A good friend of mine forwarded me this essay (PDF) from the Copenhagen Institute of Future Studies, which presents an important set of ideas. Although it belittles intellectual property using straw man arguments, it does a nice job of assembling the array of “knowledge as public good” arguments.

An even more utopian future, which featured a backdrop of Eastern philosophy, was set out by James Burke and summarized nicely in his “the day the universe changed” series. In essence, it is a vision that holds the transcendental equilibrium of the individual in and with the collectivity of everything — in short, balance — brings structure and stability. It sounds cool, but is challenging to find in reality. (Also consider the concept of the hivemind, which might exist somewhere, but I’ve yet to encounter it outside of philosophical rhetoric).

“Anarconomy”

In contrast, the Copenhagen “anarconomy” vision of anarchy is not particularly anarchistic. In fact, it is rather rule-based, albeit the collectivist social rules of open source copyleft communities. Jaron Lanier has called fundamentalist manifestations of this “Digital Maoism”, which is catchier than it is historically accurate, but you get the idea… Another variant is expressed in the sometimes fickle wrath of the tough love inflicted by open source gatekeepers when cool new ideas conflict somehow with “community standards.”

At its core, the central most useful idea set out here is that any absolutist argument for private property vs. open source is not very useful. We need both the individual and the collective, and they will forever be in tension, and that is mostly good and occasionally terrifying.

While not directly addressing the issue, the essay points to at least three issues that are relevant to journalism and community. I think that we far too often get caught up in our passions and forget that the contexts and logic may result in different answers in the different spheres.

  1. The hardware/software infrastructure for delivering knowledge and services I’ve seen many arguments about how to adjust ownership structures to best deliver access to this infrastructure as a public good (i.e. universal access), but it is clear to all that such massive infrastructure has to be owned, and that owner should be compensated for its use in order to support security, maintenance, upgrades, and expansion of the infrastructure. I personally think that the key is to separate the role of infrastructure owner and the role of service provider (although telecom companies would fight like the devil against this). Some European governments are thinking along similar lines. Regarding software infrastructure, I think that most agree that software platforms for delivering intellectual content can be open source or proprietary, that each has its place, and can be mutually supportive.
  2. Knowledge vs. service delivery Usually, reasonable folk can agree that knowledge should be open, while a service related to knowledge can be had at a fee. But we often disagree on what constitutes knowledge vs. service. The Copenhagen paper takes it a step sideways and argues that, essentially, anything that is an intellectual commodity is a public good and should be free/open. What is the difference between knowledge and an intellectual commodity is never made all that clear. Yet, no matter how we define “public good,” I fail to see how anarchy is an inherently superior way to manage public goods. Viable alternatives include the centuries of experience in the regulation of monopolies. The Library of Congress early rejection of Google’s efforts to digitize the world of books is a great example: the LOC, which is the regulatory home of copyright, acted to balance the monopoly held by the author with the public interest of access in the pursuit of assuring that both were satisfied.
  3. Open Source Journalism Is journalism knowledge or a value added service? The issue of not-for-profit journalism is a red herring here, I think. Tax-free status is mostly an issue of whether the firm is on a mission to produce social value, or shareholder value. If the social value delivered by a non-profit is an open commodity or a proprietary value-added service, is a separate question. If journalism is or can ideally be a value-added service (thus proprietary, even to anarconomists), then how long before it becomes “knowledge”?

If we were to call journalism an open source public good, that brings us to the discussion about whether utopia, anarconomy, or monopoly regulation are better paths to manage journalism in the public interest. Europe is not shy of this conversation with its passion for state-owned news programming in the public interest, but it is anathema to much of the U.S. culture of news as being fiercely independent.

Although, the tough love gatekeeper function of an open source core maintainer is not unlike that of a newspaper editor — so, there may be something to this yet.