The reinvention of scarcity

About the author

Tony Curzon Price was Editor-in-Chief of openDemocracy from 2007 to 2012, where he is now contributing editor and technical director. He blogs at tony.curzon.com

Exactly two years ago, openDemocracy switched to publishing under Creative Commons. Siva Vaidhyanathan made the argument that this license represented true openness and democracy, that it suited us in our essence (see "Creative Commons: Making copyright work for democracy", 13 June 2005). Today almost all of openDemocracy's articles are licensed under Creative Commons (CC) "advertising" licenses. This is a modification of the ordinary, default, copyright position. Under the license we use, the author and the publication allow reproduction of the article as long as: the receiving publication is making non-commercial use of the material; that it is attributing the material to the original publication; and that it is not making any modifications of the material.

At one point in the past year, we at openDemocracy started finding that our articles were being linked by Google News to another website which had reproduced our articles - International Relations and Security Network (ISN), a well-funded university site with a higher pagerank than ours. Is this a good or a bad thing? Becky Hogge, openDemocracy columnist and head of the Open Rights Group, put to me the orthodox position from the commons (the diffuse movement that sees intellectual property as inappropriate to the digital age). This is just how things ought to work, she claimed: the information gets greater coverage, and, once created, that is all that counts.

The digital commons points to the fundamental difference between information and atoms: information can be almost costlessly reproduced, and the more reproduced the better. Limits to the reproduction of information are a hangover from non-digital economics.

But this is an orthodoxy I refuse: one of our articles is part of a publication; that publication makes a community; and every moment of attention that the community loses is one that might have contributed something of value to the greater whole that we are trying to build at openDemocracy. In this respect, our creative-commons licenses, by dispersing the energy of the community we are building, are destroying value. Indeed, it is almost built into our current licensing technology that the pieces most likely to build our community will find themselves aggregated elsewhere, because they are the most likely to be reused by other communities.

There are technical solutions (and openDemocracy is working on some), but this example brought to my attention a more general - and I think more creative - paradox: in the face of digital abundance, there are places where the commons needs to reinvent constraints. The digital commons suffers from a scarcity of scarcity.

This is the third of a series of articles around the annual iCommons summit in Dubrovnik, Croatia, on 15-17 June 2007:

"
This year, the (summit) brings together pioneers of the free Internet to make sure that, at its crossroads, we guide the world along a path that will enable the kind of free culture and decentralized innovation that has characterized the early years of the Internet."

openDemocracy's
introduction to our project in relation to iCommons, and to the workshop we are hosting at the Dubrovnik summit, is here.

Also published on the eve of the summit:

Tom Chance, "Free culture: tumble down the walls"
(11 June 2007)

John Buckman, "The Magnatune revolution" (12 June 2007)
The culture of communities comes out of jointly endured constraints. I have a Poya on my study wall - it is an alpine folk art-form showing the migration of the cows to the mountain pastures in the early summer. The whole village joins in the festival. It marks not only the true end of winter - the cows have their most decorative bells on - but also a switch to a completely different economic model.

The high pastures are common grazing lands - largely because it is worth no one's while to enclose them. There is even a derivation of the word "commons" - my favourite derivation - to com mons ("with hills"). It is the space with hills that ends up being held as a commonwealth, because traditionally not valuable enough to parcel out. The Poya depicts this annual shift to the economics of the commons: cows are decorated for attribution; milk will be turned into cheese by a cowherd often looking after many owners' animals. The Poya represents a time of plenty, an end to the privations of winter scarcity. The village takes the opportunity to make the day a public event, a celebration. Decorations, horns and bells, are brought out from their winters' fashioning for public display. This certainly is an example of an economy of property rights that cannot be reduced to the "amateur/professional" distinction that Tom Chance identifies as providing impetus to CC. But it also points to a commons that is much more constrained than that envisaged by Free Culture.

This Heidi-like evocation of communal life may send you reaching for your favourite existentialist to quickly top-up on angst. I know the feeling. But resist the temptation a moment: what makes it possible for that day to become a public moment of celebration, for the move to the joint economy of the commonwealth?

It needs a community, a temporary release from privation, a desire to display to one's fellows. There must be common understanding to jointly employ the cowherds who will stay with the animals on the commons and store their milk as cheese. A rich social organisation sustains the commons. Necessity, constraint, people thrown together unelectively - without the valley farmhouses huddled in a mass below, the Poya, the celebration and the public space would not exist. The commons have always been sustained by communities, and the digital commons, embodied in the iCommons movement, will be the same. Communities both pay for and give life to endeavours in the public space. They supply both sense and cents.

As I have tried to understand the fundamentals of openDemocracy's own business model, I have found parallels with the public spaces of the past. Unlike the poor com mons of the Poya, squares, gardens, temples, churches, mosques, have often occupied highly prized space at the centre of societies and their cities. At best, the wealthy and powerful have asserted their influence through a contribution to the public realm, just as today philanthropists and foundations support the spaces like openDemocracy or iCommons. These public spaces have existed as a compact between those who fund them and the wider group of all those that inhabit them and give them life. Communities supply both the funds and the purpose for public space. But the digital commons has a paradox at its heart: its deepest impetus comes from the fact that "bits just want to be free", while it may be - just maybe - that as in the case of the Poya, communities are hard to grow without the scarcity that limits freedoms.

Tony Curzon Price is the CEO of openDemocracy. He worked as a consultant economist for more than ten years. Since 1997, he has lectured on economics and energy policy to postgraduates at Imperial College, London, and at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL)

Also by Tony Curzon Price in openDemocracy:

"Why fly?"
(12 June 2002)

"Holistic hunters' knowledge can be harmful"
(3 September 2002)

"Turning the tide: how fear will make People Flow obsolete"
(10 July 2003)

"iCommons for beginners"
(20 June 2006)

"The ‘as if' economist: Milton Friedman's legacy"
(27 November 2006)

"The wisdom of the openDemocracy crowd"
(29 December 2006)

"The Economist Redux"
(5 February 2007)

"Who pays for openDemocracy?"
(6 February 2007)

"The openDemocracy crowd's wisdom: January 2007 market report"
(14 February 2007)

"Tony Blair and centralisation "
(20 February 2007)

"The reach of economics: a reply to Diane Coyle"
(13 March 2007)

"Das Google Problem: is the invisible mouse benevolent?"
(20 April 2007)

In a world of unconstrained choice, public space faces two challenges: how to create anything that depends on a collective choice; and how to make any choice one that carries meaning. Costless reproduction promises the end of the dismal logic of scarcity. Decision theory - the discipline that helps with choice-in-general - rules in the world of scarcity and sits as the foundation of traditional, atom-based, economics.

Logic of abundance vs logic of scarcity

When Cory Ondrejka regales us with the new economics of Second Life, he shows us Walmart versus "the big yard sale". To get goods into Walmart, you need land, low-wage workers, environmental degradation, parking, roads. But goods in Second Life, from a halo to a helipad, are reproduced at the click of a mouse. (Cory's presentation is just like Le Corbusier's cartoons of the new city: in White the brilliant concrete future, in Black, the bad old artisan-led days. LeCorbusier ends his manifesto with the resounding confidence one sometimes detects in the digital commons: "Thus the architect has at his disposal a box of building units. His architectural talent can operate freely. It alone, through the building programme, determines his architecture. The age of the architects is coming.")

Walmart carries atoms (things), Linden Labs carries bits (information), so the logic of scarcity, with all its attendant ills, is dissolved. Similarly with all the open sources. Tim O'Reilly recently wrote on the Radar: "Open source wasn't about licensing or even about software. It was about viral distribution and marketing, network-enabled collaboration, low barriers to cooperation, and the wisdom of crowds. (That is, it wasn't about licensing except as licensing was a catalyst to turbocharge those other factors.)"

The new logic of abundance drives our attitudes towards intellectual-property law, digital-rights management on films and music and other de facto monopolies, like Microsoft's in operating system software. The industrial revolution started serious thinking about abundance because mechanical automation made the end of scarcity plausibly attainable: from the French utopians to Marx, thinkers have tried to think beyond the "dismal science" to a world outside scarcity. Charles Fourier is among the most entertaining of the utopians, with his fountains of sherbet - and his world is remarkably like the ones made real now in Second Life.

Second Life often feels like flying through an architectural fantasy. I step in to my avatar SmallTone's angel wings and cruise Second Life at low altitude to ponder the question of what else has been built there. If SmallTone had been a visitor to 4th century BCE Athens he would have headed for the Lyceum, hoping to find Aristotle or some other mind walking around in dialogue. I look up "philosophers" and make my way to their house. I find beautiful grounds and a group of just five avatars in sporadic conversation about virtual worlds. They might be robots, hard to tell from what they say - a sceptic's joke in itself, I suppose.

If this had been a Le Corbusier model, he would have put a throng of a crowd in the development. But the crowd rarely materialised in the reality of the modernist projects: plastic bags swirling around the empty eddies and threatening desolation. The architects didn't think through what it was that sustained the patterns of behaviour that brought the crowd together.

So back to Second Life: where is the bustle I would have expected from Athens? The Paripatetioners were a school of philosophers who took their name from other urban-ambulatory professions, not hard to find in Second Life either. But there is a strange lack of unity, of buzz. Where is the crowd, the space for serendipity, a public realm? Is there a Poya or a Lyceum anywhere on Second Life - not an ersatz postmodern joke, but a social ritual with all the incentives and meanings that the Poya has? Second Life is a glimpse of a world almost outside scarcity, but also one entirely grounded in individual choice. As a glimpse into a libertarian future, it underlines what the libertarians forgot.

A public realm needs scarcity: without constraint we devolve into the weak forces of diffusion that so often mark my travels through Second Life. Athens supported a Lyceum because it brought together, willy-nilly, slaves and traders and landowners and soldiers. There are all sorts of things wrong with these societies built out of scarcity - the status relations of property foremost amongst them - but their public spaces are still what we want from the public realm.

Hannah Arendt proposed that the condition of modernity is to find our identity in the choice of the communities we elect to belong to. This is a deeply modernist thought: there is no privileged basis for choice or identity, you just elect. But it is also deeply communitarian: it is elections of membership that bestow identity. The world of abundance has given us opportunities like never before to elect membership to communities: the openDemocrats, the Philosophers' House, SlashDot, the KiteForum, this network and that network. I am the web sites I make accounts at. I sign-up, therefore I am.

Also on Creative Commons in openDemocracy:

Siva Vaidhyanathan, "Creative Commons: making copyright work for democracy"
(13 June 2005)

Yochai Benkler & Christian Ahlert, "Mining the wealth of networks"
(27 April 2006)

Becky Hogge, "What moves a movement?"
(27 June 2006)
When it works, the economy of abundance is Arendtian. But her modernist communitarianism relies on meaning being the product of choice, and this is where the digital commons has a central paradox. Where every choice is immediately available, and every close neighbour of every choice is available, there is no meaning in one election over another: choice reveals nothing. David Hayes, openDemocracy's deputy editor, celebrated Bob Dylan's 65th birthday with the thought that the nature of Dylanophilia has been irrevocably changed by the arrival of an era when everything by and about Dylan is immediately present (see "Bob Dylan's revolution in the head", 24 May 2006). Becoming a Dylanophile once required luck, persistence, time ... but now requires a moment's search. So which election to the community of Dylanophiles carries meaning?

The world behind the click

The greater the abundance, the less significance in a choice. And where choices are no longer meaningful, an often unbearable pressure is placed on the psychology of election: I invest my choices with all the significance my tired self can muster because there is no other source of meaning here. This poor self, which thinks it has defined itself in every assault on it of the brand economy, finds a new world of self-definition in the digital commons: but can the commons make those choices substantial? When I make an account at this website or other, I have endowed it with a part of my soul. Will it pay me back? And can it pay in the currency that I want - a currency of belonging?

In the example of openDemocracy's articles being available on a profusion of other publications, the choice for a reader between this site or that site tends to the meaningless - indeed, it is often mediated by a search algorithm. What is the significance of reading about the Serbian election on ISN rather than openDemocracy? Is there a defining choice there? So here is the paradox for communities of the digital commons: to build a community is to offer an escape from the arbitrary; but to release material to the digital commons is to add to the conditions of the arbitrary.

In the case of the openDemocracy articles, a license which required, rather than excluded, the creation of derivative works would be more true to the spirit of the commons than the current advertising license. What I want to say to those who copy our articles is: "take our work as long as you will try to add something to it. If not, let us have its community-building benefits: allow us to build significance into the choice of this website, not that."