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Archive for April, 2012

 

Catastroika is a new full length documentary film by the makers of Debtocracy, the highly successful critique of the mainstream narrative about the Greek debt crisis. In Catastroika, the makers turn to the after effects of the crisis, namely the mass privatisation of public services and the selling off of publicly owned assets. They use historical precedents to show that privatisation often can lead to not only poorer services and higher prices but also to more rather than less public debt. The film features interviews with Naomi Klein, Slavoj Žižek and Greg Palast, amongst others. In various languages with English subtitles.

Like its predecessor, Catastroika is also released freely on the Internet under a Creative Commons license. You can download it as a torrent here.

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So, the opposition against ACTA seems to have now reached a majority in the European parliament. Here’s a blog post from today by Rick Falkvinge:

“Recently at a press conference, another party group in the European Parliament came out in rejection of ACTA. This time, it marked a significant milestone, as a majority of the party groups in parliament has now said they will reject it.

It was the liberal group ALDE who declared their intent to reject, yesterday afternoon, European time. According to MEP Christian Engström, who can do the game theory of Parliament in his sleep, this means that there is now a declared majority against ACTA! This majority consists of the Greens (where the Swedish Pirate Party resides), the Left, the Social Democrats, the eurocritical EFD, and the newly-declared liberal group ALDE.

This is tremendously good news, as ACTA as a whole stands or falls in the European Parliament. If the Europarliament rejects ACTA, then it’s a permakill. Boom, headshot. The other side of the coin is that if parliament accepts it, then it is going to shut the doors for very necessary reform for at least a decade, barring a cataclysmic event.

However, this majority against ACTA is not like other majorities, which are predictable and stable. The European Parliament is fairly unique among parliaments, in that the MEPs are neither required (or indeed expected) to toe the party line, and while the party whip exists, it is mostly of the fun kind. A recommendation, if you like. Deviations from the declared party line is not only common but expected in pretty much every vote. So even though the party groups have declared their party lines, this has no effective binding force on the people doing the actual button-pressing, and it’s the tally of them that counts in the end.

This mechanism works both ways, of course. The largest party group, the conservative EPP, is still weakly in favor of ACTA – but even there, many Members of the European Parliament are expected to go against the party line and vote against it.

A draft opinion was introduced in ITRE, the Industry Committee, this Tuesday. Monopoly hawks are trying to frame ACTA as being about the right to property or not (which is hogwash). We need to reinforce that the people of Europe will not stand for this mail-order legislation from monopolists that erode our freedoms of speech and fundamental liberties,

The current committees working on ACTA are JURI, INTA, DEVE, ITRE, and LIBE (those four-letter words are committe names). The time is now to mail the members of these committees and express your feelings about why this piece of bullshit mail-order corporate favor needs to be soundly rejected by a parliament elected by the people. You can use this web page (in Swedish, but understandable) to quickly get the e-mail addresses of the members of the respective committees. Do so now. Right now and over the following weeks. All several million of us. To make sure that all several million really do that, make sure that your friends of those several million are aware of the situation.

It won’t hurt if you tailor your criticism of ACTA to reflect why you’re mailing the respective committee, of course. So JURI is Legal Affairs, INTA is International Trade, DEVE is (third world) Development, ITRE is Industry, and LIBE is Civil Liberties. A message that has an early indication that shows that the message is tailored to its recipient is taken much, much more seriously. Feel free to replace just that particular tailoring between committees and keep the rest of the mail identical.

And in breaking news, I’m just informed that JURI has postponed its vote for a month – the Greens and Social Democrats were against postponing and wanted to kill ACTA outright, but this did not happen. A very very important reminder that it ain’t over until the fat lady sings.

We’re balancing on a very thin line here. And the safety net has been taken out. It’s up to us to guarantee the survival of our own civil liberties, but the good news is that it only takes a small piece of action from several tens of thousands each to make a huge difference. I’m informed from the inside of the European Parliament that the citizens’ pressure on Parliament to reject ACTA has weakened noticeably. Now, exactly now, is the time to ramp it back up.

So mail those committee members now. Today. Right Effing Now.”

Another place to find those committee members and their contact info is here.

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Richard Sennett is a sociologist who’s written extensively on the social issues of city living. In this talk Sennett discusses forms of human cooperation and their relation to city planning. Sennett argues that strict boundaries between parts of the city that are common in large cities today discourage encounters between people from different strata of society, which in turn inhibits us from learning the kinds of skills that are necessary for fruitful cooperation. The talk was held at Harvard University on February 28, 2012.

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Michel Bauwens is the founder of The Foundation for P2P Alternatives and one of the leading proponents of peer production principles today. Recently, he’s been publishing a series of articles on the Al Jazeera website on the various ways he sees the proliferation of peer production is currently in process of changing our societies. Now, he’s gathered the points in those articles into a lengthy essay published over at Shareable. I can only quote a short excerpt here, but I recommend reading the complete essay for the sheer breadth of the argument Bauwens is constructing.

“And what are economies of scope? As a teaser, for now, this short definition: “An economy of scope exists between the production of two goods when two goods which share a common cost are produced together such that the common cost is reduced.”  In other words, something that brings down the common cost of a factor of production, not by producing more of a unit but through shared infrastructure costs.

[…]

Indeed, economies of scale work well in periods of energy ‘ascent’, when more and more energy is coming online, but they work less and less in periods of energy  ‘descent’ when the overall supply of energy and resources are diminishing. What you need then are economies of scope, when  you can ‘scale up from one’, as with today’s emerging “making on demand” infrastructure.

Economies of scope is exactly what peer production (in its different iterations of open knowledge, free culture, free software, open and shared designs, open hardware and distributed manufacturing, etc.) is all about.

Let’s recap what is wrong with the current global system, which is entirely predicated on economies of scale, and actually in many instances makes economies of scope illegal.

  1. Our current system is based on the belief of infinite growth and the endless availability of resources, despite the fact that we live on a finite planet; let’s call this feature, runaway ‘pseudo-abundance’.
  2. The current system believes that innovations should be privatized and only available by permission or for a hefty price (the IP regime), making sharing of knowledge and culture a crime; let’s call this feature, enforced ‘artificial scarcity’.

Peer production methodologies are based on the exact opposite economic and social DNA. Peer production communities believe that knowledge is a commons for all to share, and hence, no innovation can be withheld from the human population as a whole.

In fact, withholding a life-saving or world-saving innovation is seen as unethical, and this represents a true value inversion. And peer production designs for distribution and inclusion, i.e. small scale, even personal fabrication. Planned obsolescence, which is a feature and not a bug of the current system, is totally alien to the logic of peer production. In other words, sustainability is a feature of open design communities, not a bug.

[…]

So, what are the economies of scope of the new p2p age? They come in two flavors:

  1. The mutualizing of knowledge and immaterial resources
  2. The mutualizing of material productive resources

The first principle is easy to understand. If we lack knowledge as individuals (and nobody can know everything) as a community, local or virtual, it is much more likely that someone knows. Hence, the mutualizing of knowledge and ‘crowd-accelerated innovation’, now already a well-known feature of the collaborative economy. But the advantage of scope is created when that knowledge is shared, and thus, it can be used by others. With this social innovation, the common cost of the joint production factor that is knowledge, is dramatically reduced.

Take the example of the paradigmatic Nutrient Dense Project.

This global community of agrarian workers and citizen scientists is interested in experimenting with better nutrients to obtain better quality food. Hence joint research can be carried out to test various nutrients in various soils and climate zones, and they will instantly benefit not just the whole participating community, but potentially, the whole of humankind. Strategies that are based on privatizing intellectual property, cannot obtain such advantages of scope, or at least, not at that level.

[…]

The second principle, of mutualizing physical productive resources, is exemplified [in] collaborative consumption. The general idea is the same. Alone, I may lack a certain tool, skill, or service, but seen from the point of view of a community, it is likely someone else has it, and that other person could share, rent or barter it. No need to all possess the same tool if we can access it when we need it. Hence the proliferation of p2p marketplaces.

Let’s take an illustrative example: car-sharing. Car-sharing projects can be mutualized through the intermediary of a private company which owns the cars (fleetsharing, like Zipcar), through p2p marketplaces which link car users to each other (RelayRides and Getaround), or through nonprofits or public entities (Autolib in Paris). But they all achieve economies of scope. According to a study cited by ZipCar, for every rented car, there are 15 fewer owned cars on the road. And carsharing members drive 31% less after they join. So, in 2009 alone, car-sharing diminished global carbon dioxide emissions by nearly half a million tons.

Imagine similar developments in every sector of production.

So, what will the new system look like if economies of scope become the norm and replace economies of scale as the primary driver of the economy and social system? We already mentioned the global open design communities, and we suggest that it will be accompanied by a global network of microfactories, who are producing locally, such as the ones that the open source car companies like Local Motors and Wikispeed are proposing and which are already prefigured by the networks of hackerspaces, Fablabs and co-working spaces.”

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It’s looking better and better for the anti-ACTA campaign. Yesterday, David Martin, the new European Parliament rapporteur for the treaty who stepped in after the previous rapporteur resigned in January to protest the lack of transparency of the negotiation process, recommended that the parliament should vote against the treaty. Martin says in his statement that “given the vagueness of certain aspects of the treaty and the uncertainty over its interpretation, the European Parliament cannot guarantee adequate protection for citizens’ rights in the future under ACTA.”  (See also Martin’s interview over at Wired) It’s very likely that at least Martin’s own group, the Socialists, will follow his recommendation. The Liberals, the Greens and the Green Left are also expected to vote against the treaty, which already brings the anti-ACTA camp within the parliament very close to majority. A lot depends now on where the Conservatives will swing on the issue. There’s apparently some opposition to the treaty among conservative leaders in Eastern Europe where the anti-ACTA protests have been the most visible.

It ain’t over til the overweight woman takes the stage, though. The vote will be happening sometime in June or July, and European Digital Rights (EDRi) has called for another pan-European day of action against the treaty for June 9:
http://www.edri.org/edrigram/number10.7/9-June-2012-anti-ACTA

Time to give it the very final push!

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Interesting musings here by David A. Banks on the use of technology within the Occupy movement. The essay was originally published on the Cyborgology blog at The Society Pages.

“Most of our interactions with technology are rather mundane. We flip a light switch, buckle our seat belts, or place a phone call. We have a tacit knowledge of how these devices work. In other words, we have relatively standard, institutionalized, ways of interacting with familiar technologies. For example: if I were to drive someone else’s car, even if it is an unfamiliar model, I do not immediately consult the user manual. I look around for the familiar controls, maybe flick the blinkers on while the car is still in the drive way, and off I go. Removal of these technologies (or even significant alterations) can cause confusion. This is immediately evident if you are trying to meet a friend who does not own a cell phone. Typical conventions for finding the person in a crowded public space (“Yeah, I’m here. Near the stage? Yeah I see you waving.”) are not available to you. In years prior to widespread cell phone adoption, you might have made more detailed plans before heading out (“We’ll meet by the stage at 11PM.”) but now we work out the details on the fly. Operating cars and using cell phones are just a few mundane examples of how technologies shape social behavior beyond the actions needed to operate and maintain them. The widespread adoption of technologies, and the decisions by individual groups to utilize technologies can have a profound impact on the social order of communities. This second part of the Tactical Survey will help academics, activists, and activist academics assess the roll of information technology in a movement and make better decisions on when and how to use tools like social media, live video, and other forms of computer-mediated communication.

“The Master’s Tools” or, The Apparent Hypocrisy of Apple Computers in Zuccotti Park

Skeptical journalists and talking heads were quick to point out an apparent hypocrisy within the Occupy Wall Street movement. How can these hippies protest corporations when they are using Apple computers? The earliest of these pronouncements came from a New York Times piece that ended with:

‘One day, a trader on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Adam Sarzen, a decade or so older than many of the protesters, came to Zuccotti Park seemingly just to shake his head. “Look at these kids, sitting here with their Apple computers,” he said. “Apple, one of the biggest monopolies in the world. It trades at $400 a share. Do they even know that?”’

These sorts of observations are usually left unchallenged. Eric Randall, writing in The Atlantic, noticed this trend and wrote:

‘Depicting protestors sitting on their MacBooks fits in with the broader narrative the media has settled on, one that depicts a disorganized group of well-educated college grads who can’t figure out how to stay on message. The MacBook seems always to be used as a sort of tongue-in-cheek “stuff white people like” condemnation of the jobless, disenfranchised protestors who can somehow swing a $1,300 computer.’

This is nothing new. Ever since the “Battle for Seattle” Western news outlets have used this particular narrative to discredit activists and reasserts the legitimacy of status quo consumerism. Sociologist Richard J.F. Day comments on this rhetorical device in his book Gramsci is Dead: “This is an extremely common trope of exclusion by inclusion, which works by trying to show that They (anarchist activists) are no less tainted with the stain of capitalist individualism than We (good capitalist citizens) are, and therefore have no right to criticize the status quo.”

Members of OWS have responded to these sorts of accusations, but (predictably) little has changed. Randall quotes the occupywallst.org blog‘s response:

‘This is a specious argument, that if taken to its conclusion would preclude the use of any product to those angered by the injustice of its producer. If you disagree with the policy of GE’s board, you cannot own a refrigerator, if a major paper conglomerate cooks its books you may not use toilet paper. This protest is against injustice committed by the greedy, not commerce itself or the products of corporations.’

This appears to be an intractable problem. The powerful get to where they are by making lots of people need (and therefore buy) their stuff. They become an obligatory point of passage.  An alternative is to engage in “lifestyle politics” and avoid the use of technologies that are incompatible with your politics. This, however, usually means you are spending considerable time and effort building new capacities from the ground up, and not using your energy and resources to actually fight what you see as wrong in the world. To the extent that fighting for change and building alternative capacities are mutually exclusive tactics, a collective must make a decision on time horizons and overall goals. In a pluralist social movement like #OWS, there is enough capacity to do both. Some can fight with the problematic tools that are currently available (e.g. Apple computers and Twitter) while others work on new technologies that are less connected to the corporations.

Tactic 3: Pluralist movements must recognize the failures of the existing sociotechnical social order, while also developing alternative capacities. Using computers made in sweatshops and for-profit social networking sites that have dangerous privacy policies are a necessity for effective augmented activism in the short term. Sustained, long term actions should also be working towards alternatives to these technologies.

Building Alternative Capacity

Since the eviction of almost every physical occupation in the United States, occupiers (especially the geeky ones) have been hard at work finding new and inventive ways of coordinating and connecting. One of these efforts is TheGlobalSquare.org– a multilingual, open-source social networking platform that would offer a “platform for the movement.” The media has already billed the project as “Occupy Wall Street Builds Facebook Alternative” but that only tells half the story. Building an alternative to Facebook also means building an alternative set of behaviors. Services like Twitter and Facebook are built with a certain kind of user in mind. They can be used for activism, but they are built for monetizing social activity. This means identity-protecting pseudonyms are forbidden, and censorship is negotiable.

Social media technologies are built with equal parts computer code and social norms. The assumed relationship of the individual to the collective is built into the system. For Facebook that means being open to everyone. Its institutionalized through and by the default settings of your account and the corporate business model. For Twitter, it means talk and connect as much as possible, but within the bounds and abilities of state authorities to suppress free speech on the web. Global Square’s stated philosophy is (in part):

‘The Global Square recognizes the principles of personal privacy as a basic right of individuals and transparency to all users as an obligation for public systems. While User Profiles will allow for as much privacy as the individual desires (technology permitting), Squares, Events, and Task Groups must be, at minimum, completely transparent to their user groups, and Systems must be completely transparent for full auditing capability by all Users.’

Here, again, we see the delicate interplay of transparency and privacy that characterizes Occupy Wall Street. For Global Square, privacy of the individual is paramount, but that privacy is nested within two levels of transparency- transparency of collectives to its constituent individuals, and global transparency of governing sociotechnical systems to all users. Chris Kelty used the term recursive publics in his book Two Bits to describe communities of open-source coders that develop platforms that allow for and sustain the community. Global Square represents a similar social recursion: it is a platform to build capacity for new platforms of capacity building.

Tactic 4: Corporate-owned social media tools are not politically ambivalent. Technologies have embedded within them, assumed relationships and social organizations. Activists taking advantage of social media must recognize the subtle influences these technologies have on social action. If possible, new capacities for augmented activism must be built and maintained.

Coda

Granted, the recursion can only go so deep. The code for Facebook or Global Square still run on the problematic hardware part 2 opened up with. The construction of open source hardware is much more complicated and resource intensive. This begs the question: Is it possible to have widely available digital technology in a world without exploited labor? Are the rare earth metals in our smart phones counter-revolutionary? What would a socially just version of Moore’s Law look like? These are questions left to future posts and other authors. What activists can and must do now, is enroll the expertise of engineers and scientist to explore these questions. This might mean activists learning the skills of engineering and science, but it might also mean creating a revolutionary computer science. Creating a computer for the people will be no easy task, and might mean creating a totally new technical artifact. It may also mean redefining technological progress to include lateral shifts that produce similar computational power but in more socially just ways. It is not enough to use these tools for good, we have to make new tools that are good.”

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