Reality is the Next Big Thing Debate: Participation or Privacy?

This is the nineteenth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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The central dilemma facing the average citizen hasn’t yet been discussed: How to participate in society without accelerating this dystopian future of surveillance capitalism.

Micah gets right to the point: “I’m actually very happy about the fact that I’m never lost any more because I have a phone with GPS,” he says. “This is my first time in Austria,” he adds, “but I’m able to see where I’m staying and find directions to walk there.” But this same technology means that, everywhere he goes, his location is being tracked, not just by Google, but also by T-Mobile and all the other ways data can leak out of his phone. “Still, it’s an amazing technology,” Micah concedes. This kind of trade-off between the enabling and the terrifying aspects of technology is widespread in the tools we have today.

“Every time we use the web,” Micah explains, “there are tonnes of services that track what we’re doing and tonnes of services that make the web more rich.” YouTube videos embedded in blogs, social media or other websites are a great convenience, but mean that Google can track, not only what videos you’re watching, but where you’re watching them. “Everything that we do leaves data trails,” Micah says, “and these data trails end up in databases of a wide variety of companies and many of them we have no idea they even exist.” Say what? “Like, you go to a website and there are dozens of advertising networks tracking you,” he adds, “and you don’t even realise this.” Well, there’s a comforting thought…

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Since the Snowden revelations last year, we now know that all of this data is also accessible to governments and spy agencies, particularly skewed to favour US surveillance operations. A huge percentage of websites use Google Analytics, a great convenience for website owners managing and analysing their traffic flows. “This means that, as you go from website to website, each of these totally separate websites are all sending their information to the same Google database,” Micah explains.

These databases are stored on servers in the US and, because your data has now landed on their soil, the US government can demand to have a look too. In total secret. “There used to be a small minority of paranoid people and everyone would think they were crazy,” Micah says, “and now it turns out they were completely right.”

However, Micah is hopeful in some ways. “People are starting to wake up and finally websites are starting to use encryption,” he says. “Things are starting to go in a better direction, but there are a lot of things that are almost impossible: How can I carry a phone that has a map and GPS without being tracked by the cell networks?”

There are ways to protect yourself from certain aspects of surveillance, but, as Daniel Erlacher says, “If you really want to defend yourself, your browsing experience is not just click and go.” You can install software that blocks JavaScript or anonymises your browsing, but your web experience will be much less rich, pages will load more slowly and, in some cases, not work at all. You are left with a choice between protection and participation.

Shoshana calls this an “illegitimate choice”. For her, this is reminiscent of the illegitimate choice that women in the 1980s were forced to make between having a family or a career. Shoshana and her generation of women had to resist and overturn that illegitimacy; our generation has to resist and overturn the illegitimacies of today. We each must take Shoshana’s vow of resistance: “I will change whatever I have to change around me to not be faced with that choice.”

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The internet is as essential for effective living in the twenty-first century as balancing family and career has become for women since the 1980s. “A few months ago, Facebook had a server crash and people around the United States couldn’t get onto Facebook,” Shoshana tells us. “People were actually calling 911.” We laugh, but the point is made: to millions, these services are critical to participation in society today. “Can you imagine living without Google search, or any kind of search?” she asks. “I certainly can’t.”

This is what makes surveillance capitalism “a Faustian pact” according to Shoshana. If we want to use these services to participate in society, then we are forced to give up certain things, such as our privacy. You could argue that this is not unlike the social contract we all implicitly sign up to when we give up the daily freedom of our children in exchange for eleven long years of education.

The problem with surveillance capitalism is that we have not agreed to give up these rights through the democratic process. There is no social contract; there are only corporate terms and conditions. Privacy is taken away from us unilaterally and without discussion or debate. “It’s a completely unregulated way to do things,” Daniel says. “It’s like driving on the road without any signs or any rules.”

There is, however, some doubt over the potential of our democratic process to face down the biggest technology companies. Daniel Erlacher reels off a list of the ready cash held by the big technology corporations. Apple have one hundred and ten billion dollars on hand, Microsoft fifty-one billion, Google fifty billion – and this was in 2012. That is more cash than most nation states.

Daniel cites Julian Assange’s book When Google Met WikiLeaks: “When we talk about Google,” he says, “we talk about US policy-making.” The implication is that the US government are perfectly happy to have Google in charge, as long as the US government can influence Google. The will of the people, meanwhile, doesn’t come into it at all.

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Reality is the Next Big Thing.

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Reality is the Next Big Thing Debate: Who Will Cook Capitalism?

This is the eighteenth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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Felix Stalder, professor of digital culture and network theories at the Zurich University of the Arts, immediately takes issue with Shoshana’s central recommendation. “I’m not sure I agree with the conclusion that the alternative is to cook capitalism again or face a wasteland,” he says. “Historically what cooked capitalism was the real competition with socialism that put pressure on capitalist institutions and states to mitigate against these tendencies that are inherent in unregulated capitalism, that they increase social inequality.”

For Felix, social inequality is not our biggest problem; it’s a side-effect of the current way we have organised ourselves. He argues that we need to extend democratic participation into the running of the economy, before society descends into anarchy. “This new capitalism,” he says, “creates surplus populations that become very unrestive, not only in the Middle East, but everywhere. And that’s very dangerous.”

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“First of all, Google is not the only problem,” says social media critic and educator Miriam Rasch, “so we have to talk about it in a broader sense.” But she argues that Google already intervene to nudge our behaviour in a particular direction, through algorithms, filter bubbles and the automatic suggestions they provide in their search, for example. “For the billions of users of Google, it looks like an objective tool,” she says. “The first step would be to explain that this is not the way it is.”

Although Miriam accepts that algorithmic interventions lead to an inequality in power and privacy between the few at Google and the many of its users, she does also suggest that Google’s automation “makes the majority into some kind of equal un-individual mass”. She means equal in a bad sense, but I suppose it does also mean that Bill Gates and Barack Obama get the same rough treatment from Google Search as I do, which is something at least.

However, like Felix, Miriam is sceptical about looking to our institutions for solutions. “It’s a problem in the whole of society that everyone is gathering all this data about you,” she says. “You can hardly live your life without going along.” In the Netherlands, where Miriam lives, they have a chip card system for the transport network, much like the London Oystercard. The card gathers data about the holder’s travel around the country.

“This is a lot of data gathered by my government about me and I don’t know what they do with it,” she says. Miriam pays for a card that allows her unlimited travel at any time throughout the Netherlands and yet, curiously, she must still scan her card for each journey. That can only be for the unknown purposes of data collection. “So it’s not only Google or the tech companies,” she says, “it’s really about our real daily lives.”

Micah Lee, chief technology officer of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, agrees. “The problem is bigger than Google,” he says. “Google really did pioneer a lot of this stuff, but, at this point, every time you do anything, there are databases logging this information.” Micah tells us about traffic cameras placed at intersections in cities in the US that log every licence plate number that passes. “This is used to catch people running red lights,” he says, “but this is just a database with a data set that can show exactly where people have been driving.”

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If Felix, Miriam and Micah are sceptical about trusting government institutions with protecting us from the worst ravages of capitalism, Nafeez Ahmed is downright scathing of Shoshana’s proposal. He describes institutionising as a “totally banal response to the scale and systematic nature of the crisis”. Nafeez wants us to be more ambitious: “Surely we should reclaim the commons,” he says, “reclaim public ownership and break the monopoly of the corporations.”

Shoshana takes the opportunity to respond. “I’m not suggesting that we recreate the institutions of the twentieth century,” she explains. “We’re not going back to those social conditions.” She draws on the writing of George Orwell, where he defines cowardice as taking whatever is happening now and assuming it will continue to happen in the future. To make that assumption is to subjugate yourself to the power structure of the moment and that is cowardice.

“The future is not a straight line from the present,” Shoshana says. “The real challenge,” she adds, “is taking the challenges we face now and understanding how we create the new institutions that reflect our conditions of existence today.”

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Reality is the Next Big Thing.

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Reality is the Next Big Thing: Keynote

This is the seventeenth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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Shoshana Zuboff, Harvard Business School professor, is beamed into Forum Stadtpark from the US over a live videostream. She sits in a leather padded chair in a wood panelled study decorated in luxuriant high taste. The scene could be straight from a 1930s Hollywood film set, if it weren’t for the microphone on the desk in front of her and the black dog who wags back and forth in the background.

If her taste in décor is embedded in the past, her taste in the politics of business couldn’t be more futuristic. Shoshana begins her keynote speech with a simple question: “Why does Google matter?” But her answer penetrates far beyond the company’s profit and loss, share price or market capture to address the root existential threats Google poses to our society and democracy.

(Shoshana explains later that she is “focusing on Google as emblematic of a new mode of practice and a new mode of capitalism”. It’s not just Google, as demonstrated this summer by the revelations that Facebook have been manipulating the emotions of their users without permission.)

Shoshana starts her analysis by describing the new business model that she and her colleagues have seen rising since the 1970s. “You can call it neo-liberalism, financial capitalism, shareholder capitalism,” she says. “The label is less important than understanding its consequences.” And the consequences have included, not only social exclusion, stratification and inequality, but also reactions to those consequences – fundamentalism, despair, violence – and the reactions to those reactions – repression, resistance and extremism. “This is a business model that I consider to be contemptuous,” Shoshana says. “Contemptuous of humanity and contemptuous of our planet.”

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Thomas Piketty, a French economist, has written an incomprehensible modern classic critique of twenty-first century capitalism, called, not incomprehensibly, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Shoshana is one of the few people who have read past the introduction and she reports back from the trenches. “I’ve been able to reduce this very thick book to one sentence,” Shoshana says, snuggling up to the microphone like a magician. “Ready? Okay: Capitalism is not intended to be eaten raw.” There’s a titter in the audience.

She elaborates: “Piketty demonstrates that the problem we’re facing is not capitalism per se, but rather what happens to our societies when capitalism is allowed to develop without any social constraints.” According to Piketty, that’s the kind of raw capitalism that produces such pernicious inequality. The solution is therefore simple: “We need laws, we need social institutions and we need the collaboration amongst us in a democratic spirit in order to cook capitalism and make it edible,” Shoshana explains. “And that’s the stuff we have lost in the last thirty years.”

While neo-liberalism (or whatever you want to call it) has been merrily dismantling the laws, social institutions and collaboration that made capitalism palatable, many people took refuge in this new thing called the internet, which promised autonomy, freedom and creativity. “But the thing we need to understand now,” Shoshana warns, “is that the online world, which used to be our world, is now where capitalism is developing in new ways.” By which she means the capitalism of, among others, Google. The critical question for us is: Will these new forms of capitalism, developing in the networked world, solve the problems that we face today – or are they going to make them worse?

Although Shoshana sees some positive developments for capitalism online, she also sees some really dangerous developments, “developments,” she says, “that are really hard to grasp because they have been designed to be undetectable”.

This is the context in which Google matters. Now back to the original question: Why does Google matter? Google matters because they have pioneered a wholly new business logic, new in the history of capitalism. This new logic, Shoshana says, has already become the model for most new online businesses, applications and start-ups. If the Google model is already the dominant model in the online world, then, assuming that the current rush from offline to online commerce continues, it follows that the Google model will become the dominant model of the entire capitalist system. And that, says Shoshana, is a very dangerous prospect indeed.

In what way is Google’s business logic so innovative? In order to understand the answer to this, we have to first understand that capitalism has always depended on its populations for two things: customers and employees. This is no longer true. We, the service users, are not Google’s customers. Google’s customers are the advertisers and others who purchase its data analyses. As users, we are simply the source of the data that it analyses for its customers. We are not needed as customers.

Google, the third most valuable company in the world, employs less than 48,000 people. For comparison, the largest private employer on the planet today is Walmart with 2.2m employees. The success of twentieth century capitalism was founded its employees; at the height of its power in 1958, General Motors was also the largest private employer on the planet. “That gives you an idea of how we’ve flipped this model,” Shoshana says. Google and its dominant business model simply does not require many workers. Most of us are not needed as employees.
So if the people are not Google’s customers and they are not Google’s employees, then what does Google need people for? Only one thing: data.

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“Data is becoming everything,” Shoshana says. “The ugly truth here is that this so-called big data is actually plucked from our lives without our knowledge and without our informed consent.” This big data, which Shoshana calls big contraband or big stolen goods, is sucked from our social media, from our smartphones, from our every networked click, type and touch. “I call it the poisoned fruit of a rich array of surveillance practices,” she says, “designed to be invisible and undetectable as we make our way across the virtual, but now also the real world.”

These practices are complicated by collaboration between corporations and state security services in the surveillance of citizens, and further complicated by the accelerating pace of these practices. “Google is now investing in drones,” Shoshana points out, “in wearable technologies, in the smart devices for our homes, the internet of everything.” This is creating a massive infrastructure of big contraband collection.

This new economic logic, where we are not required as customers or employees, but only as data sets, has created a new asset class, which Shoshana calls surveillance assets. They attract a lot of investment: surveillance capital. What we’ve created in Google, she explains, is a new logic of accumulation: accumulation by surveillance. And this new economic model is, of course, called surveillance capitalism. “What is key to understand is that populations, that is all of us, no longer exist to be employed and served,” Shoshana says. “We exist to be harvested, harvested for behavioural data.”

These developments are moving very quickly. Google have already progressed from collecting the data of things we have done, through the data of things we are doing, to making predictions of things we might do. Now, according to Shoshana, they are “actually intervening, in thousands and thousands of very subtle ways, to modify our behaviour, to shape our behaviour, in order to try and determine what we will do next”. No, wait, there’s more good news.

“Every single point in that process is going to be monetised and marketised,” Shoshana says, “turned into revenue streams for Google, for its advertisers, for the others who are bidding on opportunities to modify our behaviour to serve their financial interest.” This is becoming the new economic model, this is becoming the new reality of our lives. “Reality is being turned into a new commodity class called behaviour,” Shoshana says. Reality is the next big thing.

You might think this would hail the end of privacy. Far from it. There is actually a lot of privacy, but it has been redistributed. “Instead of everybody having some privacy,” Shoshana says, “the surveillance capitalists have usurped our privacy rights: they have all the privacy and we are left with no privacy.” The surveillance capitalists use their privacy power to prevent us from being able to inspect or control their behaviour.

Shoshana sees this unilateral usurpation of our rights as going far beyond simple business; this is now serious politics. “Google represents a revolutionary new politics,” she says. “It’s a revolution from above. It’s not a coup d’état, it’s a coup des gens – it’s an overthrowing of the people, not of the state.” This is a remarkable reappraisal for a company whose company slogan is Don’t be evil. “That’s why Google,” Shoshana continues, “which began as something that intended to empower us, has become something that represents one of the darkest threats for our future.”

This overthrowing of the people, Shoshana says, is caused by an “automated passivity, that attempts to reduce us to our animal condition of stimulus and response”. Shoshana compares what Google is doing to behaviourist researchers who put rats in a maze and give them rewards and electric shocks in order to determine their behaviour. “That’s the direction that surveillance capitalism is taking us,” she says.

Shoshana now returns, somewhat sardonically, to the question of whether surveillance capitalism will solve our socio-ecological problems or make them worse. “Is this going to fix our problems of income and social inequality?” she asks, rhetorically. “Is this going to fix the divisions in our society? Is this going to fix the problems that a contemptuous capitalism has produced?” The questions hang, hopelessly. “My answer to that is no. Instead, it’s going to institutionalise these problems in a universal digital infrastructure to which people must submit if they want to participate.”

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Must this be our destiny?

Shoshana urges us to turn and make eye contact with the person sitting next to us. “When you look at the people beside you,” she says, “you are not seeing illiterate serfs. This is not the fourteenth century. What you see is an educated, thinking, critical, opinionated individual.” I’m flattered. “That’s who we are,” she adds, “and people like us are not going to let Dark Google be our future.”

Staying positive, we have to remember that surveillance capitalism is still very young. “We are only at the beginning of this new information civilisation that will dominate the twenty-first century,” Shoshana says. In 1914, the Ford Model T car had only been in production for six years and General Motors was a small start up company; both became giants of twentieth century industry and neither destroyed democracy. Shoshana puts this success down to “the gradual development of legal and social institutions that amplified capitalism’s social benefits and tamed its excesses”.

In other words: we cooked twentieth century capitalism. “Just what Piketty was talking about,” Shoshana says. Capitalism in the nineteenth century was very raw and great political battles were fought for the social welfare state that made capitalism fit for human consumption in the twentieth century.

Now we must fight those political battles all over again. To avoid the risks of slipping back into a nineteenth century world of inequality, where raw surveillance capitalism gives us all bellyache, we all must now don our aprons, our oven gloves and our toques and become economic chefs. Google’s raw economic model must be made palatable through a reassertion of democratic rights, oversight and law.

Our future depends on us finding alternative, pro-social forms of information capitalism that, as Shoshana says with passion, “do not subjugate us, but serve us, that align with our needs for effective life and do not try to usurp our rights, but rather allow us to flourish”.

For Shoshana, it is essential that we develop our solutions through our democratic process. “In the shadow, in the gloom of today’s Dark Googles, it has become fashionable to mourn the passing of the democratic era,” she says. “But I want to say that democracy is the best that our species has developed so far and woe to us if we abandon it now.” Shoshana’s support for state democracy seems to be less a warm endorsement and more a cold fear of likely alternatives: despotism, oligarchy or military junta.

“The real road to serfdom,” she continues, “is to allow ourselves to be persuaded that these declarations of democracy that we have inherited are no longer relevant to our digital future, that they will be overwhelmed by these powers of surveillance capitalism.”

Having raised the spectre of a future where democracy has been obliterated by surveillance capitalism, Shoshana tries to reassure us. “This is the wasteland,” she says, “but I do not fear it because I do not anticipate it and I do not anticipate it because I believe in you.” She jabs a finger at us and smiles. “My hope for the future rests in you, in each one of you.” She leans back into her leather padded chair on the other side of the planet. “That’s the promise of today. So go, do.”

Shoshana beams into her web cam, sending the smile down the fibre optic cables, patiently watched by the NSA and Google.

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

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Fair and Open IT

This is the sixteenth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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IT: Systematic Exploitation

The IT industry is founded on systematic exploitation, from the mining of raw materials right through to the way we dispose of our old technology. Why is the industry so exploitative? The usual hoary reason: profit. Companies don’t pay sufficient attention to the ethical consequences of their entire supply chain or the life cycle of their products because that would be too costly.

Regina Joschika is a consultant for Clean-IT, who campaign for fair working conditions in the global computer industry. She outlines the three key features of this exploitative system. First is the demand for fast and inexpensive technology. The lifespan of a computer is much shorter in 2014 than it was in the 1990s. Back then, according to Regina, you would expect to keep your PC for seven years. Now she says that the average life cycle of a computer is just two years; we are now living in a culture of regular technology upgrades. These regular upgrades deliver rapidly decreasing improvements in technology for the user, but the IT industry relies upon them for their annual profits.

This shortened lifespan is a concern because the amount of raw materials required to produce a computer is truly shocking. According to research by the United Nations University, it takes 240 kilograms of fossil fuels, 22 kilograms of chemicals and 1,500 kilograms of water to make one desktop PC. Furthermore, countries in the global south are richest in these resources, but they are not the ones overwhelmingly profiting from their exploitation.

The second key feature of the IT industry’s exploitative system is the complexity of its supply chains. Unlike chocolate or clothes, IT products are made up of many tiny items. In a computer, hundreds of companies will contribute to the supply chain for a product that is eventually labelled “Apple” or “Dell”. Most IT companies simply don’t know the set up of their entire supply chain because it is so complex. This means that they can’t control environmental abuses and worker exploitation.

At the start of the supply chain, the extraction of raw materials for the electronics industry is highly dangerous. The mining workforce is often not well-informed and not protected, leading to many deaths from exposure to toxicity or from mine collapses. In some countries, children work in the mines. During the next stage in the supply chain, work in electronics factories is often inhumane. Workers are forced by low wages, the threat of lay-offs or worse to work unpaid overtime or overnight. In many countries where these IT products are built there are no trade unions or union activity is restricted. The majority of workers don’t know their rights. Work in the computer industry is also dangerous. During soldering, for example, toxic chemicals are released which can burn skin.

Finally, we come to the third key feature of the IT industry’s exploitative system: disposal. An estimated fifty million tonnes of e-waste is generated every year. Two thirds of this is not disposed of correctly or recycled – computers are full of valuable input material that could be reused. Most of this waste is toxic, with tragic consequences for the environment and the communities on whom it is dumped, often in the global south, where there is not the expertise to handle it properly, leaving children to exploit the dumps for things to sell.

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Regina ends by demanding that we pay more attention to human rights: they must prevail over profitability. In 2012, Apple were forced to join the Fair Labor Association after a public relations disaster in the wake of a New York Times article concerning labour violations in China, but abuses in their factories persist. In July, China Labor Watch accused one of Samsung’s suppliers of using child labour. We must do more.

We can increase pressure on these companies through raising awareness (Just by reading this – well done!) and by using our purchasing power to force change. We can start by using the work of Electronics Watch, the world’s first independent monitoring organisation for labour rights in the electronics industry. We, as citizens, must begin to take responsibility when buying our computers, smartphones and other technological miracles. Starting, perhaps, with the fair mouse.

Fairness and Open Supply Chains

In 2009, Susanne Jordan and Nager IT took on the challenge of developing the first fair IT device on the market. “I have been unable to find alternatives,” she says. “So I did it myself.” Her aim was to offer critical “consumers” an alternative. “At the moment, we either buy nothing or we buy what is available.” Nager IT’s first product is the fair computer mouse. “A mouse is not a hip product,” she says, “but it’s quite a simple product, so I thought I could be able to create a fair mouse.”

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There are only about twenty little components in a computer mouse, so why did the development take three years? Susanne demonstrates by showing us a diagram of the supply chain. It is huge, spreading from wire manufacturers, right down to the mines that take the metals out of the ground. Each element of the supply chain is labelled in green or red depending on whether the working conditions are acceptable or not; it’s about half and half at the moment. All the raw materials are labelled red, unfair, except the copper, which was recycled in Germany. “The reality is we still have to use unfair components for our mouse,” Susanne says.

Susanne illustrates the complexity of the process by telling us the story of her mouse cable, which was made in China. She personally went on a tour of the factory and found that the entire cable was not made there, only the processes that could be automated. The rest of the production was actually carried out by hand in the countryside, where the wages were so low as to be cheaper than automation. “It took us three weeks to find this information,” Susanne says. “And, once we find unfair suppliers, we have to find new ones.”

It’s a constant battle and Nager IT are one of only a very few technology companies who are interested in learning about their supply chain. “Transparency and openness is of the essence,” Susanne says. “If other companies did similarly, then we could share information.” Instead, she has to visit every supplier in person, with no guarantee that she’ll be able to find a fair supplier at all. It’s a massive amount of work, even for something as technologically simple as a computer mouse.

Furthermore, as a small business, Nager IT do not have the influence on suppliers that Apple or Dell would do. “If I go to a supplier and ask for fifty grammes of tin, then I have no power,” Susanne says. Nager IT cannot change the entire industry on their own, but they can wave a red flag. “We want industry to notice us,” Susanne says, “see their sales fall and encourage them to make their mice fairer.” Nager IT have only sold 4,500 mice so far, a number that will not make the slightest impression on the sales figures of the mouse giants (I like that image). “But still we try to convince businesses that fairness is a purchasing criterion,” Susanne says.

The Power Relations of Openness

The openness of Nager IT’s supply chain encourages fairness. If we could see clearly how unfair a company’s products were, perhaps that would discourage us from buying them. The closed supply chains of most IT companies keep abuses hidden, even from the companies themselves. But openness can also be a bad thing when it is not fairly distributed.

At the moment, we are subject to the Customer Relationship Management of big businesses like Amazon. There are huge databases full of personal information that we have given away: our home address, our credit card details, our shipping preferences, our purchase history and so on. We have been incredibly open with this data, but Amazon themselves are not reciprocating with open supply chains or open accounting systems. This doesn’t seem to be a fair balance of power.

Markus Sabadello, of the FreedomBox project, wants to flip the relationship that we currently have with businesses like Amazon. He wants Vendor Relationship Management. Instead of Amazon, eBay, Google or Apple storing your personal information, you would store it for yourself in your own personal data vault on a FreedomBox at home. You, the customer, would then decide who would be allowed access to that information on a temporary basis. Open Notice in the UK are currently working on one element of this: a “consent receipt”, which would allow access to your data on terms that you set.

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In the same way, the FreedomBox could also hold your social data. At the moment, we have a very centralised web architecture: Facebook holds your identity, not you. The influence of Facebook-as-ID is spreading through the “Login with Facebook” system used on many websites. Again, our openness with our personal data is not being reciprocated by this for profit company. A FreedomBox could be a way of allowing us to take back some of the power of our data. “It’s not about disconnecting from the network,” Markus says, “it’s about owning part of the infrastructure.”

Openness is a Business Model

This idea of taking back control is the same impulse that drives the open source hardware movement. Open source hardware is hardware whose designs are made publicly available for people to study, modify and use to build and sell products. It’s about empowering people with knowledge, rather than becoming dependent on the jealously guarded, patent-protected knowledge of closed corporations.

Tsvetan Usunov runs Olimex, a hardware company based in Bulgaria. They have made over six hundred products, of which about half have an open source hardware licence. “Where we can open the products, we do,” he says. Why on earth would he do that? Because, as Tsvetan says, open source hardware is important for communities, for customers – and for his business.

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Open source hardware is important for communities because it allows people to understand how things work and to learn how to modify and make their own products. This is also why open source hardware is good for customers: it gives them independence from the manufacturers. Even if Olimex decide to stop producing a certain product, this will not hurt the customer because they can always take the open design and make the product themselves or hire someone else to make it for them. Everything is under the customer’s control and this helps to secure their business. Furthermore, if they don’t like how something is made, or where something is made, they can change it.

All these things are nice, community-orientated reasons for openness, but where’s the business benefit? For Tsvetan, building open source is actually a crucial element of his business model. “You have not just customers,” Tsvetan says, “but collaborators.” A Chinese competitor, inspired by Olimex, opened their designs as well. This is an extraordinary development; it is more common to hear of “protected” designs being stolen by Chinese companies and made more cheaply. Thanks to the principles of open source hardware, Olimex and this Chinese firm are no longer competitors, but collaborators. They will both benefit from the research, design and manufacturing they share. This reduces costs to both parties and, as Tsvetan says, “We both learn and build better products.”

Jan Suhr, one of the developers behind CryptoStick, tells us that open source is critically (and perhaps surprisingly) important for IT security products and software, to the extent that you should not trust any security product that is not open source. CryptoStick is an open source USB device designed to store encryption keys securely, so that people can send encrypted emails even when they are on an untrusted computer. The open source nature of the product means that its security is independently verifiable by anyone. It means that you can yourself guarantee there are no NSA “back doors” or security flaws. Its openness is the very guarantee of its security.

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Fairness and Openness Together?

“The conclusion is that they’re not together yet,” Michel Bauwens says. “There are people who talk about openness, but not fairness; and people who talk about fairness, but not openness.”

For Michel, part of the problem is the conflict between labour and liberals, represented by the “open” and “free” movements. “Liberals only look at formal rights,” he says, “not the real conditions where those rights could be exercised.” He gives the example of Linux, which is distributed under a General Public licence (GPL), allowing full use of the commons to anyone. Unfortunately, this licence means that the Linux economy is almost entirely dominated by those with the resources to capitalise: seventy-five percent of the Linux economy is swallowed up by big companies like IBM and Redhat. This leads Michel to ask the question: “Can we have openness and at the same time a more equal economy?”

Michel’s proposal is both controversial and a bit complicated. The complication arises from an apparent contradiction: “The more commonistic the licence,” he says, “the more capitalistic the practice.” As we have seen, the result of the entirely commons-based GPL is domination by big corporations. The same, Michel says, is true of open hardware, where designs are appropriated and made cheaply for private profit in China (Tsvetan’s experience notwithstanding).

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Michel’s solution to this problem is the commons-based reciprocity licence. This licence is the same as the GPL, but with one crucial change to the rules: for profit businesses using the commons must pay a licence fee. This proposal is controversial because some people in the commons movement see anything that is not one hundred percent open to be a retrograde step. But Michel anticipates a double benefit from this change.

Firstly, it will create a stream of income to the commons itself, from the side of capital to the side of commons. Secondly, it will integrate externalities. Externalities are not normally considered in business, unless managed through government regulation. However, Michel argues that effective regulation “is endangered because the state is being captured by those it’s supposed to control”.

Michel sees this commons-based reciprocity licence as a social charter, protected by a global foundation that we must yet build. “Every project today,” he says, “is starting from scratch. If we had a coalition, we’d have scale, we’d have pre-existing solidarity.” This is Michel’s link between openness and fairness: “If we had a licence,” he says, “we could have open book accounting and open supply chains.” This transparency, Michel believes, leads to fairness, or at least the possibility of fairness, as we have seen with Nager IT and the fair-as-can-be mouse.

Michel’s example is Curto Cafe, a Brazilian coffee company who operate open book accounting and an open supply chain, showing exactly who produces the coffee, under what working conditions and also exactly who gets paid what. They also have open research and the designs of the blends of coffee are posted online. Their retail expansion is crowd-funded, under a similar model used by Kleine Farm, by asking the local community to fund their rent. This transparency and community accountability ensures that Curto Cafe run their business in the fairest possible way.

Michel believes that, if we want a fairer society, we will ultimately have to create an open and commons-based counter-economy. Part of that counter-economy will be the development of an alternative currency. Together with the CIC in Catalonia, Michel is buying up a fairly-distributed crypto-currency, Faircoin.

Unlike Bitcoin, Faircoin doesn’t encourage rent extraction: stockpiling coins in order to profit from rising currency value. “This is not positive from a commons point of view,” Michel says of Bitcoin. “But what if you could use rent extraction and give it away to entrepreneurs?” CIC and Michel want to use Faircoin as a capital investment collective, to create a flow of value from the capitalist economy to the commons-orientated economy.

There are many problems obstructing fairness and openness, not just in IT, but in our entire social and economic structure. The challenge is, as Michel says, “to design a system in which these problems are already answered and solved from the very beginning”. From environmental impact research and open supply chains to open source hardware and alternative currencies, we have perhaps seen a glimpse today of that beginning.

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

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Fair & Open IT >> Elevate Festival 2014 from Elevate Festival on Vimeo.

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Research for Transition

This is the fifteenth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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Michel Bauwens, director of the P2P Foundation, starts the workshop by quoting anthropologist Alan Page Fiske. Fiske describes four basic ways of interacting around resources. The first is the gift economy, which is based around equality matching. The second is authority ranking, where what you get is relative to your rank. The third is market pricing, the dominant model in capitalist society. But the fourth is what interests us: communal shareholding, where an individual exchanges, not with another individual, but with a collective. This is the commons.

Because of the networks that we’re building on the internet, Michel believes that we’re beginning to put the commons at the heart of our economy. This new way of creating value, he says, is profoundly different to the usual capitalism. Firstly, it’s not based on labour; it’s based on contributions and, secondly, we’re not creating capital; we’re creating commons.

Michel outlines his ideal three-level structure for a functional commons economy. At the base is commoning itself, the creation of the commons or “peer production”. Next, Michel envisages the creation of cooperatives based on the commons, so that people can actually make a living. This is “peer property”. Overseeing both these levels, would be enabling institutions, so that cooperation can endure through time. This is “peer governance”. I would repeat that, unfortunately, this is Michel’s ideal, not yet the reality.

The reality is that, rather than cooperatives, the value of the commons is predominantly extracted by “for profit” companies. Facebook is Michel’s most extreme example of this. The value of the company comes almost entirely from volunteer contributors: its users. But Facebook Inc. extracts 100% of the value. Hypothetically, if Facebook had been happy with “only” the five billion dollars they asked for when they floated on the New York Stock Exchange instead of the sixteen billion they got, they could have paid over a hundred thousand contributors a hundred thousand dollars each. An extraordinary thought, especially when you consider that Facebook is now worth ten times that initial public offering.

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The problem with this current economic model is that most of the value created is not put back into the commons. This is what Michel calls the “value crisis”. Thanks to advances in technology, more and more people are able to create “use value” – by writing interesting blog posts, uploading funny videos or beautiful photographs – but, of that use value, only a marginal amount is being put on the market and, overwhelmingly, that marginal amount is captured by platforms such as Google, Facebook or Twitter. As Michel says, “The feedback loop between creation of value and distribution of value is not working.”

The P2P Foundation, of which Michel is director, aims to observe these emerging economic processes and ask: How do we transition to a system where we have a thriving economy based around shared resources?

Michel had the opportunity to explore this question in unprecedented depth when he was appointed director of the FLOK research team. FLOK is a research project at IAEN, the Ecuadorian university for public services, who were invited by the government of Ecuador to “fundamentally re-imagine” the country, based on the principles of the commons. This extraordinary opportunity emerged from Ecuador’s five-year strategic plan published in 2009 called the “Plan of Good Living”.

“Ecuador is a new colonial economy that depends on extractive exports: bananas, oil, agriculture,” Michel explains. These are, however, low margin profit items and Ecuador is forced to import high margin goods, such as information technology, from the west. “Part of this problem is intellectual property rights,” Michel says. “The Chinese manufacturers make three percent profit on the iPhone, but Apple make seventy percent profit.” These high margins keep developing countries like Ecuador in a state of dependence.

Thanks to intellectual property protections, such as those covering iPhone technology, knowledge is largely privatised. One direct consequence of this is that there are only three science labs in Quito. A patent-protected microscope costs six thousand dollars. According to Michel, however, we could build an open source microscope for only six hundred. “If there was a commons,” Michel says, “you could have thirty science labs in Quito.” These sorts of open hardware projects are already happening, at L’Atelier Paysan and Farmhack for instance, but we need to scale up.

Intellectual property rights are antithetical to the knowledge commons, but are one of the foundations of capitalism. So any transition away from dependence on patent or copyright protected products would be a radical, if not revolutionary proposition. That radicalism derailed the FLOK project. Although Michel had been invited into the country by the government, who had promised to sign any conventions that came out of the process, it was obvious that there were many powerful interests who did not want FLOK to be a success.

Michel is proud of the participatory FLOK process, however. They held twenty-four workshops in the twenty-four provinces of Ecuador, using Augusto Boal’s “theatre of the oppressed” methodology, covering topics such as the high price of medicine and “terminator” seeds. These workshops were aimed at common citizens, to elicit their reactions. FLOK also held conversations with around seventy organisations, including indigenous farmers, a Linux usergroup and a 3D printing hacker space.

“On the basis of this input, we created the first proposals,” Michel says. They ended up with eighteen legislative proposals, covering topics such as biodiversity and open hardware. They took these to the government. After three days of discussions, the government refused to sign the conventions. “The reality is we were not paid for three months,” Michel says. “Clearly a number of people didn’t want us there. The president of the country didn’t even know what we were doing.”

Despite this failure, the project was still a success in terms of developing a commons transition plan, which can now be acted upon by anyone interested in transitioning to a commons-based society.

One limitation of the FLOK project in Ecuador was that it was only about the knowledge commons. In addition to knowledge, Michel counts three other “fake commodities”: land, labour and money, making four commons in total. We need to ask the question, how would land, labour and money function if they were commons, not commodities? Through answering questions like these, Michel aims to create a culture of commons policy-making. “We want to politicise the commons,” he says, warning us that this isn’t some fancy theorising, but a pressing need to protect ourselves from the aggression of capitalism.

The welfare state is an achievement bequeathed to us from the politicisation of labour in the last century. “This is structurally dissolving in the west,” Michel warns. “All our achievements based on labour are in danger and are being dismantled as we speak.” Michel’s solution is this politicisation of the commons. “If you want a new narrative,” Michel says, “you need to start thinking about the commons, of which labour is a part.”
Michel defines commons structures according to two axes. On one axis is who has control of the commons, ranging from totally centralised to totally distributed. On the other axis is about what happens to the end product of the commons: Is it for private profit or for community benefit?

Facebook is an example of a centralised and for profit commons. “Facebook extracts capital from our exchange, from our human cooperation,” Michel says. “You could argue that capitalism is moving towards letting us do the work and extracting from our exchange.”

Bitcoin is an example of a distributed and for profit commons. According to Michel, ninety percent of Bitcoin is not used for exchange, it’s hoarded. “It’s the anarcho-capitalist dream,” he says.

Local community benefit farming is an example of a distributed and for benefit commons. This is preferable to the two above structures, but Michel thinks this is not enough. He prefers the centralised and for benefit commons, on a global scale. We have states, multinationals and NGOs that operate on a global scale, but no body that represents the commons. “Make it locally, organise globally,” Michel says.

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The reason why we need a global organisational structure for the commons comes down to the realities of putting food on the table. “The key problem working in the commons is it’s easy to volunteer,” Michel says. “But after a few years, you have a choice of either going back to a hierarchy or you try to make a living on your own.” But how can individuals profit from their work contributing to the commons when, by definition, it is a commons? “You cannot commodify your commons,” Michel says. “If you asked YouTube to pay you, you wouldn’t be making commons, you’d be making commodities.”

This problem could be partially solved by cooperatives using an open value accounting system, like Sensorica. Sensorica allows people to log their contributions to the cooperative and received in return a “karma score”. If anyone in the cooperative wins a contract off the back of the commons, the money earned from that contract would flow back to all members according to their “karma score”, not just to the person who won the contract. This is a way of ensuring that all effort is rewarded fairly, even before there is any financial return on that effort.

But there are more fundamental reasons why we need a global organisation for the commons: capitalism simply doesn’t recognise “externalities”. This could be anything from pollution that kills fish in the sea to the cost of bad working conditions to the national health service. “If it’s legal, it’s okay,” Michel says of capitalism. “We want an economy that recognises externalities.”

Michel’s answer is a reciprocity licence for businesses that do commons production. He explains: “Everybody with a common good orientation can use our commons. Every not for profit and every for profit who contributes can also use the commons. But for profit businesses who don’t contribute have to buy a licence.” This licence embeds the concept of reciprocity. “It’s still a market, but it’s not a capitalist market.”

Michel finishes by introducing an alternative market that already exists: the Catalan Integral Cooperative (CIC). Their ideology is: Everything they can do outside the capitalist market, they will do outside. They only use the capitalist market as a last resort. “They try to create a cooperative circular economy,” Michel says, “which also creates a commons, because everything they do is open.”

For example, CIC pay the bare minimum amount of taxes to the Spanish state. “They don’t recognise the legitimacy of the Spanish state,” Michel explains, “but they realise its reality.” Instead, they have an internal tax system with social and environmental characteristics. This “tax” is shuffled around between internal departments; they operate, ironically enough, exactly like a multinational corporation in this regard. This “tax” is re-invested into the community, healthcare, food, shelter and support. Over eight hundred freelancers work inside this system and are “taxed” by CIC. Now CIC are trying to demonetise their internal economy.

Michel’s dream is for a global community of commons contributors, bound together by a social charter, using open book accounting and an open supply chain, to create a global economic system that is both outside of the capitalist market and outside state planning.

This is the commons.

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

CLICK HERE FOR PAY WHAT YOU LIKE DOWNLOAD OR £10 IN PAPERBACK

Header image © Lia Rädler