Moviemaking and Authority

Last Friday I attended “The Age of Immersion”, a talk about cinema by two famous names in Hollywood – Walter Murch and Matthew Robbins, moderated by Professor Andrew Feenberg. And I thought, these moviemakers are on one side of an issue, and I am on another. The nature of authorship and authority is changing. Their belief in their authority as creators lies so deep in their souls that they do not even realize it is challenged.

This is perhaps understandable. It was clear that these two men love movies. Robbins spoke of losing himself in a favorite film clip despite watching it on the tiny screen of an iPod. But then he is self-selected – he chose film, he made films and became them, he devoted his life to them. He isn’t just immersed in a video clip; he is enveloped in a culture and in his own life. It means more to him than it does to me or to most people – and it should.

As I said, the talk was about immersion. These men, Murch and Robbins, are so close to it – so immersed in it – that they do not see the outside. When they talked about immersion, it was a technical problem of realism and simulation. They spoke of the control offered by digital media, and about some of the costs of that control. The discussion revolved around computer effects, animation, how these things are done and how they are perceived. Script wasn’t mentioned. Symbolism wasn’t mentioned. Character appeared only as the features and mannerisms of animated characters. The audience was barely discussed.

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

In the nearly twenty years since I first heard those lines (from a teacher who dismissed them) the image has never left my head. The words aren’t realistic. They need no technology. They need only an author – and me, the audience, to imagine my personal vision.

Someone asked about the Internet and the proliferation of amateur movies. Robbins was dismissive of the tremendous quantity of poor attempts online, alleviated only by the tiny fraction of one percent who might become brilliant filmmakers. Murch responded that in attempting to make films, amateurs could learn about the challenge of filmmaking and better appreciate quality. It took Professor Feenberg to point out that participation can have its own rewards.

Robbins and Murch are so secure in their belief in the division between audience and creators that for them the freedom brought by low-cost production is the freedom of an audience to experience their films, the freedom to see their films. They couldn’t see the forest for the trees: that hundreds of thousands of amateurs are making movies because they want to create. They want to express themselves. Whether their efforts are objectively bad is largely beside the point.

What is the noblest achievement of film – or of any creative product? Is it entertainment? Expression? Truth? Immersion? Does it matter whether there’s a product at all? I realized afterward the question I should have asked:

Is it more immersive to watch a film – or to make it?


Reader Comments

I want to apologize for all the people who ever took the time to comment on my blog. I just approved your comments – because I just discovered they existed. I somehow assumed my blog software would magically notify me when I received comments. Of course it never did. I figured either a) it’s really really hard to attract comments, or b) my software is broken somehow. So if you’re wondering why I’m such a jerk, I’m sorry.


Marginalia Release

While I haven’t posted about Marginalia in a long time, I have been making significant enhancements. These were prompted mainly by work on integration with and features for the Bungeni system for parliamentary information systems. Downloads for Moodle and Open Journal Systems are available on the Code site, along with full current source code in the repository (follow the link from the Download page).

Among the new features:

  • some very important bug fixes
  • a multi-user interface for displaying public annotations by multiple users at once on a per-paragraph basis (in OJS, Bungeni, and the demo)
  • users can edit personal lists of keywords (this version of keywords is only currently used by Moodle; OJS still uses a static keyword list)
  • Marginalia can be used as a kind of track changes feature, in which highlights indicate insert, edit, and delete actions (used in Bungeni)

The Moodle version adds further enhancements:

  • keywords, as in OJS, which each user can customize (called “tags”)
  • a search and replace feature for margin notes
  • the summary page can display all annotations for a given forum (in addition to the existing per discussion and per course display)
  • online help
  • splash text to introduce users to Marginalia

The following improvements are relevant to developers:

  • the Bungeni portal project is maintaining a Plone implementation of the Marginalia service
  • a modified database format to allow Marginalia to determine overlapping highlight regions without looking at the annotated document
  • most of the PHP code necessary for a Marginalia server implementation is provided in a library
  • applications can override Marginalia’s default margin note display and editor functions (Bungeni does this extensively)
  • there’s a mechanism for preventing cross-site request forgery of annotation actions (keywords and preferences are not yet protected, however)
  • Marginalia is easier to configure, so that different applications can easily determine which features to support (e.g. track changes in Bungeni, per-user keywords in Moodle)
  • integrating Marginalia with host applications is more straightforward, and it’s easier to upgrade to new versions of Marginalia without touching the rest of your application code
  • improved regression tests for highlighting (the code had been out of date for some time)
  • the Atom format for annotations is easier to read and more informative as a syndication feed

Commons presentation at UDC 2007

I have uploaded the text of a speech I gave about the relationship between commons and community. I presented this a few days ago on a panel at the Union for Democratic Communications conference “Enclosure, Emancipatory Communication and the Global City”, held in Vancouver, B.C.


Permission to Hate

The Internet and the technical community are host to a toxic culture. This culture allows and even encourages personal attacks, threats, and misogyny. This week, Kathy Sierra’s experience with death threats forced it into the public discourse. There is of course no excuse for the behavior of the individuals who harrassed and threatened her. Yet they are only part of the problem. The solution rests not in finding, stopping, and punishing them (or helping them, for surely they are sad or sick) – although that is to be hoped for, it may be unlikely here and certainly is for the majority of such cases. It rests with others who give permission to such behavior – permission to hate.

I encountered this story via Tim Bray and others, but I’m going to concentrate on Slashdot. I pick Slashdot because it is a technical community, because I often find the discussion valuable, and because I don’t frequent the other places online that I understand are far worse. So it is on Slashdot that I have encountered a pattern of public permission for hatred. On one singular topic the community consistently breaks down and reveals its ugly side; that topic is women. The comments about women on Slashdot, the reactions of readers, and indeed my own behavior (or lack thereof) illustrate what I believe are several flawed attitudes which grant permission for bad behavior.

That’s Just How It Is

The Slashdot reaction to the Kathy Sierra story captures the problem attitudes1. There’s an acceptance – even a satisfaction – that this is “just how the Internet is”. It’s a “byproduct of the culture of the Internet . . . this sort of thing happens. . . . let’s try not to make more of it than it is.” This narrative of powerlessness in the face of human nature or technology is present even among those posters who support Kathy. One such poster encourages her not to allow unpleasantness to stop her from blogging, yet repeats the same story:

While I respect anyone in the public limelight, I think Kathy is being a tad bit naive. . . . Part of being a celebrity on any level for any topic means accepting that you gain both fame and infamy in parts.

If we simply accept bad behavior as inevitable, then we will do little or nothing to prevent it. Whether this is part of an statement of support or a criticism (see “Grow a Spine or Go Away” below), the perpetrators are given implicit permisson for their actions.

The argument itself – that this kind of behavior is natural or inevitable – is demonstrably wrong. As several posters noted, and as I recall from my experiences online in the early 1990s, the degree of aggression used to be much less. It is possible to construct more civil online communities (never mind ones without death threats) – even anonymous ones. Furthermore, as I will detail when I argue about the practical implications, the Internet will change, and the reaction to this kind of abuse will influence whether that change is for the better.

Grow a Spine or Go Away

This is the most toxic attitude of the lot, perhaps best captured by one poster concludes the following:

People are dicks. Life is hard. A lot of people say a lot of shit and don’t follow through. Either grow a spine or go away. There’s no sense being a big baby about it because someone hates you.

The individual who wrote this reports having been threatened in the past. I believe this is key: coping with abuse thus becomes a sort of hazing ritual required of those who participate online. The measure of an individual is the ability to withstand the pressure; one who fails – and apparently taking action against the abuse is a form of failure – is a “baby”.

This appears to be a particularly masculine approach (though I’m sure there are women who take this attitude, just as many or most men do not). Buried within it is a sort of misogyny, for it measures everyone by their ability to live up to a standard of toughness. In practice, women may be less likely to achieve that standard (because they are targetted more, because they complain) or to be excluded because they chose not to participate in a hateful or aggressive environment2.

The argument cloaks itself in a kind of claim to objectivity – the standard is fair because it’s the same for everyone. Yet this is clearly a lie, for the effect is to exclude people, like Kathy, whose participation is valuable. A common follow-on argument is that the alternative is distasteful censorship3. In the case of death threats this should be irrelevant. It’s also a red herring for other destructive (but legal) speech: cultural norms can be just as or more effective. The argument rejects not only the censorship but any more moderate form of social influence.

Practical Considerations

I mentioned that online aggression excludes people. This is particularly relevant for women because they are targets of sexual language, and I understand of more frequent attacks in general. This is tremendously damaging to the technical community, as many within that community have been complaining for years. To give one simple illustration, many among the Slashdot community are ardent supporters of the Linux operating system: they would like to see Linux in general use. I can’t imagine this happening if half the population is alienated like this. The same applies to other technical, political, and social concerns – if the technical community wants to be listened to, it can not afford to abuse people in general or women in particular.

The assumption that bad behavior is a fact of online life has a further implication. Those who hold it exclude themselves from processes of technical and social change. The current state of the Internet strikes a particular balance between freedom of speech and civility, between anonymity and responsibility, and so on. It is obvious to me from Kathy’s case that this balance must change. It will change: legislatures are already banning schools and children from using social networking sites. A variety of proposals aim to curb spam by eliminating anonymity. Some of these have been criticized for centralizing power and granting control to certain powerful players. If the Internet doesn’t clean up its act, someone else will. Those who pretend nothing can change because “that’s just how it is” will have no part in influencing how that happens.

The Rest of Us

The barbarians on the wire are a small minority. Some of them may sad or sick and immune to social pressure, but I suspect the majority act as they do because the social environment of the Internet gives them permission to hate. The rest of us, when we are silent, grant that permission. Saying “no” is hard – it takes time, it takes effort, it’s hard to do well. It needs saying. Those like myself who haven’t said it before or enough need to say it more often4. It’s the right thing to do, and it’s the responsibility we need to take for our Internet and our society.


1 I want this to be about ideas, not an attack on individuals, so I’m not linking to specific comments. If you really need context, you can search for the comments in the article.

2 I myself have often chosen to “go away”. As a geek, I find this aggression particularly distasteful as I have been a target in the past. I hate to see my tribe inflicting its hurts on others. Unfortunately the technical culture has long shared a similar tendency to reject those who faill or choose not to cope with complexity or perversity. For example, when the complexity of certain software is criticized, there are those who reject any attempt to make it easier to use on the basis that smart people wil learn it, and the stupid or unworthy will keep away. Such aggression ghettoizes the community.

3 One thoughtful poster contrasted the need for political freedom with the prospect of censorship. By the terms of the argument, I believe it’s correct – but I don’t accept the binary choice s/he presents:

[The Internet has] ALWAYS been a war zone. . . . Anyone who thinks it used to be all nice and safe is either delusional or wasn’t paying attention. If you have a forum where governments can’t track down and kill political opponents, you have a forum where nice people can’t track down and hold liable nogoodniks who froth hate. That sucks for the nice people, but I think our need for widespread, anonymous communication outweighs their discomfort.

4 There are many issues I consider writing about. Only a few make it to the screen. It’s easy to think a thing; hard to put it into words I won’t regret. I doubt I’ll post much more about this topic, but I hope I in future that I will at least say something when it’s obvious something needs to be said.


Just Say No

David Simon, writer and producer of TV show The Wire, gave a powerful speech at Loyola College about institutional failure and social fragmentation in America’s cities. I highly recommend watching The End of the American Empire. Here’s an excerpt from the second segment (with 3:10 remaining):

What’s left for people is what? What are they supposed to say “yes” to? . . . Ultimately, what we’re looking at is somebody who’s been told, just say “no” to what is the only viable economic engine in your neighborhood. . . . The one thing that it solves is, again, the existential crisis . . . Every drug addict knows the moment he wakes up in the morning what his job is. What his essence is. He’s solved his existential crisis. . . . “Just say no.” Why – why should I say no? What should I say yes too? And we don’t have an answer for that last part.


The Ownership of Ideas as Rights or Responsibility

There is a contradiction in how we talk about the ownership of ideas. On the one hand, we speak of property rights over owned ideas (as with copyright and patents); on the other, we talk about shared works – such as free and open source software – having “owners” – by which we mean people who take responsibility for them. Thus, ownership has two distinct meanings: one rooted in rights, the other in responsibility. For physical property, the two are frequently allied; but in the case of creativity and intellectual works, property rights are often the enemy of responsibility.

The Case for Property

There are two main arguments for property rights. The first is that they are natural rights, deriving both from physical possession (I hold the deer, so it is mine) and from the inherent right of an individual to his labor (I killed the deer, so it is mine). Physical possession obviously does not apply to ideas, so I will not pursue that line of reasoning here. And because new ideas are always based on and difficult to disentangle from old ideas, the right to one’s labor is as often in conflict with the ownership of ideas as it is in sympathy with it.

The second argument for property rights is typically framed in economic terms. Because the owner of a thing has exclusive right to the use of that thing, there is an incentive for her to make the best use of it. Ownership captures both the benefits and negative consequences of such use. For example, if I own a pasture it is to my benefit to graze many cattle – but not to over-graze, for if I did the pasture would be ruined. When the land is open for use by all, however, each individual has an incentive to over-use the resource, and it is likely to be ruined.

This second argument is broader and more significant when stated in moral terms: ownership encourages responsibility1. The negative externalities of overgrazing are lessened by ownership, for owners are more prone to take responsibility. Similarly, home ownership is thought to be good for society because owners take better care of their property and their neighborhood than do renters. On the flip side, responsibility can be taken as the basis of ownership. In the case of squatter’s rights, the act of taking responsibility for a piece of land over time becomes the basis for assigning rights over that land.

Unfortunately, property rights can also lessen resposibility. In reality, the things over which we claim rights tend to overlap the boundaries we attempt to build around them, while exclusive rights bar others from interference. Property rights over part of a river, for example, can permit the owner to pollute the river while preventing intervention by others.

The Ownership of Ideas

This difficulty with boundaries is especially applicable to ideas. Furthermore, often the benefit of using ideas arises outside the bounds of what we consider a particular idea or intellectual work. The development of radio technology, for example, was blocked by the patents held by various individuals and corporations. What we think of as a single technology was effectively divided into pieces, each of which was exclusively controlled. It wasn’t until the U.S. government stepped in and forced cooperation that this “tragedy of the anticommons” was overcome and the technology moved forward2.

Thus, property rights may actively discourage the effective use of ideas. A partial explanation may be transaction costs: the cost of implementing those rights can reduce efficiency. So the early failure of radio could be blamed on the cost and complexity of licensing patents Such costs are absent where there are no property rights; the benefits of property rights may be counterbalanced by the costs.

I suspect there is a more powerful explanation. For property rights in ideas erase an essential competitive feature of non-property arrangements – one which has much in common with the market3.

Control and Competition

Ideas aren’t like wheat or pork bellies or timber. They aren’t interchangeable. Because of this, property rights over ideas are monopoly rights. I can own a pile of wheat and not be a monopolist because wheat is also available from others. But if I have exclusive rights to Cinderella (for example), then I am the only source – there is no possibility of competition to provide Cinderella. Some competition does exist, in the form of different ideas, but it is far less than in a market of fungible commodities because ideas are not interchangeable or equivalent. Thus, the exclusive ownership of ideas creates a hierarchy of control, one which is subject to relatively few external pressures.

Ownership, as I have mentioned, also subsists in the commons, though here it is clearly tied to responsibility. An owner of a project, effort, or work in the commons is someone who husbands the process of creation and maintenance: who takes responsibility for it3. While exclusive property rights are legally encoded and enforced, ownership in the commons is socially determined. Because the commons is not exclusively controlled, everyone in the commons benefits from improvements to it. Ownership is the acknowledgement and respect afforded by those who benefit from the responsibility and activity undertaken by the owner.

The key is the tension between the benefits of cooperation and the possibility of division. Members of the commons participate because they benefit from the efforts of others. Cooperation requires coordination, which is supplied by the owner or owners of a given effort. There is a strong incentive to maintain cooperation rather than dividing and duplicating work. Thus the control of the owner is a product of the consent of the other members of the community; that consent can be rescinded if ownership is no longer in their best interests. Competing ownership, or separate projects, can result. Free and open source software developers call this a fork: a situation in which two visions of a piece of software are irreconcilable, producing two separate versions. As a failure of cooperation and consensus it is generally avoided, though it can can also be a source of innovation and an way to resolve with conflict.

Thus, a commons of ideas is managed through the influence of competing interests and responsibility. It bears some resemblance to a market, albeit one without the signaling function of price (nor its tendency to reduce divergent characteristics to a single value) or the investment of capital (activity or responsibility appear to be the closest equivalent).

In contrast, an economy based on ideas as property is more like a hierarchical command economy. Without responsibility, ideas are often underused or wasted4. It is particularly telling that the corporations who favor strong property rights over information seldom institute such arrangements within themselves. Internally, they often result to commons-type arrangements5. The comparison of proponents of the commons to communists is not just inaccurate, it is exactly wrong6. The rights claimed by those who oppose the commons insulate them from responsibility.


1 The pasture example is taken from Garett Hardin’s The Tragedy of the Commons. , which only uses pasture as an illustration of problems with population growth. His argument for the need for either private property or other regulation is often misapplied: the historical commons of land was effectively managed in most cases, and seldom fell prey to the tragedy he describes.

2 The phrase “tragedy of the anticommons” is credited to Michael Heller. See Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks for details of the relevance to the development of radio (p. 191 in the book or paragraph 350 online).

3 Some have proposed that holding copyright over an idea constitutes ownership in a commons. For example, the creater of a piece of open source software generally retains the copyright while distributing it under an open license. But this is beside the point, because this “ownership” does not confer any special rights on the creator – at least, none within the commons (he could choose to also distribute under a non-open source license, but that’s beside the point). In practice, many successful projects (such as Linux) often have multiple creators and a tangle of ownership, so that dual licensing is difficult or impossible. In general, therefore, copyright in the commons is not a useful or consistent basis for a concept of “ownership”.

4 Lawrence Lessig’s heartbreaking description in Free Culture of the 90-odd percent of old films decaying into nothingness as they sit moldering in vaults only drives the point home.

5 They even justify mergers on the basis of “synergy” – the merged companies can now share each others’ ideas more efficiently. With no economies of scale for creativity or thought, the consolidation of firms that produce ideas implies the inefficiency of property rights in ideas.

6 My appropriation of the language of the Right – ownership, responsibility, markets, competition – is quite deliberate. Too often proponents of the commons have been called “communists” by those who favor strict regimes for “intellectual property”, while the reality is that the ownership of ideas by corporations often goes hand-in-hand with centralized control and planning that would not be out of place in the Soviet Union.


Owned Ideas are Different Ideas

When ideas are property, the ideas we have are different than when they are not. If we look for peer production to produce the same familiar novels, music, and films that arise from proprietary production, we are bound to be disappointed. Worse, we will be blind to the different qualities of works produced in the commons, and to the engagement, the community, and the self-development that take place there.

For ideas to be made into property, they must be transformed. Creative and intellectual works never stand alone: they are always interwoven with other ideas. Yet property must be bounded. We must determine what is part of the property, and what is not. When a novel is owned, we must disentangle it from other novels, stories, and ideas in order to be able to say which words are within the novel, and which are without it.

The enclosures of physical land in England illustrate how the bounding of property changes the thing. “Enclosure” is not just a figure of speech: the enclosure laws of the 18th and early 19th centuries required land owners to physically separate their land by building fences. Some could not afford the expense, and had to sell their property. Land ownership became concentrated; villages changed and disappeared. The land was physically different before and after enclosure. When a similar change took place in the Oklahoma territories, a Pueblo chief found himself lost in a landscape he knew. Enclosed land was not only managed differently, it was a different sort of land.

When ideas are not owned, they are slippery. They overlap and interpenetrate one another. Each contains parts of others. Stories share themes, characters, motifs; sometimes there are multiple conflicting versions of the same story. The interconnection of ideas spans time as well: ideas change as they are passed on; stories are retold, altered, added to.

When ideas are owned, their forms must be frozen. What had been amorphous ideas and culture become individual works. A story must be captured in a novel; a piece of music in a composition or a performance. One version or form is authoritative; others are secondary or simply not permitted.

We can predict that the ideas produced under these conditions will be different. We can predict, without ever seeing Microsoft Windows, that it will not be like Linux. In fact, such predictions are common – like claims that free and open source software1 is inherently more secure and more bug-free because it is open to examination by more people, or that software produced in the commons is merely imitative of that produced elsewhere.

But the differences go deeper than that. Even when we do have Linux on one hand and Windows on the other, how do we compare them? Which version of Linux should be compared? Microsoft takes years to release a new version of Windows; there is a new Linux every day. What is Linux anyway? Is it “Linux”, an operating system kernel, or “GNU/Linux”, an operating system with the software to make it useful?

We can anticipate, without ever reading Encyclopedia Britannica, that it will not be like Wikipedia. Some people praise Wikipedia for its scope and its ability to include up-to-the-minute information about the world; others criticize it for the anonymity, lack of authority or credentials of its authors, the constant change that allows an article to say one thing one minute, and something else the next. They all agree that Wikipedia and Britannica will always be different.

The products of the commons are not like the products of proprietary production. And when we try to find the “work” – the novel, the album, the film – we find it slippery, hard to name, hard to locate. If we try to pin it down, we will change it – and we will miss what else is happening.

Commons activity takes place in a community; the product itself may or may not be the most important thing. Participating, people express themselves, develop themselves, build relationships. The concept of a “work” is problematic, because it is always dynamic. It stops changing only when the community that sustains it drops away. When an open source project ceases to change, we call it abandoned, dead. If no-one edited Wikipedia, it would not be Wikipedia any more; the experience of reading Wikipedia is inseparable from the continuous process of its creation.

And so, if we go looking for novels, for songs or albums, for feature films in the commons, and expect to find the proprietary works we are familiar with, we will not find what we are looking for. If we judge the value of peer production by its ability to reproduce the past, we will find it wanting – we may even block it or ban it for violating the boundaries we place around proprietary works. If, on the other hand, we seek out the commons for what it is, not what it is not, we will find people talking to people, expressing themselves, developing their abilities. Yes, we will find works, though they may not be like the works we are familiar with. But we may find, finally, that what we do in the commons is just as important as what we produce.


1 The term “open source” refers specifically to the peer production of software, while “free software” encompasses the moral implications of openness and freedom. However, I use the term “open source” here and elsewhere, even though I implicitly argue for the freedom of free software, because it is concise while lacking the ambiguity of “free software”, and because my argument applies to it even when consciousness of the moral dimension is lacking.


Production in Communities or Networks?

In Software and Community in the 21st Century, Eben Moglen suggests that “in the twenty-first century the most important activities that produce occur not in factories, and not by individual initiative, but in communities held together by software.” This is a big claim that captures the importance of software and commons production in the world we live in.

Moglen’s Community Production

What does Moglen mean by production taking place in communities? The obvious interpretation, supported by his discussion of the importance of steel in the 20th century, is that 21st century economies rely on software and are organized around communities rather than hierarchies. His example of eBay transactions, for instance, is a clear example of online communication supporting economic production (claims for community are something else, an issue I will turn to later). But Moglen means something more than this. Economic production, after all, is supposed to produce goods – to fulfill human needs and wants, and to help people develop their potential. So when a system like MySpace provides emotional support to an alienated teen, as Moglen describes, that is also production:

We are making communities that produce good outputs and other people are looking at them as business models where eyeballs are located.

When production is defined this broadly to include the social integration of individuals and the construction of community itself, then the claims that they are the most important forms of production and that they happen mainly in communities are easy to defend. After all, community, its norms, the social capital of its members, and its ability to reason and act from shared values and understandings, are the foundation of other human activity, including that which occurs in the market.

The claim becomes much bolder in its obvious relation to conventional economic production. If software is the basis for most production, from automobiles to television shows, and if that software is most efficiently produced by free and open source communities, then the claim is supportable. But what about communities producing things other than software? Will cars be made by communities rather than by hierarchical corporations?

Castells’s Networks

Hierarchical corporations are giving way to more distributed networks, as Manuel Castells details in The Rise of the Network Society. Modern communication technology, enabled by software, has enable production to be broken down and outsourced or subcontracted: design in California, phone support in Nova Scotia, marketing in London, fabrication in Taiwan, and so on. As Castells describes these networks, they only include and exclude individuals and organizations according to the ability to help the network achieve its goals. For example, a manufacturer from Taiwan may be excluded from the network to be replaced by a cheaper one from Vietnam. A contractor may be hired temporarily to fix a problem, then let go when the problem is solved.

Castells’s characterization is familiar – obvious even. Yet Castells is not talking about communities. Indeed, he contrasts the logic of networks, with their tenuous connections to places and people, with the human need for attachment and identity. The networks are everywhere, but they are nowhere; their power and behavior is disconnected from people living their everyday lives.

This is a sobering alternative to Moglen’s optimism for community production. The same software that builds community and human relationships can also be used to build impersonal networks, whose efficient production is taking place anywhere but in communities.

Ideas and Community

The network is an efficient arrangement for producing cars, computers, sneakers, and so on. But cars, computers, and sneakers are not the most important products of the 21st century. Ideas are: software obviously, but also biotechnology, music, movies, education, democracy, the market, religious fanaticism. And these things are produced in communities, and in our time those communities are, to greater or lesser degree, held together by software.

And, I might add, by commons regimes. It is important that the software not be owned, because software is infrastructure – it magnifies the value of everything based on it, and that magnification is greatest when software is free. Ideas are also infrastructure. They are based on other ideas: scholarly research proceeds from earlier research, music samples and is inspired by other music and traditions, education captures the learning of humanity throughout our history, democracy is built on reason and tradition.

The process in which ideas are built on others takes place above all in communities. The fixed forms of ideas – the software source code, the journal article, the roll of film, the constitution, the religious text – are never and can never be complete. Their meaning exists partly within them, even more in the minds and relationships of the people who from the community that surrounds them. If all we had were the physical embodiments of our ideas, the greater part of them would be lost to us1. They would be as dead to us as is Latin or the worship of Baal.

I think Moglen is right that the important production of the 21st century takes place in communities. It is necessary, however, to place his claim in the context of the production of ideas, lest it become a Utopian but futile hope in the face of globalized networks of production. And it is necessary to understand how such production works so we can support it happening and deliver goods that benefit human beings.


1 I believe Jane Jacobs describes just such a scenario of cultural loss in the first chapter of Dark Age Ahead (a book I found otherwise disappointing).


Marginalia Plug-In for Open Journal Systems

I have uploaded the promised Marginalia annotation plug-in for Open Journal Systems. I recommend this for OJS users interested in experimenting with Marginalia. Because OJS is easy to install and has such a clean plug-in architecture, I also recommend this for anyone developing with Marginalia who would like to see a clean integration with another system. My previous post on this topic discusses the new features. This version does not support IE.

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