This report is primarily about positive externalities, i.e. the value created outside traditional organizational boundaries. The core underlying argument is that supporting communities, empowering users and contributing to the commons is essential for value creation within the organizations themselves.
We have condensed a year of thinking and experiences into three short acts, each of which have chapters constructed in such a way, that they can be read on their own and not just cover to cover.
It is published under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license.
Solobeta is a qualitative research and storytelling consultancy based in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Since we began operations in November 2013, we have been exploring the spaces where civil society and digital technologies intersect. Our mission statement is to help organizations understand emergent tendencies before they become emergencies. We do this through case-to-case investigations of the challenges of disruption and opportunities of value creation faced by modern institutions in the digital era.
We are available for speaking engagements and consulting. For more information email us: firstname.lastname@example.org
Open Source Design
»… before attempting to create something new, it is vital to have a good appreciation of everything that already exists in this field.« — Mikhail Kalashnikov
The Kalashnikov is the most widely available weapon system in the world. Being extremely reliable, it can be fired even when covered in mud or sand, and it is easy to strip down and maintain. Besides its reliability however, it is not a particularly good firearm compared to more advanced and accurate assault rifles.
Its massive proliferation is not a result of the brilliance of its designer, Mikhail Kalashnikov, but of its cost of production. A brand new model from a Russian factory costs roughly the same as an iPhone, and in certain African markets you can find knock-offs at the price of the cheapest Nokia. There is a reason for this affordability: When the Soviet Union chose Kalashnikov’s design they made it available free of licenses and patents to allies and client states the world over.
Five Hundred Years
In feudal times, markets were mostly static and the commons were self-sustaining. A lord would receive a fiefdom in return for pledging allegiance through military service and taxes to the sovereign. Except for the warrior classes, people were bound to the land. The system was organic and organized by bloodlines.
Fast forward. Markets become dynamic and capital organizes the production and consumption of goods. Power is no longer sovereign but disciplinary, confining its subjects in the enclosed and surveilled spaces of school, factory, office, hospital, etc. The system becomes analog like a cylinder lock. The key to understanding modernity is by analogy with a prison.
Jump-cut. Markets achieve escape velocity from their disciplinary matrices. Power no longer lies in confining physical bodies, but in controlling flows of data.
Communities used to belong inside institutions, but the babyboomers changed that. Age and authority lost value relative to youth and freedom. Creating new identities was made possible by looking in the mirrors of brands and advertising.
The modern individuals of Generation X were institutionalized by mass media but the internet changed that. The hyperindividualization of the late 20th century was met by a hypersocialization in the early 21st. In the words of K-Hole:
»Once upon a time people were born into communities and had to find their individuality. Today people are born individuals and have to find their communities.«
According to them, youth is no longer a demographic, but a condition or an attitude. But that does not mean that you no longer grow old or that there are no more generation gaps.
Even as social capital slowly drained out of civil society, the foundations of a new social infrastructure emerged that allowed people to connect on a previously unseen scale.
The marginal costs of sharing culture and participating in communities tended toward zero, making possible a reinvestment in civil society of the cognitive surplus hitherto sunk into watching television by yourself. As Maciej Cegłowski explains:
»The funny thing is, no one’s really hiding the secret of how to make awesome online communities. Give people something cool to do and a way to talk to each other, moderate a little bit, and your job is done.«
But while social sharing is easy, communal collaboration is not a simple problem, although countless examples exist. Moreover, civic collective action is still the holy grail of engagement: Coordinating crowds to make the online world spill over into a common offline goal.
Open Source Organization
Most of the servers connected to the internet, the preferred web browsers of most internet users and the majority of smartphones are running on community-developed software.
The open source production model has become the cornerstone of our connected age because it makes it possible to incorporate innovation from the outside, while the transaction costs of organizational overhead have fallen through the floor.
This is in part because social tools make it possible for communities to organize themselves without formal organizations and in part because open licenses present contributers with a robust legal instrument to enforce compliance and help trust proliferate throughout the social network.
The success of the open source movement does not come from a consistent philosophy but from the quality of its code. It has allowed people to build the world they want to live in.
A great open source leader is both a meritocratic dictator and an empathetic community organizer.
This emergent governance can be put to work transforming the collectively accumulated resources on Creative Commons and other open licenses into projects greater than the sum of their users.
Methods are evolving. While moving from co-creation to open innovation to peer production, new forms of organization are leaving the old microeconomics of push and pull as ways of managing value chains, and developing support models for the emerging and emergently governed commons.
By contributing to the commons, whether through content marketing or open access, organizations can expand the collective reservoir of useful ideas and civic engagement both within and beyond their boundaries. This requires adaptive strategies and tactical agility, intensifying and tightening the feedback loops between creators, communities and the commons.
In the early days of space exploration, the dream of a global future emerged where humanity would expand throughout the solar system and where science would solve all social problems.
But reality turned out differently. Rocket boosters were used to threaten the world with imminent nuclear doom, while spy satellites surveyed the ground from orbit.
As the early internet emerged, so did the dream of a digitally connected globe, where everyone could exercise their freedom of expression, association and information, while maintaining their privacy through online anonymity.
In the face of disruptive innovation, the right to privacy is no longer a straightforward social concept, but also a complex technical problem, leaving contemporary internet users either with a trade-off between freedom and surveillance or with the challenge of digital self-defense.
Media of Mass Destruction
Startup investor storytime in Plato:
The Egyptian god Thoth pitches the written word as an innovative medium to King Thamus, the main venture capitalist of the era. This new communications technology, Thoth says, will revolutionize the way Egyptians store and retrieve memory, thereby making them wiser.
Thamus is not convinced. By relying on external storage, he says, the Egyptians will lose their memories and thereby their wisdom. But Thoth eventually got his startup funded, got traction, scaled, and did a highly profitable exit.
However, what Thamus recognized was the disruptive potential of writing: New forms of communication pose a deadly threat to old forms of power.
Case in point: By making the Bible widely available in the vernacular, thus undermining the interpretive power of the Catholic church, the Gutenberg press paved the way for the Enlightenment. Mass literacy was a new form of freedom, but it also plunged Europe into thirty years of bloody religious war, which produced the modern form of the sovereign nation state and its power relations.
Until the emergence of the internet, the sender-message-receiver model of communication did not change significantly. Despite their technical differences, newspapers, records, radio, and television have the same power relation built in.
Mass media produce their audience through one-way communication. The sender decides the content of the message and the receivers only have the power of interpretation. That makes mass media a simple tool for controlling populations, shaping how audiences perceive themselves and the society surrounding them.
Toward the end of the 18th century, philosopher Jeremy Bentham designed Panopticon, the perfect prison, where a prison guard could watch every prisoner from a single vantage point while remaining unobservable. This moved the gaze of the guard inside the head of the prisoners, making them watch themselves.
Through social media, this panoptic gaze has entered everyday conversations. With mass media, relevant information flows out from central points. With social media, even more relevant information flows in the opposite direction, toward central vantage points unobservable by the users.
Form Against Function
The user experience of communication technologies no longer corresponds to the design dictum that form should follow function.
The purpose of a telephone was to connect users with each other across a network. Now it has different and intransparent functions that can be turned directly against its users, tracking their whereabouts, mapping their social networks, and mining personal data. What used to be a phone that enabled conversation is now a tracker producing metadata that can be used to paint a detailed picture of a user’s behavior patterns.
The purpose of the internet was to share data at a distance across different networks. Now it has become a net that catches data about its users, whose identity profiles grow every time they perform a search, access a web page, send an email, or update their social status.
This is the type of data that services can monetize, giving them incentive to collect even more. And this practice has become integral to the way societies function. Users get access to a social life and pay with their identities, not as customers but as resources.
The End of Integrity
The power of surveillance is more subtle than threats of violence and incarceration since it limits the actions and expressions of its subjects from within.
Given the revelations of bulk gathering of personal data globally by intelligence agencies, any expectation of privacy must be dialed down to zero by default.
Why do toilets generally not have glass doors? Not because it is a secret what goes on behind them but because it is private. Everyone has something to hide.
A stronger argument than the subjective feeling of privacy is professional: Journalists must provide sources a guarantee of confidentiality. The same goes for lawyers and their clients. Similarly, companies want to protect trade secrets and business correspondence from competitors.
However, the strongest argument for privacy is the principle that personal freedom creates a balance of power between civil society, market forces and the state.
The risks of misuse of personal data, whether mistaken or intentional, increase proportionally with the amount gathered, and when data protection is lacking, organizations become a hazard to their users.
Reinventing Civil Society
Making the commons useful as well as protecting the integrity of citizens is an immense task that starts with civil society, both in terms of organizations and of publics more broadly.
Given the ease of sharing content digitally, mass media have been forced reinvent themselves and their relation to the public. The copyright wars are the birth pangs of what is to come.
Similarly, civil society organizations are also reinventing campaigns and mass mobilization, creating new forms of collective action. And through digital social tools, publics can organize themselves around causes without needing to build organizations first.
With civil society as a vanguard, businesses start to notice new demands while governments scramble to regulate how societies interact with new types of data.
In order to exercise your right to privacy, you need take the open source tools of cryptography into your own hands. However, these tools are useless without a clearly mapped out threat model and the technologies do not solve this problem.
Surveillance is a political tool as well as a business model, which calls for political countermeasures as well as revenue streams not based on personal data.
Learning to use encryption is equivalent to learning self-defense or first aid. They are good and practical skills to have but societies cannot rely on citizens to individually protect themselves from violence or accidents, whether mechanical or digital.
Encryption is a supplement to rights-based policies and socially responsible businesses, not a substitute. It is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a free and open digital society.
Privacy as Innovation
Digital security has been a condition for innovation since the end of the Crypto Wars. Without the proliferation of strong encryption, web banking, e-commerce and most other services taken for granted today would not be possible.
For organizations, data protection serves as a foundation for user trust. Reinventing trust in the face of mass surveillance and massive data leaks is a challenge as well as an opportunity of innovation.
There is a demand for privacy-supporting services. Even large, data intensive companies realize this and have deployed encryption in order to not lose market share to new competitors that cater to the rights of their users. Whole countries can brand themselves on the consistency of their privacy policies.
However, the number of services that provide actual privacy by design to their users are still few and far in-between, leaving users to act on trust in brands rather than in technical protocols.
Open by Default
The open ecosystem, whose contours are marked by free and open source software, Creative Commons licenses, open data, open access to research, and not least the free and open internet, relies on a basic principle of governance: Openness creates value. To close off, you need a good explanation for why.
Administrative transparency through freedom of information requests expose the inner workings of government to public scrutiny against the otherwise generalized panoptic gaze. Privacy for people and transparency for power are not in contradiction, but prerequisites for maintaining a balance between civil society, market forces and the state.
Open for business means scaling not through organization but through composition. By sharing resources, organizations in turn get access to the cognitive capital of civil society.
Computer programming is the single most important skill anyone can learn. While using a computer does not require being able to program it, it is comparable to learning how to read but not how to write.
In programming, nothing is given. There are decisions made at every line of code and the final program is a result of this decision making process. This makes programming a political act where programmers make decisions on behalf of users, both empowering and limiting them.
Having digitally literate users reinforces innovation, the capacity to actively create and learn, both within and around organizations that thus become more resilient and adaptive to emergent tendencies.
Code literacy is a condition of active citizenship in the 21st century: Being able to exercise the civic power inherent in programming computers and handling data in an open, connected world.
The Urban Commons
When Christopher Alexander said that »city planning is the design of culture«, it was a critique directed against both the architects of imagined utopias as well as visionless bean-counting planners. He saw urban development in either form as antisocial and inhuman.
His concept of a pattern language placed human experience at the center of design, urban or otherwise, and also became a part of the theoretical underpinnings of software development.
The commons as a pattern of urban space has both waxed and waned and is now poised to once again become highly relevant. As discourses around the ‘Internet of Things’ and ‘Smart Cities’ crystallize into the social space of the city, the problem of access to urban space gets reposed as a question of access to urban data.
Long running contentions around rights to the city begin to have digital counterpoints around privacy and public access to the data generated by sensors throughout the cities of the future.
Cognitive Surplus: The free time and energy that people have available to engage in collaborative activities. (Contrast with ‘Watching Television’.)
Commons: Collectively shared natural or cultural resources, not owned but held in common by their users. (Contrast with ‘Market’, ‘State’.)
Creative Commons: A flexible copyright licensing regime made specifically for creative works in the internet age. (See also ‘Sharing’, ‘Culture’.)
Investor Storytime: When someone pays you to tell them how rich they’ll get when you finally put ads on your site. (Contrast with ‘Business Model’.)
Open Source: Software whose source code is openly available for the purpose of re-use, modification and auditing. (See also ‘Innovation’, ‘Transparency’.)
Privacy By Design: The scarce practice of designing products and services with user privacy as a functionality rather than a policy. (See also ‘Empowerment’.)