Not Just Information: Sharing Physical Resources
Back in 2001/2002 I spent a lot of time with colleagues at NYU researching the emerging phenomena of sites based on user-generated content (photos, journalism, music databases), and user-provided resources, such as processing cycles and storage space. Ath that time wireless was exploding, and our minds were aflame with the potential for mesh networks, software defined radio etc. Our framework was centered on information goods, whose non-rival properties are intuitively obvious, meaning that you and I can use the same data without causing each other any inconvenience- everyone can benefit from it.
Wireless, processing cycles and storage space posed a problem to this model, as these are resources which are finite, but which can be shared, because we are sold access to them in quantities exceeding our own requirements (leaving a surplus). They can they thus be considered as shareable goods, and Yochai Benkler (our homie ;)) wrote an excellent paper detailing the concept where he also illustrated the concept using the example of ride-sharing.
Whilst catching up on old mail, I’ve been going through some discussion on a community that I’ve been around for around four years, Oekonux, where this topic rears its head sporadically. One of the cool thing s about the list is that it attracts people with an inventive streak at briding the gap between software, philosophy and the possibility of new forms of social organization. Thus in October, there appeared a mail about an attempt to set up a site and software to enable the sharing of physical items in Dublin, which hits hard, ‘cos that’s my hometown…. The system is based on http://www.xaraya.com/ – a free software Content Management System / Applications Framework.
In Italy an analogous attempt was made to launch a site based around book-sharing titled DLP, Distributed Library Project, hosted at http://www.babelteka.org, where using ISBN numbers, users can locate books that they are interested in according to proximity to its owner, and then set up a real-time rendez-vous for consignment. The idea thus is to enable the constitution of ‘instant local proximity-based and affinity-based communities’ (thanks Magius!). The project looks sleeps these days, if not downright dormant or even dead, but it occurs to me that this idea will just not go away. And it has struck me frequently of late the degree to which timing is crucial in the success or failure of such projects, and that our short attention spans as children of an innovating generation often impede us from persevering until the right time finally arrives. In fact during september I attended Wizrds of OS, and heard the creator of Magnatunes talk about his new project based on the sharing of books, bookmooch, which seems to be doing pretty well. You list books in your possession which don’t need/want, and then send them to those who request them – that earns you a point, and these points comprise a sort of alternative currency within this alternative economy based on delayed and indirect reciprocity.
Benkler describes his interpretation as follows:
“Personal computers, wireless transceivers, and Internet connections
are “shareable goods.” The basic intuition behind the concept of
shareable goods is simple. There are goods that are “lumpy”: given a
state of technology, they can only be produced in certain discrete
bundles that offer discontinuous amounts of functionality or capacity.
In order to have any ability to run a computation, for example, a
consumer must buy a computer processor. These, in turn, only come in
discrete units with a certain speed or capacity. One could easily
imagine a world where computers are very large and their owners sell
computation capacity to consumers “on demand,” whenever they needed to
run an application. That is basically the way the mainframe world of
the 1960s and 1970s worked. However, the economics of microchip
fabrication and of network connections over the past thirty years,
followed by storage technology, have changed that. For most functions
that users need, the price-performance trade-off favors stand-alone,
general-purpose personal computers, owned by individuals and capable
of running locally most applications users want, over remote
facilities capable of selling on-demand computation and storage. So
computation and storage today come in discrete, lumpy units. You can
decide to buy a faster or slower chip, or a larger or smaller hard
drive, but once you buy them, you have the capacity of these machines
at your disposal, whether you need it or not.”
(The Wealth of Networks, p.113)
Goods are thereafter divided in three on an arc from from lumpy (major capital investment required) to granular (billing on a consumption basis possible), and in the middle lie the medium grained goods such as compuers, bandwidth etc.
Business models and consumer purchease capacity conspire to create a situation where:
“…a large number of individuals buy and use such medium-grained
lumpy goods, that society will have a large amount of excess capacity
“out there,” in the hands of individuals. Because these machines are
put into service to serve the needs of individuals, their excess
capacity is available for these individuals to use as they wish–for
their own uses, to sell to others, or to share with others.”
But this does not mean that they will be shared: what are the alternative options open to users to do with their excess capacity? Let’s consider for a moment the large number of people owning second houses that they do not use most of the time – do they open the doors to the homeless? No, they rent them out, and if they succeed in extracting revenue only for the summer months of the year and they are vacant otherwise, so be it. Likewise with regard to underused motor vehicles, and it’s no accident that there is now an emerging commercial market in car-pooling, rather than it being the product of a self-organizing non-monetized process. Maybe Fon is somewhere in between. But returning to Benkler:
“… the sharing of these material resources, like the sharing of human
creativity, insight, and attention, nonetheless relies on both the
comparative transaction costs of markets and social relations and the
diversity of human motivation.”
So this is directly linked to the ease/difficulty of sharing, and the scale of the returns available through monetization measured against the transactional labour to achieve them. ideally then, potential monetaryreturns would be low if processed through the market, and the surplus would be widely distributed so as to include enough people enticed by more social motivations:
“If excess capacity in a society is very widely distributed
in small dollops, and for any given use of the excess capacity it is
necessary to pool the excess capacity of thousands or even millions of
individual users, the transaction-cost advantages of the sharing
system become significant.”
There spoke the econodwarf. Notwithstanding this qualification there are other good reasons why social sharing could work, not least ints incredible potential as a media for the formation of community, something which economic gain will never help to attain, and of which we are all starved more every day.
Other examples assembled by p2p researcher Michael Bouwens are:
dieborger.de, organizing the lending of goods and described in this article; other peer-based exchanges, are described in this Wired article;Bookcrossings; Community Trading Software; Couchsurfing; Freecycle; Lala; Notemesh; Open Co-op
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What am I?
Alan Toner, intellectual property and communications researcher, living in Central European Time. You may have met me long ago at New York University, where I was once a fellow at the Information Law Institute and the Engelberg Center on Law and Innovation, read something I wrote for Mute or Diagonal, or conspired in the shenanigans around the World Summit on the Information society when I worked with WSIS: We Seize!, or through Steal This Film.
Leave a comment on an article if you want to get in touch.
Current Interest: Tracking of users via browser, mobile, or any other digital prosthesis. I believe that users need a universal opt-out from practices that put their web-reading habits in the hands of third parties – Do Not Track. Our online environment should be redesigned to make ubiquitous commercial surveillance impossible, just as it should make the political surveillance revealed by Snowden impossible. Those who believe that such observation brings them benefits are free to hold that point of view, but it just shouldn’t be hardwired into the architecture and should be a matter of free and informed choice.
Earlier I followed developments at the new-born European Observatory on Infringements of Intellectual Property Rights, and its first major project: the Intellectual Property Rights Enforcement Directive (IPRED 2), which will propose new criminal sanctions for IP offenses. The Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure page dedicated to its previous instantiation can be found here. I’m also interested in ACTA and support the work of the people from Knowledge Ecology International, La Quadrature du Net, the FFII.
And I’m always interested in the conflicts around peer production, p2p and piracy.If you’re interested in this subject you can download and watch Steal This Film, and check out our searchable archive of interviews, built on an early version of pad.ma.
Since 2008 I have participated in a network organised by La Ex promoting alternatives to traditional copyright thinking, am a signatory of their Charter for Innovation, Creativity and Access to Knowledge, and a contributor to their work on Sustainable Models for Creativity in the Digital Age.
In 2005 and 2006 I spent time in Argentina, looking at disputes in the field of pharmaceuticals and biotechnology. At some point I’ll get back to this area, in the meantime, check out GRAIN.
Hedonism and the need to maintain some connection with material culture lies behind the occasional investigative wine tangent: how it’s made, the story it tells, and of course, how it tastes. Responsibility for this vice can safely be attributed to Critical Wine, a network of small producers in Italy who presented it in a political/cultural context that I found… compelling!
Here are links to some blog entries which I think are important:
- Akerman, Branco, Deneuve et al. Against Three strikes/Hadopi Law in France
- Three strikes Law against P2p in France (Hadopi)
- Anthropology Ethnography of P2P: A Day in the Life of a User
- 0xdb movie database goes live
- Resuscitating Alternatives to Copyright
- Intellectual Property Enforcement, European Style: Dogma Internally, Coercion Externally
- Search & Destroy: Enforcement in Eastern Europe
- Not Just Information: Sharing Physical Resources
- The Machinic Sewer
- A Yahoo User’s Journey through the Unknown
- Filmpiraten Crush Austrofascists (at first instance…)
- Pirate Residuum
- Readings from the Book of (library) Genesis
- Cyberspace – the Fifth domain of Warfare?
- Demystifying AdTech
- The Hymn of Acxiom
- Knowledge is born free, yet is everywhere in chains…
- Adam Curtis in Berlin
- Baking Privacy and User Choice into the Web with Do Not Track
- Party Like it’s 2000: Revisiting Crypto
- civil liberties
- Data Protection
- European Court of Justice
- european directives
- european regulations
- european union
- material culture
- open video
- Pirate Bay
- Pirate Party
- social cooperation
- steal this film
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