Monthly Archives: April 2009

Free Access, Media Scarcity . . . . and the future of capitalism

Last week I was wandering around the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, riffing with Wolf (an OII DPhil) about how knowledge gets produced and distributed.  We looked at Greek statues “collected” by the Germans, moved to Russia by the Sovietes for 50 years, and finally on public display – and discussed the radically different ways of knowing made possible in a world of globally produced, distributed, and commented information.  “It’s an amazing privilege” I said to Wolf.  “But what are the long term implications?  There’s always  controlling access to information.  In the middle ages it was all physically locked up in places like Oxford.  Now I’m worried it will come to be controlled in some other way.”

Over the next few days, talks by Lawrence Lessig and Cory Doctorow highlighted how the movement towards free access means that control over information, media (and maybe knowledge) threaten established business models and legal frameworks.  Lessig showed how current intellectual property law is so far out of sync with practices of remix that it is criminalizing a generation of kids who use media like ideas.  For Doctorow,  the key change for media has been the decreasing potential for making money by making media excludable (controlling who gets a copy of something.  Faced with the fact that the “internet is a perfect copying machine”, businesses are responding by trying to make it an imperfect copying machine.  Like Lessig, Doctorow thinks this is reactionary and counterproductive.  He thinks the only viable business models will be based on new understandings of how to distribute media/information/knowldege, and not on controlling its reproduction.  Free access has created unprecedented participation in culture – the current market economy doesn’t work if there’s an oversupply of art and undersupply of demand.

Back in Oxford, my colleague/flatmate Bernie picked up the thread.  He’s been thinking about how capitalism has always depended on scarcity.  Informational capitalism has exploded such that information is no longer scarce – it’s easy to copy and distribute.  So what becomes of capitalism?

These transformations of information/media use and reuse highlight the importance of access.  Access is reconfigured through and with technical changes, practices, laws.  Unlike 500 years ago, you don’t have to travel to Oxford to find information – but instead you have to negotiate licenses, torrents, remixes, and misinformation.  How to sort it all out, and whether this can happen under capitalism, is one of society’s next challenges.  It’s a far cry from determining who gets to store the Greek statues.

What is Privacy, Anyway? PrivacyOS in Berlin

I’m so happy to be in Berlin with Ian Brown and 4 OII doctoral students, at the European Privacy Open Space.  At the same time as the re:publica media conference, it’s a collection of lawyers/students/private sector vendors.

But what is privacy?  Talk #1 discussed data privacy in terms of its economic value.  Talk #2, by a Microsoft guy designing a U-Prove token, talks about privay as an interface between some one individual and service providers who need to know all kinds of things:  “miniumum disclosure tokens” that provide the ability to verify aspects of someone’s identity without having to tell everything.

More privacy definitions as the conference continues.

UPDATE:  Day 2

Technical presentation on “Selective Access Control in Social Networks” – social networking privacy is facilitated by a layer controlled by public key encryption.  So for example the same profile details would be released to different social networks

Human readable privacy policies – privacy is a set of relationships that individuals have to understand in order to do things (buy, sell, read, write) online.  Therefore, human readable privacy policies and iconography needs to be developed so that people understand where their information is going, who it will be used by, and how. (As Ian points out, if there is no competition, such a proposal wouldn’t be very effective as there would be no reason to choose a company with more easy to read privacy policies).

According to these presenters, privacy can be a negotiation, a layer, an interface or even a value proposition.  But is understanding what we trade off when we spend time online really the same as having the privacy of a home, or the anonymity of public space?  Lots to think about still.