Saturday, October 17, 2009

Bollier on Ostrom

David Bollier recently did a presentation on the notion of commons, drawing heavily on the work of Elinor Ostrom, who has just won the nobel prize for economics.  What he didn't know in advance was that Professor  Ostrom herself would be in the audience.
"Last weekend I traveled to Bloomington, Indiana, to speak at a community-organized conference on the commons. As I got up to speak, I paused and gulped: there in the audience was the pioneering scholar of the commons, Elinor Ostrom.
It was not an academic conference, but rather a gathering of 125 regular citizens at the local Unitarian-Universalist Church. Several slides in my presentation drew upon her work or mentioned her. Would she agree with my interpretations? Would I get something wrong?

Ostrom, a long-time political scientist at Indiana University, is a tremendously warm and generous-spirited person, so it was not her personality that gave me pause. It’s that she has spent several decades studying how real-life commons work, especially in managing natural resources. From Nepal to Switzerland and from Turkey to Los Angeles, Ostrom has done painstaking field work and attended scores of conferences to probe the inner dynamics of commons. She knows a few things.

Now Professor Ostrom has won the Nobel Prize for Economics, the first woman to be so honored. It is a well-deserved recognition. Professor Ostrom holds a special place in the history of the commons because she has done so much to make it visible in our time — first to academics, and then to many policymakers and now to the general public.
Bollier goes on to explain Ostrom's work in a really accessible way in the piece. Recommended.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Click On interview

I did a recorded discussion today, on the politics of intellectual property, with Simon Cox of the BBC's Click On programme, his resident technology expert and editor at ZDNet UK, Rupert Goodwins, and Andrew Robinson of the UK Pirate Party. Not having been involved in a Radio 4 interview before it's difficult to judge but I think we avoided the usual "'The nasty corporate behemoths are the baddies' 'No the dirty rotten thieving pirates are the baddies'" format that such public discussions too often take.

I fear I failed to articulate the complex nature of  the issues and the need to balance the range of interests of the various stakeholders - creators, commercial agents (using "agent" in the economic sense to include all the relevant industries, collecting societies etc) and the public - if we're to make any real progress.  You can judge for yourself when the programme goes out on Monday afternoon at 4.30pm.

Apologies also to Andrew Robinson, who at one point in the proceedings I carelessly called 'Andrew Anderson'. Monday's a packed day for me so I suspect I'll listen into the podcast or iPlayer version later in the evening or perhaps it would be better if I avoided it altogether!

Google finally venture into book sales

Google's long awaited venture into online book sales, Google Editions, has been announced.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Google Books Is Not a Library

Professor Pamela Samuelson has responded to Sergey Brin's op-ed in the New York Times last week claiming
the Google book project was a digital library of Alexandria.
"A digital library containing all the world's knowledge is a laudable goal; just ask Brewster Kahle, who established the Internet Archive in 1996, years before Google was founded, and who has worked tirelessly to create it as a non-profit true digital library.

Unlike the Alexandria library or modern public libraries, the Google Book Search (GBS) initiative is a commercial venture that aims to monetize millions of out-of-print books, many of which are "orphans," that is, books whose rights holders cannot readily be found after a diligent search...

Google is now pressing university partners to accept ads even for the institutional subscriptions. Anyone aspiring to create a modern equivalent of the Alexandrian library would not have designed it to transform research libraries into shopping malls, but that is just what Google will be doing if the GBS deal is approved as is."

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The down side of transparency - people always assume the worst

I've been avoiding reading Larry Lessig's treatise "Against Transparency" primarily because I couldn't devote the required time and attention span to it and because I knew I'd feel obliged to comment on it when I did.  Essentially he is pointing out the obvious that, in the internet age, transparency in relation to government, on its own, leads to people always interpretating the information revealed in the worst possible light, confirming what we "already knew" about that dishonest, self-serving bunch of politicians anyway.  The result is to undermine trust in government institutions.  His "solution" is to remove corporate funding from politics.

"This is the problem of attention-span. To understand something--an essay, an argument, a proof of innocence-- requires a certain amount of attention. But on many issues, the average, or even rational, amount of attention given to understand many of these correlations, and their defamatory implications, is almost always less than the amount of time required. The result is a systemic misunderstanding--at least if the story is reported in a context, or in a manner, that does not neutralize such misunderstanding. The listing and correlating of data hardly qualifies as such a context. Understanding how and why some stories will be understood, or not understood, provides the key to grasping what is wrong with the tyranny of transparency…

Once we have named it, you will begin to see the attention-span problem everywhere, in public and private life. Think of politics, increasingly the art of exploiting attention-span problems--tagging your opponent with barbs that no one has time to understand, let alone analyze. Think of any complex public policy issue, from the economy to debates about levels of foreign aid.
Even the increased demand for "privacy" in acts that one commits in public-- activities on the Internet, for example--might best be explained by the attention span problem. Consider, for example, a story by Peter Lewis in The New York Times in 1998:

Surveillance cameras followed the attractive young blond woman through the lobby of the midtown Manhattan hotel, kept a glassy eye on her as she rode the elevator up to the 23rd floor and peered discreetly down the hall as she knocked at the door to my room. I have not seen the videotapes, but I can imagine the digital readout superimposed on the scenes, noting the exact time of the encounter. That would come in handy if someone were to question later why this woman, who is not my wife, was visiting my hotel room during a recent business trip. The cameras later saw us heading off to dinner and to the theater--a middle-aged, married man from Texas with his arm around a pretty East Village woman young enough to be his daughter…. As a matter of fact, she is my daughter.

"Privacy" here would hardly be invoked for the purpose of hiding embarrassing facts. Quite the contrary: the hidden facts here are the most innocent or loving. Yet it would hide these facts because we may be certain that few would take the time to understand them enough to see them as innocent.

The point in such cases is not that the public isn’t smart enough to figure out what the truth is. The point is the opposite. The public is too smart to waste its time focusing on matters that are not important for it to understand. The ignorance here is rational, not pathological. It is what we would hope everyone would do, if everyone were rational about how best to deploy their time. Yet even if rational, this ignorance produces predictable and huge misunderstandings. A mature response to these inevitable misunderstandings are policies that strive not to exacerbate them.

In the context of public officials, however, the solutions are obvious, and old, and eminently tractable. If the problem with transparency is what might be called its structural insinuations--its constant suggestions of a sin that is present sometimes but not always--then the obvious solution is to eliminate those insinuations and those suggestions. A system of publicly funded elections would make it impossible to suggest that the reason some member of Congress voted the way he voted was because of money. Perhaps it was because he was stupid. Perhaps it was because he was liberal, or conservative. Perhaps it was because he failed to pay attention to the issues at stake. Whatever the reason, each of these reasons is democracy-enhancing. They give the democrat a reason to get involved, if only to throw the bum out. And by removing what is understood to be an irrelevant factor--money--the desire to get involved is not stanched by the cynicism that stifles so much in the current system...

But the objective of these proposals is not, or should not be, fairness. The objective should be trustworthiness. The problem that these bills address is that we have a Congress that nobody trusts--a Congress that, in the opinion of the vast majority of the American people, sells its results to the highest bidder. The aim of these proposals should be to change that perception by establishing a system in which no one could believe that money was buying results. In this way we can eliminate the possibility of influence that nourishes the cynicism that is anyway inevitable when technology makes it so simple to imply an endless list of influence.

As with ProPublica or nonprofit newspapers, or a "cultural flat-rate," or a compulsory license to compensate for file-sharing, proposals for public funding can thus be understood as a response to an unavoidable pathology of the technology--its pathological transparency--that increasingly rules our lives and our institutions. Without this response--with the ideal of naked transparency alone--our democracy, like the music industry and print journalism generally, is doomed. The Web will show us every possible influence. The most cynical will be the most salient. Limited attention span will assure that the most salient is the most stable. Unwarranted conclusions will be drawn, careers will be destroyed, alienation will grow. No doubt we will rally to the periodic romantic promising change (such as Barack Obama), but nothing will change.

Likewise with transparency. There is no questioning the good that transparency creates in a wide range of contexts, government especially. But we should also recognize that the collateral consequence of that good need not itself be good. And if that collateral bad is busy certifying to the American public what it thinks it already knows, we should think carefully about how to avoid it. Sunlight may well be a great disinfectant. But as anyone who has ever waded through a swamp knows, it has other effects as well."

Unsurprisingly there has been a wide ranging response from the great and the good, including Tim Wu, David Weingberger, Ethan Zuckerman and many others.  All well worth a read.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Manchester airport brings strip searching to the masses

Manchester Airport has brought strip searching to the masses.
"A trial of a scanner that produces "naked" images of passengers has begun at Manchester Airport.
The authorities say it will speed up security checks by quickly revealing any concealed weapons or explosives.
But the full body scans will also show up breast enlargements, body piercings and a clear black-and-white outline of passengers' genitals.
The airport has stressed that the images are not pornographic and will be destroyed straight away.
 Sarah Barrett, head of customer experience at the airport, said most passengers did not like the traditional "pat down" search...
Ms Barrett said: "This scanner completely takes away the hassle of needing to undress." "
The value-set of a management/administration, which is prepared to construct a justification for strip searching and believing somehow it is something else (because it is done with an expensive machine and the images are viewed remotely), is so far removed from the fundamental freedoms that the UK fought two world wars over, that you have to believe Churchill would be spinning in his grave.  This one has to go into my book on The Insane Organisation.

Swedish Court overturns ruling in audio book piracy case

From The Local:
"Swedish broadband provider ePhone is not obligated to hand over customer information to five book publishers, according to a decision by the Svea Court of Appeal which overturns a lower court ruling.

The case, which ePhone initially lost in June in Solna District Court, is significant because it is the first to go to trial since the passage of a law designed to crack down on internet piracy in Sweden.

ePhone argued that the five audio book publishers who filed the lawsuit had not been able to prove that anyone other than users from Sweden’s Anti-Piracy Bureau (AntipiratbyrĂ„n) had accessed a server containing sound files for 27 titles which the publishers claimed had been made available for downloading by the general public.

The appeals court agreed with ePhone, finding that the book publishers failed to show that there was probable cause to believe copyright infringement had occurred."

iSpot helps six-year-old spot new-to-Britain moth

Via Doug Clow iSpot helps six-year-old spot new-to-nBritain moth

In 2001, in an amazing book, The Diversity of Life, Edward O. Wilson put forward a grand plan to protect the world's biodiversity the first stage of which involved doing a comprehensive survey of the world's flora and fauna. He accepted that this was a big but finite job and estimated it would take about 50,000 professional lifetimes over a period of 50 years. He didn't factor in the possibility of harnessing the networking power of the Web.  Doug explains the discovery of the new moth:
Katie Robbins, a six-year-old living near Newbury, spotted an interesting moth on a windowsill. She and her Dad couldn’t identify what it was, so her Dad put a picture of it on iSpot, the nature identification website produced by the OU as part of the OPAL project, funded by the Big Lottery Fund.  (I’m leading the development of the iSpot website.)
Martin Harvey, one of the resident nature experts on iSpot, saw it and thought it was an exciting rare find, and got the identification confirmed by the Natural History Museum.
It turns out that the moth was the Euonymus Leaf-notcher, Pryeria sinica, and it had never been seen before in Britain.  It’s native to Asia, and has turned up in the last decade or so in North America as an invasive pest. Its larvae eat Euonymus shrubs (known variously as Spindle bushes, Spindles, and Burning bushes), which are widely planted in gardens. Martin Harvey’s blog post mentions that the Euonymus Leaf-notcher was observed in Spain last June, in the only other known siting in Europe (so far!).
Furry Moth (Pryeria sinica)
Furry Moth (Pryeria sinica)
This is really exciting – according to press reports (I’ve not talked to her directly!) Katie and her family are “really excited”, and it’s a significant discovery.
You can see how the story unfolded on the ‘Furry Moth’ observation Katie’s Dad added to iSpot."

Elinor Ostrom wins nobel prize for economics

From the creative commons blog:
"The 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded today to Elinor Ostrom and Oliver Williamson for their research on economic governance. Ostrom’s award is particularly exciting, for it cites her study of the commons. Commons? That sounds familiar!
Ostrom’s pioneering work mostly concerns the governance of common-pool resources — resources that are rivalrous (i.e., scarce, can be used up, unlike digital goods) yet need to be or should be governed as a commons — classically, things like water systems and the atmosphere. This work is cited by many scholars of non-rivalrous commons (e.g., knowledge commons) as laying the groundwork for their field. For example, a few excerpts from James Boyle’s recent book, The Public Domain, first from the acknowledgements (page ix):
Historical work by Carla Hesse, Martha Woodmansee, and Mark Rose has been central to my analysis, which also could not have existed but for work on the governance of the commons by Elinor Ostrom, Charlotte Hess, and Carol Rose.
Notes, page 264:
In the twentieth century, the negative effects of open access or common ownership received an environmental gloss thanks to the work of Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science 162 (1968): 1243–1248. However, work by scholars such as Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), and Carol Rose, “The Comedy of the Commons: Custom, Commerce, and Inherently Public Property,” University of Chicago Law Review 53 (1986): 711–781, have introduced considerable nuance to this idea. Some resources may be more efficiently used if they are held in common. In addition, nonlegal, customary, and norm-based forms of “regulation” often act to mitigate the theoretical dangers of overuse or under-investment.
Notes, page 266:
The possibility of producing “order without law” and thus sometimes governing the commons without tragedy has also fascinated scholars of contemporary land use. Robert C. Ellickson, Order without Law: How Neighbors Settle Disputes (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991); Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
In 2003 Ostrom herself co-authored with Charlotte Hess a paper contextualizing knowledge commons and the study of other commons: Ideas, Artifacts, and Facilities: Information as a Common-Pool Resource. It includes a citation of Creative Commons, which was just about to launch its licenses at the time the paper was written:
An example of an effective grassroots initiative is that taken by the Public Library of Science (”PLS”), a nonprofit organization of scientists dedicated to making the world’s scientific and medical literature freely accessible “for the benefit of scientific progress, education and the public good.”126 PLS has so far encouraged over 30,888 scientists from 182 countries to sign its open letter to publishers to make their publications freely available on the web site PubMed Central.127 By September 2002, there were over eighty full-text journals available at this site.128 Another new collective action initiative is the Creative Commons129 founded by Lawrence Lessig, James Boyle, and others to promote “the innovative reuse of all sorts of intellectual works.”130 Their first project is to “offer the public a set of copyright licenses free of charge.”131"