Travels in Lisbon: At the Creative Commons Summit, Part 2

Photo: Omar Willey. CC-BY 4.0

This is Part 2 of a four-part series. Part 0: Prelude is here. Part 1 is here. Part 3 is here. Part 4 is here. Read them all, if you’re inclined.

Different from the past few years, the keynote addresses this year all happened on the same night. Two long keynotes and six shorter lightning notes had been planned for the summit this year.

Kelsey Merkley got up and talked to us about horizontal hostility in the open movement. I’ve written on the subject myself, so she wasn’t going to get any argument from me. She relayed a personal tale of purity testing within the commoning community, wherein she was accused of betraying the ideals of freedom and all the other hyperbole that goes with “freedom” because she suggested Creative Commons would reach a wider audience by using Slack, a very non-free service.

I’ve encountered the same arrogance and fist-shaking from free software advocates (good lord, don’t call them “open source software” advocates). It’s frustrating. Why make enemies out of people who share 90% of your own goals, especially over something as absurd as terminology, or operating system, or hardware, or a host of other things that, in the long run, do not matter? There are different roads to freedom. The whole purpose of freedom is to be able to choose one’s obligations, so if someone chooses to be obligated to Apple or Google or Stewart Butterfield, that is not my problem. I can ask them why and point out alternatives that might be better in some cases, but in many cases there are no better alternatives and I need to let the issue lie.

The problem is mistaken idealism. In an ideal world, all of the tools we need for living human lives are freely and widely available for all to use how they see fit. Our world is not ideal. Not every thing is free. Not every thing can be, or even should. Even Richard Stallman is not so foolish as to say that everything needs to be free of cost or free to change, and he himself releases documents under “non-free” licenses like the CC-BY-ND license.

Anyone who’s ever tried to live an open source life for a year knows how impossible it is in a globalized world. Somewhere, sometime, someone else owns the patent, trademark, copyright, or other rights to the things other people use. Calling those people traitors to the cause of open because they have to buy a trademarked loaf of bread is absurd. It is also foolish, counterproductive and cruel.

The short talk Majd al Shihabi gave on his Palestine Open Maps project was razor-sharp. Using maps of Palestine before 1948 alongside maps of Israel in 1949 and 1950, he visualized for all to see exactly what al-Nakba — the Catastrophe — meant for the 700,000 Palestinians who lost their homes and homeland during the creation of the Israeli state. He tied it all in to the story of his grandmother, who survived the Nakba and continues to live a rich life, even going back to school to learn some tech skillzz.

The upshot was that history is always lived, but lives are transient. As life passes away so does history, unless those who remain keep it alive. It’s a lot harder to do this, of course, when people are actively trying to obliterate one’s history. That theme recurred throughout the evening.

It was definitely the theme of the first keynote. Siko Bouterse and Adele Vrana’s long talk on decolonizing the commons used their personal histories and relationships to slavery and blackness to emphasize how the knowledge commons and indeed the world we all live in has suffered at the hands of European-led globalization. Both our narrators went on to say how they were personally affected and that it wasn’t just their problem, but everyone’s. The current architecture of knowledge online, they say, tells a very limited story. The Global South for instance is woefully underrepresented on Wikipedia. Most editors of Wikipedia are male and Euro-American, so things written about non-Euro-American matters carry that bias.

But rather than merely state facts and numbers, Mss. Bouterse and Vrana framed the matter as a personal struggle: in both cases, their fractured relationships with their own fathers served as narrative examples of how a hidden history led to a failed sense of identity.

I cannot judge their stories, and anyway their stories are not mine, or yours, or anyone else’s. Most of the crowd found it all quite moving. I did not.

My understanding of that presentation is that it’s about two women encountering their own ignorance of family history and learning to extrapolate that the same thing must have happened with others. This happens all the time. Those encounters are important, sometimes vitally so. But one should never mistake them for conspiracy.

As an African American male, if I wanted to know something about Black history, I didn’t moan that it wasn’t being taught in school or that it wasn’t simply offered to me like green vegetables to a child who wouldn’t have eaten them anyway. I went out and found what I needed to know. If it wasn’t at my local library, I went to a bigger library. If it wasn’t there, I asked my mom.

People need to tell the stories they know, and the oppressed need to proclaim their own histories. That much is obvious. But this problem cannot be solved technologically by Wikipedia or any other group of commoners. It can only be solved by participation and discourse. Even then it will be found wanting because 1) history is never complete, 2) history is not always written, particularly in oral cultures, and 3) not all history is meant to be shared with everyone.

However hard one looks all through Wikipedia and Google and whatever else, one won’t find the history of my first published zines, or my mother’s recipe for peach cobbler, or photographs of my father in Mexico. One could always protest, “Why don’t I get to know this?” but the answer is simple: because my family considers those things to be nunya. These are stories we tell among our family and close friends; the rest of the world doesn’t get access, any more than they get access to all that indigenous learning the would-be liberals seem so fond of protecting through “decolonization.” In that sense, yes, I am a gatekeeper and I’ll damn well remain so. I don’t owe you my private stories. Neither do my parents. And neither do yours. You want your own history? Go do your own work.

I’m a little impatient with people who suggest that the onus is on someone, anyone else but themselves to make their history available to them on demand. While it’s true that my family is one of the first Black families in the state, and that my mother can recall five generations of Black pioneers, that particular bit of my privilege is not the point. The point is that history does not come easily to anyone. One has to go out and exhume it, scrub it, polish it, match it to other fragments, and piece together the truth which will always be incomplete.

Photo: Omar Willey. CC-BY 4.0

Sophie Bloemen’s leading presentation on “A Shared Digital Europe” treated the same essential theme as Natalia Mileszyk’s presentation “Committing the Sin of Silence” but from different angles. In “A Shared Digital Europe,” Ms. Bloemen spoke on how the typical way lawmakers view the internet is as a mere marketplace; therefore all questions revolve around money. If you don’t have money you aren’t invited to the discussion (Natalia Mileszyk had the same experience). What Ms. Bloemen suggests instead are fundamental principles of a new framework through which policy makers ought to look when considering internet regulation.

  1. Digital space is a society, not just a market. Therefore it will mirror analog societies; it must be treated as both a mirror and a window.
  2. A socially healthy digital space cultivates a collaborative cultural commons;
  3. Public institutions are vital to the commons, so they need more empowerment;
  4. It must be possible to have an individual social presence online without commercial interference and surveillance capitalism;
  5. Only a decentralized infrastructure can alleviate privacy concerns and strengthen social discourse.

I am completely in agreement with those principles. The very language used in the European Union’s copyright talks tells you how far off base they are. Politicians being both corrupt from industry lobbying money and also none-too-bright, every conversation has assumed that the Internet is nothing but a marketplace where business interests trump human interests. Why use the phrase “Digital Single Market” otherwise? But the Internet is not a market. It is a massive, sprawling network of interconnected activities, very few of which are market transactions. Regulating it as a market is a fool’s errand.

Clearly Europe has a lot of monied fools right now. And until money is no longer the dominant concern of politicians, this nonsense will continue.

What we citizens of the world and users of the Internet do in the meantime is we continue to speak, even when being ignored. That was the essence of Natalia Mileszyk’s talk.

In the fight against the overbroad legislation and otherwise foolish provisions women like Ms. Mileszyk were at the vanguard. So it was nice to hear her speak about a topic many of us need to address: how to lose. After almost three years of leading a fight in which 5,000,000 people protested against the absurdities of the new copyright directive, only to be called a mob paid off by tech companies and Russia, Ms. Mileszyk’s group Centrum Cyfrowe lost the battle, and badly. Not only did the EU adopt the copyright directive, they adopted the worst possible version of it, largely because a group of MEPs pushed the wrong button while voting. (No, seriously.)

From that fight, however, one could gather a few lessons:

  1. Basic questions matter. Ask people where they get their facts from. Question why people think there will be no social ramifications of technology.
  2. Everyone has a role to play. Despite being told they have no standing because they aren’t “professionals” or “experts” people need to speak up about what they do know.
  3. Damage control is important. Sometimes you can’t make anything good happen, but at least you can prevent something catastrophic from happening. And that will have to be enough.
  4. The more unwelcome you are in a discussion that affects you, the more necessary is your presence there.

Europe set the Internet back at least twenty years by treating Internet regulation as a matter of business policy rather than as a human rights issue. Good ol’ boys won; the public lost. And they’ll keep losing. As Cory Doctorow put it, “The fight to preserve and restore the free, fair and open Internet is a fight you commit yourself to, not a fight that you win.” Even if the vote had gone the other way, there would be another, equally stupid and brutal proposal on the table next week.

A shelf of CC-licensed books. Photo: Omar Willey. CC-BY 4.0

I enjoyed Dr. Haggen So’s lightning talk on getting artists paid. He leaned heavily on Sarah Hinchliff Pearson & Paul Stacey’s book, Made With Creative Commons and the business models therein. Going against the grain, he insisted that money was important for creators, so that they could create more things. His point hearkened back to the good ol’ days when the US government sought to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries. What Dr. So found, however, is that the creative people who share their work freely do not get paid fairly because there is no good mechanism for users and philanthropists to reward sharing.

Having run The Seattle Star for more than seven years now, I know he speaks the truth. Ideally an online, free/open source journal of culture and commentary like mine would be completely funded by readers, so that it would not have to rely upon a dead and rotten advertising model. But this has been extremely difficult. While some of the problem is simply getting people to pay for things they use — a social problem — most of it has been a technological problem. We’ve used Flattr, TipTheWeb, PayPal, Google Pay, and other things, but none of them are

  • easy to use for readers
  • easy to use for creators
  • widespread
  • highly reputable among both the insiders and the laity

So I was personally interested in Dr. So’s call to develop something to meet all this criteria. He mentioned Kin Ko’s new project Civic Liker, which sounded promising, and which would be the centerpiece of a presentation that Friday. It struck me a bit like Flattr rewritten with blockchain technology, but with a social dimension that Flattr always lacked. So I was willing to give it a fair trial. We shall see.

The final keynote (since the sixth lightning talk by Ọmọ Yoòbá was cancelled due to a visa issue) by Jennifer Jenkins and James Boyle was exactly what I expected: fantastic. I’d already read the book, and seen video of them presenting the book, Theft! A History of Music before. In fact, the book itself was one of the Free Things of the Week here at The Star. Essentially this evening’s version was a shortened version of the one they presented at Duke’s open access week. So it was nothing new to me, but then, there’s a difference between hearing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on a CD and sitting with it in a symphonic hall. All in all it was a pleasant, funny, celebratory way to end the evening’s talks with something a little less dour than everything else that had come before.

I didn’t stay for the party. I went back to my room at the B&B, trying to shake a feeling that had developed over the day. It wasn’t just the somber tone of most of the evening’s celebrations, or the sense that the commons itself was under heavy attack. There was something else. I couldn’t quite place it.

The next day made it clear.

Continued next episode.

Part 0: Prelude is here. Part 1 is here. Read them all, if you’re inclined.

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Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net

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