Lecture on the sustainability of open design

Sy Taffel attented the conference held in Westminster University and organized by Furtherfields.org, i.e Re-Rooting Digital Culture – Media Art Ecologies.

I think this is a fair representation of my arguments, so I reproduce his summary:

“One thing which left me somewhat confused was why the event was billed as an unconference, when in reality it was a fairly straightforward event with three speakers and a short Q+A after. Listening to three presentations (with accompanying powerpoints and prezis) and then having the chance to ask a few questions at the end is not a participant driven meeting, its the same format as you find at any conventional conference panel.

The first speaker was Michel Bauwens, founder of the Foundation for Peer to Peer Alternatives. Bauwens began by prescribing the central problems of the contemporary socio-economic system with regards to sustainability and equity. The first problem he outlined was that of pseudo-abundance: the aim of achieving infinite economic growth on a planet with finite resources and the externalisation of ecological costs from our limited understanding of economics. The second problem he delineated was that of artificial scarcity: the ways in which intellectual property is enforced via patents and copyrights which create scarcity around assets whose cost of reproduction often approaches zero with digital networked technology. This Bauwens argued, leads to the stifling of innovation, which prevents the types of solutions to ecological crises being developed as commonwealth, outside of a profit driven market framework. The final problem Bauwens diagnosed was that of social justice, as exemplified by the cavernous (and growing) divide between rich and poor on a global level.

Bauwens’ suggestions around potential solutions to these problems is primarily through commons based peer production. In commons based peer production, individuals are able to voluntarily self-aggregate into distributed networks based on coordination through networked telecommunications. While Bauwens presents this as an entirely new phenomena, afforded by the massive increase in computational power and networked connectivity associated with the information revolution, it is worth mentioning that voluntary self-aggregation and democratised and decentralised ownership of projects has long been a foundational concept of anarcho-syndicalist thought. What appears to be different about P2P networks in the contemporary context however are their ability to connect peers outside of a localised context through digital telecommunications networks, and also for the projects to be scaled up accordingly in terms of size and scope. These affordances have the potential to enable commons based peer production to out-compete market based initiatives in many circumstances, however what is potentially of greater significance than the efficiency gains P2P networks can provide is the alternative set of values they tend to embody.

Bauwens used examples of numerous forms of consumer electronics as instantiations of planned obsolescence, whereby the company making the product has a financial incentive to create a product which has a highly limited shelf life, and whose design is not modular, so that failure of individual components leads to users replacing the entire device. While the manufacturer profits each time this cycle continues and new items are bought, the ecological costs increase, however these are externalised from the market transaction. By contrast the open design methodology is based around values whereby the user/designer (the term prouser was suggested) wants their device to be as durable and long lasting as possible, and for a modular design to exist which eanables them to easily replace any parts which are damaged over time. Consequently the argument Bauwens promoted was that the values of the open design movement present an ethical alternative to market production whereby ecological sustainability and social justice can be built into the production process itself.

Bauwens argued that this argument was not merely utopianism but was based on a material analysis of the prescient features of contemporary capitalism, which he argued already needs commons based peer production in order to remain profitable.”

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