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Latest revision as of 01:16, 18 August 2007

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty |Table of Contents | Chapter 1 Summary | Bulleted Chapter 1
Discuss The Stakes of It All: The Battle Over the Institutional Ecology of the Digital Environment


Chapter 1 Introduction: A Moment of Opportunity and Challenge, section 4:

The Stakes of It All: The Battle Over the Institutional Ecology of the Digital Environment

Introduction

Chapter 1

The Emergence of the Networked Information Economy

Chapter 1, section 1

Networked Information Economy and Liberal, Democratic Societies

Chapter 1, section 2

Four Methodological Comments

Chapter 1, section 3

The Stakes of It All: The Battle Over the Institutional Ecology of the Digital Environment

No benevolent historical force will inexorably lead this technological-economic moment to develop toward an open, diverse, liberal equilibrium. If the transformation I describe as possible occurs, it will lead to substantial redistribution of power and money from the twentieth-century industrial producers of information, culture, and communications - like Hollywood, the recording industry, and perhaps the broadcasters and some of the telecommunications services giants - to a combination of widely diffuse populations around the globe, and the market actors that will build the tools that make this population better able to produce its own information environment rather than buying it ready-made. None of the industrial giants of yore are taking this reallocation lying down. The technology will not overcome their resistance through an insurmountable progressive impulse. The reorganization of production and the advances it can bring in freedom and justice will emerge, therefore, only as a result of social and political action aimed at protecting the new social patterns from the incumbents' assaults. It is precisely to develop an understanding of what is at stake and why it is worth fighting for that I write this book. I offer no reassurances, however, that any of this will in fact come to pass.


The battle over the relative salience of the proprietary, industrial models of information production and exchange and the emerging networked information economy is being carried out in the domain of the institutional ecology of the digital environment. In a wide range of contexts, a similar set of institutional questions is being contested: To what extent will resources necessary for information production and exchange be governed as a commons, free for all to use and biased in their availability in favor of none? To what extent will these resources be entirely proprietary, and available only to those functioning within the market or within traditional forms of well-funded nonmarket action like the state and organized philanthropy? We see this battle played out at all layers of the information environment: the physical devices and network channels necessary to communicate; the existing information and cultural resources out of which new statements must be made; and the logical resources - the software and standards - necessary to translate what human beings want to say to each other into signals that machines can process and transmit. Its central question is whether there will, or will not, be a core common infrastructure that is governed as a commons and therefore available to anyone who wishes to participate in the networked information environment outside of the market-based, proprietary framework.


This is not to say that property is in some sense inherently bad. Property, together with contract, is the core institutional component of markets, and a core institutional element of liberal societies. It is what enables sellers to extract prices from buyers, and buyers to know that when they pay, they will be secure in their ability to use what they bought. It underlies our capacity to plan actions that require use of resources that, without exclusivity, would be unavailable for us to use. But property also constrains action. The rules of property are circumscribed and intended to elicit a particular datum - willingness and ability to pay for exclusive control over a resource. They constrain what one person or another can do with regard to a resource; that is, use it in some ways but not others, reveal or hide information with regard to it, and so forth. These constraints are necessary so that people must transact with each other through markets, rather than through force or social networks, but they do so at the expense of constraining action outside of the market to the extent that it depends on access to these resources.


Commons are another core institutional component of freedom of action in free societies, but they are structured to enable action that is not based on exclusive control over the resources necessary for action. For example, I can plan an outdoor party with some degree of certainty by renting a private garden or beach, through the property system. Alternatively, I can plan to meet my friends on a public beach or at Sheep's Meadow in Central Park. I can buy an easement from my neighbor to reach a nearby river, or I can walk around her property using the public road that makes up our transportation commons. Each institutional framework - property and commons - allows for a certain freedom of action and a certain degree of predictability of access to resources. Their complementary coexistence and relative salience as institutional frameworks for action determine the relative reach of the market and the domain of nonmarket action, both individual and social, in the resources they govern and the activities that depend on access to those resources. Now that material conditions have enabled the emergence of greater scope for nonmarket action, the scope and existence of a core common infrastructure that includes the basic resources necessary to produce and exchange information will shape the degree to which individuals will be able to act in all the ways that I describe as central to the emergence of a networked information economy and the freedoms it makes possible.


At the physical layer, the transition to broadband has been accompanied by a more concentrated market structure for physical wires and connections, and less regulation of the degree to which owners can control the flow of information on their networks. The emergence of open wireless networks, based on "spectrum commons," counteracts this trend to some extent, as does the current apparent business practice of broadband owners not to use their ownership to control the flow of information over their networks. Efforts to overcome the broadband market concentration through the development of municipal broadband networks are currently highly contested in legislation and courts. The single most threatening development at the physical layer has been an effort driven primarily by Hollywood, over the past few years, to require the manufacturers of computation devices to design their systems so as to enforce the copyright claims and permissions imposed by the owners of digital copyrighted works. Should this effort succeed, the core characteristic of computers - that they are general-purpose devices whose abilities can be configured and changed over time by their owners as uses and preferences change - will be abandoned in favor of machines that can be trusted to perform according to factory specifications, irrespective of what their owners wish. The primary reason that these laws have not yet passed, and are unlikely to pass, is that the computer hardware and software, and electronics and telecommunications industries all understand that such a law would undermine their innovation and creativity. At the logical layer, we are seeing a concerted effort, again headed primarily by Hollywood and the recording industry, to shape the software and standards to make sure that digitally encoded cultural products can continue to be sold as packaged goods. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act and the assault on peer-to-peer technologies are the most obvious in this regard.


More generally information, knowledge, and culture are being subjected to a second enclosure movement, as James Boyle has recently explored in depth. The freedom of action for individuals who wish to produce information, knowledge, and culture is being systematically curtailed in order to secure the economic returns demanded by the manufacturers of the industrial information economy. A rich literature in law has developed in response to this increasing enclosure over the past twenty years. It started with David Lange's evocative exploration of the public domain and Pamela Samuelson's prescient critique of the application of copyright to computer programs and digital materials, and continued through Jessica Litman's work on the public domain and digital copyright and Boyle's exploration of the basic romantic assumptions underlying our emerging "intellectual property" construct and the need for an environmentalist framework for preserving the public domain. It reached its most eloquent expression in Lawrence Lessig's arguments for the centrality of free exchange of ideas and information to our most creative endeavors, and his diagnoses of the destructive effects of the present enclosure movement. This growing skepticism among legal academics has been matched by a long-standing skepticism among economists (to which I devote much discussion in chapter 2). The lack of either analytic or empirical foundation for the regulatory drive toward ever-stronger proprietary rights has not, however, resulted in a transformed politics of the regulation of intellectual production. Only recently have we begun to see a politics of information policy and "intellectual property" emerge from a combination of popular politics among computer engineers, college students, and activists concerned with the global poor; a reorientation of traditional media advocates; and a very gradual realization by high-technology firms that rules pushed by Hollywood can impede the growth of computer-based businesses. This political countermovement is tied to quite basic characteristics of the technology of computer communications, and to the persistent and growing social practices of sharing - some, like p2p (peer-to-peer) file sharing, in direct opposition to proprietary claims; others, increasingly, are instances of the emerging practices of making information on nonproprietary models and of individuals sharing what they themselves made in social, rather than market patterns. These economic and social forces are pushing at each other in opposite directions, and each is trying to mold the legal environment to better accommodate its requirements. We still stand at a point where information production could be regulated so that, for most users, it will be forced back into the industrial model, squelching the emerging model of individual, radically decentralized, and nonmarket production and its attendant improvements in freedom and justice.


Social and economic organization is not infinitely malleable. Neither is it always equally open to affirmative design. The actual practices of human interaction with information, knowledge, and culture and with production and consumption are the consequence of a feedback effect between social practices, economic organization, technological affordances, and formal constraints on behavior through law and similar institutional forms. These components of the constraints and affordances of human behavior tend to adapt dynamically to each other, so that the tension between the technological affordances, the social and economic practices, and the law are often not too great. During periods of stability, these components of the structure within which human beings live are mostly aligned and mutually reinforce each other, but the stability is subject to shock at any one of these dimensions. Sometimes shock can come in the form of economic crisis, as it did in the United States during the Great Depression. Often it can come from an external physical threat to social institutions, like a war. Sometimes, though probably rarely, it can come from law, as, some would argue, it came from the desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Sometimes it can come from technology; the introduction of print was such a perturbation, as was, surely, the steam engine. The introduction of the high-capacity mechanical presses and telegraph ushered in the era of mass media. The introduction of radio created a similar perturbation, which for a brief moment destabilized the mass-media model, but quickly converged to it. In each case, the period of perturbation offered more opportunities and greater risks than the periods of relative stability. During periods of perturbation, more of the ways in which society organizes itself are up for grabs; more can be renegotiated, as the various other components of human stability adjust to the changes. To borrow Stephen Jay Gould's term from evolutionary theory, human societies exist in a series of punctuated equilibria. The periods of disequilibrium are not necessarily long. A mere twenty-five years passed between the invention of radio and its adaptation to the mass-media model. A similar period passed between the introduction of telephony and its adoption of the monopoly utility form that enabled only one-to-one limited communications. In each of these periods, various paths could have been taken. Radio showed us even within the past century how, in some societies, different paths were in fact taken and then sustained over decades. After a period of instability, however, the various elements of human behavioral constraint and affordances settled on a new stable alignment. During periods of stability, we can probably hope for little more than tinkering at the edges of the human condition.


This book is offered, then, as a challenge to contemporary liberal democracies. We are in the midst of a technological, economic, and organizational transformation that allows us to renegotiate the terms of freedom, justice, and productivity in the information society. How we shall live in this new environment will in some significant measure depend on policy choices that we make over the next decade or so. To be able to understand these choices, to be able to make them well, we must recognize that they are part of what is fundamentally a social and political choice - a choice about how to be free, equal, productive human beings under a new set of technological and economic conditions. As economic policy, allowing yesterday's winners to dictate the terms of tomorrow's economic competition would be disastrous. As social policy, missing an opportunity to enrich democracy, freedom, and justice in our society while maintaining or even enhancing our productivity would be unforgivable.




John Stuart Mill, On Liberty |Table of Contents | Chapter 1 Summary | Bulleted Chapter 1
Discuss The Stakes of It All: The Battle Over the Institutional Ecology of the Digital Environment