Liberating Voices

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Book: Liberating Voices. A Pattern Language for Communication Revolution. Douglas Schuler. MIT Press, 2008



“In recent decades we have witnessed the creation of a communication system that promises unparalleled connectedness. And yet the optimistic dreams of Internet-enabled engagement and empowerment have faded in the face of widespread Internet commercialization. In Liberating Voices, Douglas Schuler urges us to unleash our collective creativity--social as well as technological--and develop the communication systems that are truly needed.

Inspired by the vision and framework outlined in Christopher Alexander's classic 1977 book, A Pattern Language, Schuler presents a pattern language containing 136 patterns designed to meet these challenges. Using this approach, Schuler proposes a new model of social change that integrates theory and practice by showing how information and communication (whether face-to-face, broadcast, or Internet-based) can be used to address urgent social and environmental problems collaboratively.

Each of the patterns that form the pattern language (which was developed collaboratively with nearly 100 contributors) is presented consistently; each describes a problem and its context, a discussion, and a solution. The pattern language begins with the most general patterns ("Theory") and proceeds to the most specific ("Tactics"). Each pattern is a template for research as well as action and is linked to other patterns, thus forming a single coherent whole. Readers will find Liberating Voices an intriguing and informative catalog of contemporary intellectual, social, and technological innovations, a practical manual for citizen activism, and a compelling manifesto for creating a more intelligent, sustainable, and equitable world.”


From the author:

After eight years of work, the Liberating Voices: A Pattern Language for Communication Revolution book is now available. It's a call for social change based on a peaceful revolution in grassroots information and communication. Inspired by the vision and framework outlined in A Pattern Language, Christopher Alexander's classic 1977 book about architecture and urban planning, Liberating Voices presents a pattern language containing 136 patterns devoted to changing the communication and information paradigm to better meet the challenges of the 21st century. A "pattern" is a focused presentation of a recommendation. Through their use of a common structure (title, optional introductory graphic, problem statement, context statement, discussion, solution statement and links to other patterns) each pattern presents an agenda for research as well as social critique and action. And each pattern is linked to other patterns to form a single coherent whole or what Alexander calls a "pattern language." The patterns (which are also available online) can be used individually or in groups, sequentially or simultaneously.

Each of the patterns in the book presents a conceptual detour. Each suggests a multitude of possible routes that don't follow the ruts that today's dominant forces (including inertia) are pushing on us. The entire set is a pattern language, a provisional, bottom-up critical theory of social change. We are proposing a new model of social change that integrates theory and practice by showing how diverse information and communication based approaches can be used to address local as well as global problems.

Liberating Voices integrates ideas and suggestions from a variety of perspectives including activism and social change, education, community informatics, governance, media, development, information science, economics, journalism, arts and culture into one integrated volume that is intended to be theoretical, critical, and practical at the same time. Liberating Voices can be used by researchers, by practitioners in a variety of fields including teachers in the classroom, by activists, and by citizens and community members throughout the world.

The pattern language was developed collaboratively with nearly 100 co-authors using an online pattern language management system. For that reason, the patterns from the book are also online. Additionally, there are approximately 300 other patterns online that are in various stages of development.

We are treating the publishing of the book as an important milestone rather than the culmination of the project. While we are very enthusiastic about what we've produced so far we realize that people and organizations who use the patterns will often need to adapt the pattern language to their specific needs which may even include developing new patterns. For this reason and others we are transforming our web site into a full-fledged social networking site that will encourage collaborative pattern language construction and allow people to readily share ideas and experiences with others.

The goal was the creation of a catalog of intellectual, social, and technological innovations, a practical manual for citizen activism, and a compelling manifesto for creating a more intelligent, sustainable, and equitable world. Now is the time to unleash the collective creativity — social as well as technological — of people around the world and develop the communication systems that humankind needs now. The following excerpt from the first page of the book acknowleges this revolutionary goal and orientation:

"This book is devoted to the demolition of the official version of information and communication systems at the dawn of the twenty-first century and to the construction of alternative visions. Without denying the positive impacts that elite people can and do make, this book is dedicated to a radical orientation in which ordinary people assert their rights, and their responsibilities, as citizens of the world.

Over the next few months we hope to learn how the patterns are being used by people and organizations. This should help us see how to improve the process of using the patterns, via online and offline, facilitated and non-facilitated approaches. We are also transforming the web site to allow people and groups to develop their own pattern languages using existing as well as new patterns and to be able to supplement the patterns with examples and experiences.

We welcome your participation. We'd especially like to see the addition of new patterns that reflect your insights with respect to distributed creativity.

This book concentrates on communication as a crucial arena in the battle for equality and justice. Communication is key to any collective enterprise, and it is for that reason that we invite you to the communication revolution that is already yours to win. Our only request is that you acknowledge and take seriously your role as an active participant. This is a diffuse and distributed movement. It needs leaders and followers, and people in this work frequently shift in and out of both roles. Everybody is needed in this struggle as we work to liberate the voices, and the thoughts and actions, of people around the world as humankind lurches warily and ill prepared into the uncertainties of the century that has just begun."

Examples of Patterns

Excerpts from two patterns that reflect the P2P perspective of this site follow this discussion. While those two patterns are more obviously related to the themes of this forum, many others (including those listed below) are also relevant.

The Commons

Problem. One of the biggest problems in contemporary life is the unchecked growth of market values as a way to govern resources and ourselves. This is resulting in the privatization and commodification, or "enclosure," of the commons. Resources that morally or legally belong to everyone are increasingly coming under the control of markets. Not only does enclosure result in higher prices and the need to ask for permission to use something previously available to all, it shifts ownership and control to private companies. The market efficiencies that businesses seek can be illusory, however, because they often depend on unacknowledged subsidies from the commons (e.g., discount access to public resources) and the displacement of costs onto the commons (pollution, social disruption, harm to future generations). Enclosure does not add value in the aggregate; it merely privatizes value at the expense of the common wealth.

The problem statement is followed by the context statement (not printed here) which discusses who might use the pattern and under what circumstances. The context statement is followed by the discussion which covers a broad range of issues including history of the pattern, how to use it, and what problems might come up when an organization uses the pattern.

Discussion. The commons insists that certain things should not be alienated — that is, sold and converted into money. Thus, it is inappropriate to express the value of a worker's life or an endangered species as a dollar sum in a cost-benefit analysis. It may be morally repugnant to sell off the naming rights of public institutions much as it is considered unacceptable to allow people to sell their bodies, babies, ova, or genes. … The commons allows us to talk about the need for open spaces that haven’t been turned into “property” available to all; if too much of that space — for example, scientific knowledge, musical works, or cultural symbols — is locked up through copyrights, patents, or contracts, it can greatly impede future creativity and progress. We are already seeing the effects of such enclosure in medical research as a result of overly broad patents on basic research.

Increasingly the Internet is the host for countless self-organized commons such as free and open source software, social networking communities, Wikipedia, Craigslist, and Web sites for sharing photos, videos, and other creative work. One useful tool in creating these commons are creative commons licenses, which enable ordinary people to freely share their creative works while retaining copyrights for commercial purposes.

The public library and the land trust are familiar, highly effective types of commons. More people are starting to realize that public spaces like parks, community gardens, farmers’ markets, and festivals are also important to the economic and social health of a community. There is a dawning awareness that commons-based infrastructure like wireless Internet access is an important way to use a public resource, the airwaves, to help people connect with each other.

The pattern ends with a solution statement and a list of other patterns within the pattern language that it's related to. The patterns' solution statement solidifies the main points of the pattern. The statement here restates that using "the commons" as a new discourse is a useful way to reframe the public dialogue. Bollier believes that the "emerging commons sector … will provide benefits that corporations cannot supply: healthy ecosystems, economic security, stronger communities, and a participatory culture. And it will curb the corporate invasion of realms that we hold dear: nature, our minds, our food, and our democracy."

Public Domain Characters

Public Domain Characters (John Thomas and Douglas Schuler) is discussed in terms of a shared project. It builds on some of the insights of David Bollier's pattern, by asserting that certain core factors of humankind's legacy should not be killed off by unchecked "market forces." Insofar as our stories represent aspects of our real and imagined selves, from all epochs and regions, when our characters go extinct — or are commandeered by corporations, parts of our collective soul becomes extinct as well. Again, as with the other patterns, this pattern begins with its number, title, introductory graphic (not required), and problem statement.

Problem. Stories are an ancient and still powerful technique for people to create and share knowledge across temporal and geographical boundaries. Stories may be conceptualized as having three major dimensions: character, plot, and environment. Traditionally societies have used and shared all of these dimensions. Today, in an effort to make the rich and powerful yet richer and more powerful, the natural processes of creating, sharing, and building on stories have been subverted into a process of claiming the world of stories as private property. This limits artistic creativity and stunts the growth of collective wisdom.

The problem statement and context statement are followed by a discussion which offers suggestions and examples:

Civil society should establish a repository of characters who are available to all without charge. This could contain characters from our precorporate past as well as those of more recent vintage, such as Cat-Man (shown in the introductory graphic above), who was raised in Burma by a tigress but abandoned by the corporation that spawned him. Ultimately it could even include those now embargoed behind commercial contracts. Novelists could legally allow the inhabitants of the universes they created to be enlisted in others. Cartoonists such as Matt Groening could donate Homer Simpson or a new type of American everyman complete with voices and descriptions of where he lived and what he liked to do. Frustrated novelists could supply names and descriptions that their colleagues could borrow for their own work. However, it is not only artists and writers who benefit from having access to stories and the characters who inhabit them. Characters can serve as sources of inspiration for all; they can give us hope in dire times and serve as models for ethical, effective, or clever behavior. One use of characters is to serve as a kind of "board of directors" that we can use imaginatively to help look at our problems and proposed solutions from various perspectives. (See “IBM Research: Knowledge Socialization” undated.)

The Disney corporation may be the most prolific borrower of stories (including Aladdin, Atlantis, Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, Davy Crockett, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Hercules, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Jungle Book, Oliver Twist, Pinocchio, Pocahontas, Robin Hood, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Three Musketeers, Treasure Island, and the Wind in the Willows) from the public domain. The number of stories Disney has added to the humankind's commonwealth is still at zero (thanks in part to U.S. legislation that granted Mickey Mouse another seventy-five years of service to the corporation).

The solution statement (not presented here) restates the importance of the issue and how the pattern can help solve the problems discussed."

About the Author

Douglas Schuler is a member of the faculty at The Evergreen State College, former Chair of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR), and a founding member of the Seattle Community Network (SCN). He is coeditor of several books, including Shaping the Network Society: The New Role of Civic Society in Cyberspace (MIT Press, 2004) and the author of New Community Networks: Wired for Change.

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