The Free Culture World: Open Platforms, Community and Participation


shanghai, photo by andy doro

On Monday, writer David Bollier was at the Courant Institute at New York University to promote his new book “Viral Spiral: How the Commoners Built a Digital Republic of their Own” (free press). The book is a history of the free culture movement and the sharing economy. It is about how the phenomena of free and open source software and the growth of non-market creativity are disrupting the corporate structure-holds and re-shaping politics and culture.

Bollier talked about how today we are experiencing a hybrid world, one in which mass media and centralized control is finding itself in a dialogue and negotiation with the macro-economic, cultural force of open access advocates and citizen activists whose efficient, user-driven creativity on open platforms is driving new market structures and leveraging change in the way we access information.

Bollier defines the sharing economy vis-a-vis open source in all of its manifestations: open business models, open access journals, open code, open education, etc. – all of these changes to the way we share information and to our cycle of discovery and innovation, are creating what Bollier calls a new “commons”, a virtual open space common to us all. Unlike the commons described in the “tragedy of the commons” (where individuals acting in their own self-interest destroy a shared limited resource disregarding their own long-term interests) the online commons is an infinitely extensible resource and sharing the space in an open, decentralized way actually drives innovation and expands the richness of the commons.

The commons, Bollier says, is a new social metabolism in our cultural ecosystem for governance and law. Cicero said “freedom is participation in power” and perhaps, Bollier suggests, in our current globalized and digitized world we see a new kind of citizen emerge. A citizen who asks for open access, the freedom to participate, the need for transparency, and for social equity. We see activists and citizen bloggers exposing things neglected by mainstream media and, in a way, forcing mainstream media to take notice. The creation of the Creative Commons license grew out of a need to re-address the current copyright acts and, to an extent, the monopoly on culture. In a variety of ways, along a spectrum of initiatives, the “Commoners” (as Bollier refers to this new type of citizen) is asking for a discourse on open access.


hell's kitchen, photo by andy doro

Bollier’s ideas are reminiscent of another book along similar themes. In his book “Nowtopia: How Pirate Programmers, Outlaw Bicyclists and Vacant Lot Gardners are Inventing the Future Today” Chris Carlsson writes: “As capitalism continues, colonizing our thoughts and desires, new practices are emerging that are re-defining politics and opening spaces of unpredictability in the detritus of modern life.” Chris Carlsson identifies an emerging group of people, drawn together by shared values, alternative living arrangements and non-economic relationships, that are forming a communal solidarity to confront the everyday commodification of capitalism. They are forming networks of activity that refuse the measurements of money; but instead of opposing technological advancements they are engaging with technology in creative and experimental ways. Carlsson chooses the term “Nowtopians” but the idea is similar to Bollier’s.

The Nowtopians, Carlsson explains, are a new form of Utopians, who seek to create a contemporary commons out of vacant lots and open bandwith. “Really, really free markets”, writes Carlsson, “anti-commodities, festivals and free services are imaginative products of an anti-economy provisionally under construction by freely cooperative and inventive people.” Growing out of the communal movements of the 1960’s, the be-ins and the Green Revolution, this group of Nowtopians are searching for an Exodus out of capitalist society and are building communities within the shell of our current system.

Fragmentation and crises”, Carlsson writes, “are besetting the world order and the government and economic institutions on which this order is based are becoming increasingly dysfunctional while losing creditability.” The Nowtopians are tinkerers and experimenters, DIYers (do it yourself-ers) who support an open source technosphere and an alternative food system (local, seasonal, organic as opposed to mass produced). Their social alternative to a meritocratic society is to embrace co-ops and collectives.

While Bollier focuses more on digital innovations and his book does not extrapolate as far as Carlsson’s, he does explore how Commoners are engaging with market structures by often building new markets on top of the commons (we see this in the bankability of social networks like Twitter and Facebook). And, despite an uncertainty on how the growth of an open society will relate with or change current systems of power, there is nonetheless an exploration taking place in both of these books on how the market economy is adapting or prevailing to the change. Furthermore the conversation extends to ecologists and futuroligsts.

In his book Peak Everything Richard Heinberg predicits: “once we accept that energy, fresh water and food will become less freely available over the decades we see that while the 20th Century saw the greatest and most rapid expansion of scale, scope and complexity of human societies in history, the 21st Century will see contraction and simplification.” If one thing has resonated out of this new openness of information it is perhaps a greater understanding of the delicate balance of a global ecology and maybe the understanding that no nation is completely independent, and that all the world’s resources are shared.


astor place and broadway, photo by andy doro


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