4.1.F. New lines of contention: Information Commons vs. New Enclosures

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4.1.F. New lines of contention: Information Commons vs. New Enclosures

Next to new forms of political organization, new conceptions regarding the tactics and strategies of struggle, the emergence of peer to peer also generates new conflicts, which are different from those of the industrial age. Just as the industrial mode of relations created the labor movement and the idea that the workers could own the means of production, the new social formation creates a movement that is favoring the common construction of a Information Commons, associated not with state property or “nationalization", but with universal common access property regimes. Positively, what binds many different social and political movements today is their focus on ‘open access’: to software code (open sources), to scientific information (open access to archives, open science), to the traditional knowledge of humanity (the movement against biopiracy), against the privatization of human life (privatization of the genome ). One gets the distinct impression that our current political economy, originally designed to manage scarcity in order to overcome it, is changing into a system that seeks to permanently create artificial scarcity, in order to create knowledge monopolies and dependencies.

The key conflict is therefore the one about the freedom to construct the Information Commons , which encompasses what was traditionally called the ‘public domain’ , as against the private appropriation of knowledge by for-profit firms . All these different Commons-related struggle share common characteristics, and Philippe Aigrain has examined, in his book 'Cause Commune' (Aigrain, 2005), how these different forces can unite in common struggle .

According to the Hacker Manifesto by McKenzie Wark, the deeper reason and underlying common logic between these different struggles is the struggle for control of both information (as intellectual property) and the vectors of information (needed for distribution), between those that produce information, knowledge and innovation (the hacker class, knowledge workers), and the groups that own the vectors (the vector class), through which its exchange value can be realized. This same vision of a class struggle between the producers of information and those that want to resell prepackaged bits of it for sale back to consumers, is shared by Joel de Rosnay who speaks of ‘pronetarians vs. infocapitalists’.

The last 30 years have indeed seen an enormous extension of Intellectual Property Rights, resulting in a severe weakening of the Scientific Commons, a variety of detrimental social effects, while new technical developments such as Digital Rights Management threaten the development of a free culture. Cognitive capitalism is centered around the accumulation of knowledge assets, and has altered the classic cycle of consumption and production. In the industrial economy this cycle was described as conception-production-distribution- consumption. In this economy, over time, competition would arise, making the products cheaper, forcing corporations to become either more productive or invent new products. In the new economy, the cycle is better described as conception – reproduction of the informational basis – production – distribution – consumption. The informational basis, whether it is software, cultural content, or material products such as seeds in agribusiness, molecules and gene sequences in the pharmaceutical industry, are protected through information property rights. The aspect of production and distribution is no longer central, and can be easily outsourced. This mechanism has now extended to vast sectors of the 'material economy' with companies such as Nike and Alcatel as companies that are essentially divested of material production, but are centered around their knowledge and other immaterial assets (essentially 'branding')

Through this mechanism of IP protection, super-profits can be maintained, common pools of knowledge are destroyed and appropriated, and innovation is slowed down. In agribusiness, seeds lose their productive qualities after a generation, rendering farmers completely dependent, while inflated prices created debt cycles. With GMO's, an era of total dependence of agriculture towards agribusiness is set in motion. In pharmaceuticals, the inflated prices of medication are one of the key factors of the crisis of the welfare state, while millions of patients are excluded from appropriate care, especially in the South. A 2001 study of Doctors Without Border showed that only one percent of the molecules being studies, concerned the most prevalent diseases in the South (malaria, TBC, etc..) The most well-known case is of course the controversy around AIDS treatments, where millions of patients are unnecessarily dying because they are not allowed access to generic drugs. The software patenting which originated in the U.S. and has been copied in Europe makes it now possible to protect ideas and any logical sequence (which includes business processes) and is widely seen as an impediment for further innovation, since it excludes small companies who lack the means of taking the licenses, while leading to an explosion of litigation. American reforms which have allowed universities to privatize and patent their scientific knowledge and have severely endangered cooperation amongst scientists. Finally, exploding prices of scientific publications have rendered access to scientific knowledge more difficult. At the core of the conflict over IP are also deeply differing ideological conceptions of cultural creation. IP proponents see creation in terms of market, with creators investing time and capital into cultural products destined for the marketplace, and with the motive and incentive being the profit protected by IP rights; proponents of the Information Commons have a more social vision of creation, seeing how every creator is dependent on the community of creators that preceded and exists alongside of them. IP by restricting access to the common pool, impedes creation and innovation.

It is this intensive effort at the private appropriation of knowledge that has created different movements of resistance. The free software movement, the movements of farmers against biopiracy in seeds and animal and vegetal types, where Western corporations are privatizing the fruits of thousands of year of communal cooperation; the movement of patients and developmental organizations for access to reasonably priced medicines and medical knowledge; the movement for free access to scientific publications, are all related reactions to these New Enclosures. Slowly, ever larger segments of the public started to realize that the new forms of Intellectual Property were no longer based on a compromise between the interests of consumers, creators and publishing intermediaries, but had been extended to favor information property monopolies, who were also threatening to own and control life itself.

At the same time as the existing Information and Scientific Commons were threatened, the internet has created an enormous bottom-up movement, through peer production and knowledge collectives, through microcontent and generalized knowledge exchange of millions of people, thereby creating a new Information Commons. It is the merger of the concerns of the already existing resistance groups, and the realization of the meaning of the process of peer to peer content creation, which is at the core of a new political movement associated with the peer to peer social formation, inspired by the vision of a re-invigorated Commons. By extension, this realization has led to connections with those forces protecting the already existing physical commons (water, air, transportation systems), and the surviving common property forms in the South, which are still strong amongst some native peoples. Both type of movements are similarly concerned with resistance against the extension of the movement towards private appropriation and the market .

A crucial development to bring all of this to generalized public consciousness, especially amongst the new generations, was the development of filesharing. A process that always existed amongst groups of friends,that of sharing cultural enjoyment and creation, is now extended in scope by technology. This endangers the intellectual property system which favors large monopolies, much less the authors and content creators which are at a disadvantage in the current IP system. Moreover, the P2P system of music distribution is inherently more productive and versatile, and more pleasing to the listener of music than the older system of physically distributing CD’s. It is around this development that the regressive nature of cognitive capitalism has been most glaring since it has led to an all-out war against its own consumers.

Indeed, instead of building a common pool for the world’s music, and finding an adequate funding mechanism for the artists , the industry is intent to destroy this more productive system, and wants to criminalize sharing by punishing the users, and even by attempting to render the technology illegal or restricting the free usage of digital technologies through digital rights management schemes . This would have the effect of not stopping so-called illicit usage, but of stopping the general movement of sharing of cultural content, even the autonomously created one. Another strategy is to incorporate control mechanisms either in software (where it can be hacked and circumvented, but that is made illegal as well), or in the hardware (digital rights management schemes). While the users and producers of free culture are battling the attempts at the enclosure of culture by large 'vectoralist' corporations , many are working at offering solutions that both protect the use of culture, and make it possible for creators to make a living .

Also the forces arrayed start from diametrically opposed paradigms. For the entertainment industry, IP is essential to promote creativity, even though the current system is a ‘winner-take-all’ system that serves only a tiny minority of superstar artists. For them, without IP protection, there would be no creativity. But as P2P processes demonstrate, which are extraordinarily innovative outside the profit system, creativity is what people do when they can freely cooperate and share, and hence IP is sometimes seen as an impediment, impeding the free use what should be a common resource. But what the Commons movement aims at is not abolishing IP, but restoring it to its original intention, i.e. a social compromise that combines the interests of user communities, creators of content needing to make a living, and the reasonable retribution of intermediaries which serve in production and distribution. It seeks to undo the landgrab that has taken place in the last thirty years, and to remedy the grave social problems that have been created (such as the lack of access to life-saving medications) by this one-sided appropriation. It seeks to avoid that new steps are taken in that process of appropriation, refusing that life can be controlled by private interests, and that cultural life would be the subject of restrictive licensing and built into the technology itself. Lastly, it aims to create the conditions that foster the healthy development of a strong Commons.

In the meantime, while this political struggle continues, the forces using peer to peer are devising their own solutions. It started with a legal infrastructure for the free software movement, the General Public License, which prohibits the private appropriation of such software. It continued with the very important Creative Commons initiative initiated by Lawrence Lessig, who also supported the creation of a Free Culture advocacy movement. And it also expressed in the continuous technological development of an infrastructure for cooperation and sharing.