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Franz Nahrada / Workspace /
26th of April 2006
I have been invited to Rome to speak on the conference of Computer Measurement Group Europe organized by CMG Italia. This conference will happen between 8th and 10th of may and my speech will be on the Morning of the last day. I have been invited because I received the "best speakers award" at the Austrian CMG conference in 2005 in Vienna, but I was a little bit uncertain because allready at the Austrian conference my speech was completely out of the frame of technologically oriented speeches and I considered the very high approval rate almost improbable. I was reluctant to go but after the committee in Rome decided to give me a plenary session - so to say the "last day keynote speech" - I decided to meet the challenge.
Actually, the speech is a concatenation of two speeches I gave at the Austrian CMG event:
Now I want to merge the ideas of these two speeches involving Yochai Benklers "Wealth of Networks" FranzNahrada/Workspace/Excerpts/Benkler
The bad thing: I have only 40 minutes time to talk!
Your Inputs are greatly valued
Good morning! My name is Franz Nahrada and I come from Vienna where I head an institute that is called GIVE or the Laboratory for the Global Villages. I am sociologist by education but GIVE is rather an interdisciplinary group that stimulates thoughts, brings together people and instigates technological developments. In the past we have created events like the Global Village Symposium or Cultural Heritage in the Global Village, where we brought together a rather colourful mixture of people to think about technological developments and to do them.
The speech that I will give today is not about any particular information technology, although if it succeeeds it will give recomendations and guidelines for technological developments of the future. It is more concerned about the conditions and the framework of technological development and a new opportunity that arises in this moment of history, fueled by the recent advances in computer technology and by communication technology.
I am always happy to come to Rome and to Italy because there is hardly any other place in the world where you can feel the power and the importance of culture better than here. The great works of the Renaiscance were the results of a successful interplay between power and art, between creativity, ingenuity and support. In a completely different setting, with some different parameters, we are at the brink of a possible new Renaiscance, but it depends very much on the interplay that I was mentioning before and this interplay will be my topic today.
I must say in advance that I do not want to focus on issues like software patents or copyright. You could ask yourself what would have happened to the Renaiscance if Leonardo da Vinci or others would have tried to patent the technique of the perspective. Maybe there would have been no Renaiscance at all? I think we agree that culture is based on free access to thoughts and ideas and in the freedom to modify, to reinvent, to combine them. Like Lawrence Lessig and many before him wrote, we all stand on the shoulders of giants and human progress is not possible without this ever-expanding heritage. What I want to show today is that we are on the brink of an incredible positive cultural explosion, but it will only come about if those who have the power and the competence also have a sense of responsibility and understand what is needed.
I want to start with an observation, and this observation is backed up by a whole library of books like "The Third Wave" by Alvin and Heidi Toffler, "The Support Economy" by Shoshanna Zuboff, "The Wealth of Networks" by Yochai Benkler, "The Cultural Creatives" by Paul Rey and Sherry Anderson and many others.
The observation is, that there is an increasing duality between productive human activities spent within and outside the formal economic sector. Or, to render the image sharper: Whilst the worldwide potential of the formal economic sector to create employment and to sustain long term strategic endavours is shrinking - despite spectacular shifts of those activities away from the the old centres of production and the rise of new ones - we see a growing number of people using the power of computers and information technology to shape tools and products that never before could have been produced without large amounts of capital - for themselves, in community, openly.
These activities so far have largely been confined to the domain of immaterial production. But the results, so far, have been astounding and have generated products and results of unprecedented complexity, that compete with the worlds largest and most advanced commercial immaterial products:
Slahdot has about 1 million users and 100.000 projects. If you browse by cartogory you will find that a lot of those projects are actually stubs, one person projects which never made it to become a community.
In addition to this, the access and membership to such communities is not easy to achieve; communities like the ones of computer software programmers are still far away from systematically recruiting or educating people, they need to be found.
Free Software is often technically robust as long as you use command-line interfaces, but very opaque and user-unfriendly when it comes to the rest of us. Could it be that there is still the need for a corporation that does for communities what Apple did for the single user?
In a way, the increasing activities of communities have pretty much builded down a debate which was dividing the industry years ago into factions: the debate if all content should be paid for or not. The assumption that a closed block of content industries would vigorously try to copyright everything - with bloody teeth and "bill it or kill it!" as their battlecry - while an opposing broadband industry would favor flat fee models has been proven wrong - at least in those domains of content which are easily generateable by users.
The first and most paradigmatic success of free-content-based bussiness is Google, the search engine that changed our habits of working with information. Without questioning, the whole world - or lets rather say almost the whole online world - is happy having their context indexed by Google, and amazingly there is no contract needed to make that happen. Google is a business that simply does not need to ask for allowance to work with other peoples stuff, simply because it uses this content in a way that adds value to other peoples activities.
Other businesses have followed this patterns. Ebay is a company that was successful in supporting peoples activities in buying and selling things via an exciting online auctionplace, and it has become the role model for Shosanna Zuboffs "support economy". Amazon is not just an online bookstore, but a place that allows people to tell their reading experiences to other people - and it thrives on that talkative nature of customers almost as if it wanted to be modeled after the cluetrain manifesto. ("markets are getting smarter—and getting smarter faster than most companies: these markets are conversations")
The Internet, cheap processing power and consumer electronics have given an enormous productive potential into the hands of people. The millions of people that have downloaded SETI@HOME have created the worlds largest supercomputer with a combined processing power hardly available to any commercial or political entity, even though slow and complex. In the summer of 2005, CERN hosted the first “pangalactic workshop” on BOINC (Berkeley Open Interface for Network Computing). BOINC is now a common platform for many succesors of SETI@HOME. CERNS LHC@home has recently been delivering over 2 Teraflops, representing the computational power of over 1000 PCs to improve the design of the CERN LHC particle accelerator. As some of the other participants at the workshop were able to demonstrate, this is just the tip of the iceberg: climateprediction.net recently published a study of climate models where over 90 000 public PCs were used and ther are a few more of its kind; Einstein@home has more than 50 000 active users to analyse data from the pulsar gravity wave detector LIGO. Predictor@home investigates protein-related diseases, Rosetta@home helps researchers develop cures for human diseases and the World Community Grid advances our knowledge of human disease. This list is far from complete.
No wonder the business world has come about the same way to harness the power in the hand of consumers. As Alvin Toffler has predicted, more and more business transactions are actively performed by the customers, from telebanking to booking a flight or a hotel.
The networked information economy improves individual autonomy in three ways. (the following observations partly quoted from Yochai Benkler)
Autonomy and Community are just two sides of the same process. The degree of community is a choice of the individual, it comes with a commitment. A commited individual expects commitment from partners.
Shoshanna Zuboff states: "People want to take their lives into their own hands and are ready to pay for the support and advocacy necessary to fulfill that yearning. The new model emphasizes the distribution, rather than the concentration, of assets. Economic value is now understood as distributed in the unmet needs of each individual: It is lodged in their hearts and minds, living rooms and kitchens. Value is "realized" in relationships of advocacy and trust. It's no longer adequate to think that value can be "created" inside factories or offices".
- IBM - Linux example http://www-03.ibm.com/servers/eserver/linux/passport.swf
So far, we have still, in some way, not left completely the ground of traditional economics. Still the consumers or customers, ever if they act as communities, are supposed to be in possession of the material means to buy the goods and services that support their acting in and as a community. Which supposes that they have either a good job or wellrunning business to pay for goods and services.
We must, however, take into account that this is increasingly less true for larger and larger parts of the population. The acceleration of economy, global competition, the high pressures from capital markets and many other factors make it mandatory to produce more with less people. Which leaves an increasing number of people out of the game. Our economic system is comparable to a merry-go-round that is accelerated by a mad evildoer, throwing more and more children on the street.
We need not to search long for the facts. The father of Kybernetics, Norbert Wiener, has already made a forecast in the late forties of the past century, that the emerging technology will ruin the traditional base of life of people, that it will end up in a situation "here the average human being will have nothing to sell on which it can comfortably live".
The logical consequence of this is that there needs to be an activation of productive community potential for self-providing. This is at least the position of Frithjof Bergmann and the New Work movement, which is active since the beginning of the global job crisis in the eighties and started up in Detroit and Flint, where General Motors began with big Layoffs in 1980.
Bergmann, a former professor of philosophy who wrote books about the nature of human freedom, grasped the opportunity to run practical experiments on combining the need for survival after job loss with the discovery of "what people really really want to do". Instead of getting depressed about the loss of employment, people could use this situation as a chance to discover the inner determination that was overshadowed by alienation, and combine their newly found energy with the progress in science and technology that allows them to use high technology for self-providing.
Although some people discussed Bergmanns work and there were some dedicated groups trying to practise his theories, only in the recent two years a veritable run on Bergmanns ideas has started; the government of South Africa even sponsors a large scale experiment on HTSP. Bergmann relates his ideas more and more to the fact that on the horizon of technology development we see flexible automation that can be compared to the versatility of a 2D printer. Rapid Prototyping leads to developments of smaller and smaller fabrication devices, that enable end users or local communities to start producing things they need in the shapes they want.
Bergmann is now focussing on building up a business coalition that he calls "New Work enterprises" and that is focussed on the idea of supporting such self-providing communities, making them consider just opening marginal fields of income to pay for the tools that render them immune of the threat of joblessness. While many doubt that the technology itself will come soon, they embrace the idea of organizing a high-level self sufficiency using tools and technologies available today as the appropriate answer to the job crisis.
We can only speculate what will be the results of a lifestyle emerging out of the perceptin that the internet is not only enabling people to voluntary associate, but also that those voluntary associations might end-up in cooperatively organized life maintainance. Maybe there will be an increased perception that there is a largely abandoned source of wealth, the rural areas of our planet, inviting for resettlement-
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