Howard Rheingold - Innovation and the Commons
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This interview was recorded for Steal This Film II
. The project tries to bring new people into the leagues of those now prepared to think 'after intellectual property', and think creatively about the future of distribution, production and creativity. This is a film that has no single author. It makers encourage its 'theft', downloading, distribution and screening, and have made the entire film and its footage available for download in HDV format, on their website and on Pirate Bay.
The opportunity to produce culture, rather than just consume it, is the result of increased access to powerful computer combines with their networking in a decentralised architecture. Rheingold points out that the potential of technologies has often been realised through their reception by users rather than the manufacturers themselves. Those at the top of the media industry have a basic interest in resisting these changes. Their survival should not be what concerns us, but rather the health of culture, and the potential decentralised collaboration offers for the solution of longstanding problems.
Interview with Howard Rheingold
Steal This Film II
I think it's important to understand
that the radical democratisation
of innovation was built into
the architecture of the internet.
The people who created the fundamental structure
f the internet realised
that they didn't know how people were going
to be using this in the future.
So rather than centralising control,
as it was in the telephone network,
in some kind of big central office,
some kind of technology that
controlled how the entire internet would work,
then control was decentralised.
That is anyone who's got a personal computer
and plugs it into the internet, as long as their
communication with all the other computers and
plays by the rules of the internet,
than they can decide they're going to turn the internet
into the the world wide web as Tim Burners Lee did.
And they don't have to get anyone's permission,
they don't have to rewire anything, they simply
persuade enough people to do it.
If you want to invent Google in your dormitory room
or you want to start open source software
by communicating with a number of friends
you can do that because the architecture of the internet enables that.
If you wanted to change the way
the television broadcast network works, good luck,
you're going to have to get the majority
of the shareholders to agree with you
or you're going to have to
replace some very expensive equipment.
The inventors of the telephone thought
it would be a great way to broadcast concerts
and resisted the social use of the telephone.
The use of the mobile phone for
sending text messages was invented by teenage girls,
not by telephone companies.
The internet was not created by the telephone industry,
the personal computer was not created
by the computer industry.
People who see what's possible
using existing technologies to create new technologies,
who want something,
who desire something, who have a vision
quite often very young people,
quite often people who are not wealthy before they do this,
have invented much of the digital world.
I think there's a lot of hope
that we have 3 billion telephones in the world today.
People who were not in on
the internet revolution or the PC revolution
now have the means of production
and the means of distribution, not only of culture,
but of innovation in their hands.
We have some very significant problems
to solve in the world if we're going to
get through the 21th century.
I think mobilizing and educating the minds of
the largest number of people we can,
is our only real route to finding some kind of solution.
And I think to the degree that digital technologies
afford mass education and afford people
who weren't in on innovation before
to come up with a new idea that might work tomorrow;
A new medicine, a new means of research,
a new kinds of energy usage, is really our hope
and that restricting innovation to the incumbents,
to the existing companies,
to the official holders of licenses for technologies that exist today,
is going to restrict our ability
to innovate our way out of some of
the very serious problems we have.
Property is really a a bad word to use
to describe things of the intellect
because property has to do with exclusion.
You can make something property if you can
build a fence for it, you can enclose something
if you can build a wall around it.
Generally there is a physical means of exclusion
and there's a law that goes along with it.
In England there were the parliamentary enclosure acts
and there were
the literal enclosures with hedgerows and
stone fences of land.
In the american west the range land was free
and all could graze it
because it was too expensive to fence it.
Barbed-wire changed that and you could
turn it into property.
Now we're seeing that digital means of restricting who can use
intellectual property, including scientific information,
is enabling enclosure of what used to be free,
as in scientific knowledge, medical knowledge.
And at the same time what used to be property
- music, cinema -
now becomes very, very easy
to transmit across barriers.
Certainly people who create cultural production
should be able to make a living
and people who are creating new medicines
or who are creating new works of art,
should be able to build on the work of others.
Property gets in the way of finding a solution
- property is looking backwards
towards a physical world in which physical barriers enabled people
to exclude others and to control distribution.
We need other means of controlling distribution
and of rewarding people who create innovations.
If you're talking about the distribution of cultural material
of music and cinema,
well, there's a long history of
whatever the incumbent industry happens to be
resisting whatever new technology provides,
so the video recorder was very strongly resisted
by Hollywood and it happened that
the electronics industry prevailed and it turned out that
Hollywood is still there,
and in fact the incumbent entertainment industries make great deal
of their money from the sale of recordings.
I'm not the first one to document this -
there's a long history of resistance
in the music industry to any kind of innovation.
The sheet music people resisted the recordings,
there's a natural tendency for an incumbent
industry to resist changes in technologies
that are going the threaten their business model.
I don't think anyone other than the shareholders
of those companies particularly care
about how those industries survive -
do we really care about buggy whip, manufacturers or
whale-bone corsets anymore?
Innovations have come along that have made those
things irrelevant. What we really care about
is a broad and rich and robust distribution
of culture and some kind of incentive for its creation.
Now I can envision a world in which
you have a peer-to-peer distribution
of cinema and of music, and in which
there's a lot of piracy and in which people do pay creators
- maybe not everyone pays.
That might be a world in which you don't have
mega stars making billions of dollars
but maybe you'll have hundreds of thousands of
garage bands who are able to
make a living from their 4000 fans each,
and quit their day jobs.
Is that a richer world in which
we have more people making music?
Maybe they're not making as much money,
maybe we've eliminated these mega distribution companies in between
the creators of music and the fans.
Will big blockbuster mega budget movies go away?
I don't think so, but what we are seeing is an emergence of a vernacular -
of all sorts of people making four minute movies
for the internet, or for the mobile phone.
And I think, you know just as we saw with the printing press,
it was not just
church scholars writing in latin,
we began to have a vernacular literature that we're seeing
the emergence of a vernacular literature in other forms as well.
I think the questions we have to ask
are not about the health of existing industries
but the health of culture.