On occasion of the death of Elinor Ostrom

I was sad to read that Elinor Ostrom, political economist and 2009 Nobel Prize winner in economics, died this Tuesday. Since I came across her work years ago, she has been one of my favourite economists, and a great inspiration for my thinking about society. My decision to study behavioural sciences, including economics, I owe in part to her work.

With her studies on self-governing communities, Ostrom freed the commons of the attribute ‘tragic’, as the German taz writes. She showed that between state control and privatization, a third avenue exists for collective action. Bringing together rigorous economic theory and field observations collected by anthropologists, Ostrom mounted a powerful challenge to mainstream economic theory.

In recent years, Ostrom’s work gained reach beyond her initial case studies, which dealt with water basins, irrigation systems, and mountain meadows. Lawrence Lessig, in particular, expanded the idea of the commons to the digital realms. The licensing scheme he initiated, Creative Commons, is used on this blog – as on many others – to make virtual products available to us 21st century kids and our read/write culture.

Despite my glowing reverence, and that of many who unite under the banner of the commons in search for a better society, Ostrom’s work has always struck my as thorough and tentative. ‘Governing the Commons’, her major work and the one which established her reputation, is formulated not like the triumphal product of years of hard work, but like a research report. It combines the two attributes of a great researcher; a revolutionary vision and detailed empiricism.

For me as a social liberal and anti-surveillance activist, the role Ostrom attributes to monitoring and punishment in self-governing communities was an intellectual challenge when I first discovered her work. In the past months, in particular, I have spent much thought to the relationship of liberty and punishment. My academic work has focused intensively on altruistic punishment and its role in human cooperation recently, and I am looking forward to dedicating my senior thesis to this topic.

As much as Elinor Ostrom has influenced me academically, I also admire her life story. Until today, she is the only woman to ever win the Nobel Prize in economics, and her biography betrays a sense of the hurdles she had to overcome on the way. Most notably, she received the prize although she did never study economics – when she applied for graduate school, she was turned down as women were deemed unfit for such a mathematical subject, and ended up in political science.

Elinor Ostrom’s work has given me a vision of collective action and a society without hierarchies, but it has also warned me of the sacrifices such a community demands of its citizens. She has been an inspiration in many ways, and she will remain a model researcher to me in the future.

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Is the Internet Revolution Really Unprecedented?

How much new is there in our contemporary communications revolution, enabled by the Internet, pushed forward by blogs and microblogs? A look into history can be clarifying. And it is surprising how often Elizabeth Eisenstein uses the same phrases that today describe the purportedly unprecedented characteristics of the Internet to tell her history of “The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe”.

The similarity between blog and printing press is to obvious to go unnoticed, and many have extended on this allegory. But Eisenstein’s account highlights details which most advocates of the rise of those who were formerly called the audience will likely overlook. Who would have guessed that crowdsourcing is a practice half a millenium old? But indeed, early printers of maps and globes and natural compendia already asked their readers to contribute their discoveries to following editions, as Eisenstein shows. “After printing, large-scale data collection did become subjects to new forms of feedback which had not been possible in the age of scribes.”

This, of course, is not the collaborative process enabled by the Internet which we see today in the Wikipedia, and which Clay Shirky invests so much hope in. But Eisenstein’s work is fascinating because it allows us to look for the general principles that communications revolutions come with. Enhanced feedback processes, it seems, are one of them.

I have often heard from sceptics that they don’t see any new ideas in blogs. How can a medium be revolutionary if it just spreads the contents of its traditional predecessors, undermixed with urban myths and conspiracy theories, they ask. A historical perspective seems helpful, because the same is true for the printing press: Early printed books did barely contain any new content; in fact, they often served to spread myths and charlatanry, alongside the same old, unscientific theories as before.

Eisenstein claims that there is a benefit in knowing three wrong theories instead of one. From comparison, their inconsistence can be realized – and new, better-fitting theories can be devised. We might think similarly about the Internet. My generation has already grown up with near infinite sources of information at their hands, open for comparison. Surely, most people don’t use these intellectual pastures of plenty, but what can they effect as tools of those who do?

“The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe” had originally come to my attention via a mention in Graeme Kirkpatrick’s “Technology & Social Power”. There, the author enhances Eisenstein’s arguments in connecting it with Habermas’ writings on the emergence of the “public sphere”. He writes that “only through the agency of print […] does it become possible for people to think of themselves as members of an ‘imagined community’, the basis of modern nationalism”.

The fascinating question that arises is, of course, whether this development will find an equivalent in the social media age. Ala’a Abdel Fattah recently wrote, regarding the current revolutions in the Middle East, that “[f]rom the internet and satellite TV a new pan-Arabism is born”, and Zeynep Tufekci (when rebutting Malcolm Gladwell) touched on hopes for an social media-enabled globalism as a possible force against global problems such as climate change:

New movements that can bring about global social change will still require people who interact with each other regularly, and trust and depend on each other in somewhat dense networks. Or only hope is if those networks span the globe in a tightly-knit, broad web of activity, interaction, personalization. Real change will come only if we can make friends we care about everywhere and we make bridge ties that cover the world in a web of common humanity that is bigger and more powerful than a handful of corporations and the corrupt, self-perpetuating class of politicians. […] I say, bring on the hive mind, please let it be global in scale as nothing less will do, and let Facebook and Twitter lead the way.

But is this global hive mind really emerging? Despite great efforts such as Global Voices, it doesn’t seem as if national media spheres were truly converging. I recently did a series of interviews for an upcoming publication, and inspired by Ala’a comment I also asked about the chances for a social media-enabled pan-Africanism. While most interviewees had high hopes, the status quo seems less promising. I’ll quote the great Ethan Zuckerman:

I think that’s wildly optimistic. I see very little conversation outside of individual regions, with the exception of a few cross-continent ties (Kenya to Ghana, for instance.) It’s rare to see dialog between Anglophone and Francophone speakers, for instance, and the conceptual barrier that separates sub-Saharan and Northern Africa remains firmly in place in a digital age. I’d love to see digital media emerge into regional media, and will wait to see that before I indulge in Nkrumist fantasies.

Elizabeth L. Eisenstein: The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge University Press, 2005. Amazon.

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Book Review: Argentina Copyleft

The Heinrich Böll Foundation has recently edited a reader on intellectual property and free culture movements in Argentina. It is entitled “Argentina Copyleft”, and contains a range of essays from librarians, artists, scholars, activists, and programmers.

The book places particular emphasis on the plight of libraries, and those who use them, under Argentina’s restrictive 1933 copyright law, and another 2001 one that is cynically named “law for the advancement of the book and the culture of reading”. The country’s regulations are particularly tough, as they do not include exceptions common in most copyright regimes, e.g. for librarians. As Lucía Pelaya and Ana Sanllorenti write, their colleagues are thus constantly under threat from law enforcement if they want to preserve their institutes’ portfolios. Or, as Federico Reggiano puts it, “one cannot pursue serious research in Argentina anymore without becoming a criminal.”

A case of copyright enforcement that has become known beyond the border of Argentina has been that of Horacio Potel, professor of philosophy at the University of Lanús and webmaster of a series of online libraries featuring Spanish translations of the works of Heidegger, Derrida, and others. In an interview with Beatriz Busaniche, Potel explains his motivation for creating these archives that eventually got him charged by the Argentinian state (the case was later dropped). Works by foreign authors, he says, are often just not available in Argentina. The rights are held by international corporations which neglect them for years, and eventual print runs are small and sell out soon.

One particularly smart essay, also dealing with publishing monopolies, was penned by Federico Heinz, spokesman of the GNU project. He writes about “electronic books, dry water, and other mythical creatures”. It is a powerful refutation of ebooks, which he says are, in fact, digital archives with a use that’s limited even compared to printed books, only marketed by the publishing industry in order to preserve control over the business.

While the book features its share of tales about the librarian / artist / student in distress, it also highlights successes from Argentina that might not be known abroad. Marilina Winik, for instance, writes about “copyleft publishing houses”. First there was censorship during the military dictatorship in the seventies and eighties, she finds, later a sell-out to international corporations in the nineties, and finally a national financial crisis in 2001: Reason enough for independent publishers to start using licenses such as Creative Commons, and for some authors to add individual comments like this one by writer Paul Strucchi:

Everybody may do with this whatever he likes. Distribute me, if you find it interesting. The only thing I ask from you is not to make money at my expense. Just let me know, that’s pretty simple with today’s technology. If you don’t do it, it’s better I never get to know, because otherwise I will trash your car with the steering wheel, and then you can complain to your lawyers.

The essays are clearly written by copyleft advocates, and sometimes they suffer from an overly positive stance towards their subjects, when for instance musicians are said to generally favor P2P technology, or cloud computing is presented as having “no advantage” for users. What I missed, then, from the essays, are some numbers on the status quo, be it the amount people employing free/open source software or the count of publishing houses using copyleft licensing.

Overall, “Argentina Copyleft” is a good starter to get an overview of what is going on with the country’s cultural commons. Some chapters, especially those specific to Argentina, are worth reading more than others, though.

“Argentina Copyleft” is published under a Creative Commons by-sa license and is available as a free download in German from the Heinrich Böll Foundation and in Spanish from Vía Libre.

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