109 Thus, information is objective and external, while knowledge is the

capacity to use information to create new information or to use information to gen-

erate technical effects in the world (knowledge as “know-how”).

This is narrower than the definition of knowledge that we might derive from

etymology or contemporary usage. According to the dictionary, we can “know”

anything that we understand through “experience or association.”110 The English

word “knowledge” corresponds to the German kennen and French connaître, desig-

nating a kind of understanding that comes from the senses. But “knowledge” also

incorporates the concepts of wissen and savoir, designating a kind of understand-

ing that is derived from the mind. It thus designates basic acts of human cognition:

recognition, acquaintance, intimacy, consciousness, or, “the fact, state, or condi-

tion of understanding.”

In its broadest sense, then, knowledge is more than the ability to process infor-

mation into more information and more know-how.

As Jean-François Lyotard writes, knowledge is

– a competence that goes beyond the simple determination and application of the cri-

terion of truth, extending to the determination and application of criteria of effi-

ciency (technical qualification), of justice and/or happiness (ethical wisdom), of

the beauty of a sound or color (auditory or visual sensibility), etc. Understood in

this way, knowledge is what makes someone capable of forming “good” denotative

utterances, but also “good” prescriptive and “good” evaluative utterances. . . . It is

not a competence relative to a particular class of statements (for example, cognitive

ones) to the exclusion of all others.

Knowledge is here a capacity more than it is an object or a possession—a power

immanent to intellectual, social, cultural, and technological relations between

humans.113 Information, in turn, is the externalized object of this capacity, the part of

knowledge that can be systematized and communicated or transmitted to others.

What would it mean for the A2K movement to take the distinction between

knowledge and information seriously and to theorize itself as a movement for

access not just to information, but to knowledge? At a minimum, using the nar-

rower definition of knowledge proposed by Benkler, it would require a focus not

only on extending access to information, but also on extending individual capaci-

ties to produce information and to make use of information to produce practical

effects in the material world.

As Benkler points out, there is “a genuine limit on the capacity of the net-

worked information economy to improve access to knowledge.” Knowledge can-

not be fully externalized into information—it is a capacity, rather than an object.

As such, it does not partake of the same dynamics of plenty that is said to char-

acterize the informational domain. While better access to learning materials can

enhance education, learning by doing requires local practice, and the practice of

education generally “does not scale across participants, time, and distance.”115

The A2K movement might focus on forms of information regulation that affect

the development of knowledge, as it has done to date in work on access to learn-

ing materials, open courseware, and lowering intellectual property barriers to

distance learning. These moves are more efforts to increase access to information

than access to knowledge. If the A2K movement is to embrace its initial identifi­

cation with the concept of access to knowledge, it must recognize that while access

to some information is clearly a prerequisite of building knowledge in Benkler’s

sense, more ubiquitous access to information is not the same thing as more ubiqui-

tous access to knowledge.

Can the A2K movement—as invested as its logic has become in the model

of information technologies and the economics of the copy—build a politics of

knowledge as a competence? The dream of perfect (and zero-cost) transmissibility

cannot survive an encounter with this concept of knowledge, because a compe-

tence that cannot be fully externalized and traded, and thus that is embedded in

the material, cannot be nonrival. And if knowledge cannot be accessed through a

simple download, then a politics of A2K must reach far beyond a politics of enclo-

sure and intellectual property.

Does this mean broadening the A2K mandate to include work on, for example,

the financing of primary schools or the effects of austerity budgets on universities

around the world? That is one possible outcome. More modestly, it might instead

mean that A2K groups recognize their focus is on improving access to information,

acknowledge that knowledge is not an object that can simply be downloaded from

North to South, and engage openly with those who worry that more information

could in some cases not improve, but rather threaten access to knowledge.

What if the A2K movement were instead to embrace the definition of knowl-

edge that corresponds not just to technical or intellectual knowledge, but also,

for example, to artistic or ethical knowledge? This would fit well with its attempt

to embrace the literary arts, as well as science and technology, but it would also

unmoor the movement from the conception of knowledge present in Benkler’s

definition. Lyotard’s broader definition requires us to recognize that the criteria for

successful knowledge are created, rather than given.

For the A2K movement, such a recognition would imply the need for a politics

not just of access to knowledge, but of what counts as knowledge and of who gets

to decide what counts. Would this work a fundamental harm to the universalizing

aspirations of the A2K movement? Or would it instead make room for A2K advo-

cates to begin to reckon with existing tensions in the movement, for example, sur-

rounding issues of traditional knowledge and the concept of the commons versus

the public domain?”

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