Free Energy

globe_big.gifFree as in ‘Free of pollutants’, ‘free of politics’, and ‘conducive to human freedom’, not ‘free as in fusion’ or ‘free as in beer’.

On Wednesday night I saw Jeffery Sachs present at the CSSR series. I have seen him talk before, but he is a great orator, so it is a pleasure to listen to reruns. Besides, Gia’s situation continues to deteriorate at such an alarming rate that everytime he speaks I learn how things have gotten worse.

I have been wondering for a while how technology and new media could play a role in saving the world, and I posed this question to Jeff after the talk:

If the situation is as dire and urgent as you depict, people need to start thinking about contingencies in case the traditional forms of political process fail. What lessons can the environmental movement learn from the free software/free culture movements, both tactically and strategically, which faced similarly stiff opposition from the dominant powers of law, policy, and big money?

Tactically, I think the answer is obvious. Advanced communication technologies can play a central role in distributing knowledge, building communities and helping organizations operate more efficiently. Groups like One Northwest have understood this for years, although I think The Earth Institute still has some catching up to do.

Strategically, I stumped myself. What can the environmental movement learn from the “copyleft” approach pioneered by Richard Stallman resulting in the GPL and the Free Software Foundation? In the case of broken copyright and patent systems, they could not wait for the system to heal, so they jury-rigged the system (hacked it) to support their objectives. This framework formed the convention under which the OSI protocols developed, empowering individuals, not states, with the ability to choose to subvert.

One glaring disanalogy in attempting to apply the lessons of the free software movement to the environmental movement is that software, as an information good, does not obey conservation laws and consequently has a marginal cost approaching zero. We are quite a ways off from figuring out exactly how to derive It from Bit, however we may still be able to learn from Stallman’s brilliant maneuver.

Perhaps one of the keys to the success of the free software movement, and now the free culture movement (Creative Commons especially) is how they present choices to individuals, encouraging them to act politically, thereby engaging them in the political questions and discourse. This direct participation in the issue raises awareness and understanding, and for many, becomes the catalyst for idealogical transformation. In turn, these individuals have the will necessary to sustain the pressure required for true reform. If Gore’s movie had one failing it was the lack of ideas for what individuals should do after they left the theater.
Marketers in the corporate sector have understood this idea for a while. They call it creating brand evangelists, best accomplished through participatory engagements (lovemarks?), In a sneaky way this approach adapts the problem we are having with energy back into an information one.

Here is one idea on how we could apply these principles. There are surely others.
Environmental Labeling – simply figure out a set of accounting standards and a symbolic language so that manufactured goods could be labeled with the amount of energy that went into making them. The labeling does not even need to start out as a regulation – in some niche markets it could be seen as a product differentiator and serve as a marketing technique. With these labels in place, some consumers might choose to purchase goods with lower carbon contributions. All that is really missing here is a set of standards and a language of symbols.

Ask yourself the simple question – if you wanted to go on a carbon diet today, or even wanted to determine if your personal carbon demands were increasing, level, or diminishing, how could you find out? How could we develop stabilization wedges for individuals without the kind of transparency that environmental labeling affords? Seriously, I don’t even know if I should be using ceramic cups or plastic ones, rechargeable batteries or disposable ones, etc etc. Transparency can lead to accountability through natural market forces.
As a closing thought, I wonder – can we develop asset of Energy Freedoms analogous to the 4 Software Freedoms?
Free Energy. It’s not just for crackpots anymore.

Honest Software

Originally publihsed on

How hybrid economies help keep software honest.

Last week’s Plone Conference was truly phenomenal – provocative, intense, and fun (big thanks Jon and ONE/Northwest!).

One of the most amazing things I experienced last week was alluded to in Eben Moglen’s keynote (to be posted soon)- the manner in which this community has managed to bring together people who don’t ordinarily interact.

Throughout the breakout sessions, I continued to question dividing us up according to our respective vertical sectors – Corporate, Non-Profit, Educational, and Government. As I have begun to write about elsewhere, systems like Plone can help balance the flow of communication and power between people in a variety of situations and settings. Content, collaboration, and community are contexts which exist across sectors, and the tools we all need cross over as well (sometimes with slightly different tunings).

In many ways lumping together all the folks involved with education is odd. Universities are microcosms of cities, and their IT needs are as diverse as the the rest of the world. However, there are still structural and social similarities that form the basis for common language and culture. After engaging with my fellow educators a the educational panel session and the BOF session I understood the value of us sharing and strategizing, beyond just commiseration.

But through it all, there was one thing that united all of the different attendees – a piece of general purpose software called ‘Plone’.

It is worth dwelling on this mixture of participants and the varying forces they apply to the software. Lessig and Benkler have both been writing a great deal about hybrid economies lately, trying to understand their rhythms, and how we might be able to design them to succeed. They have been writing generally about the “commercial economy” and the “second economy” (sharing, social production, etc), but the lessons may cross over directly to our community.

I realized in Seattle how beneficial diversity can be for software production.
Most of the consultants using Plone are there strictly for traditional market considerations – to make a profit. They are helping to keep the software honest. Unlike some other open source projects which exclusively service the educational world, Plone is not sheltered from the raw, harsh forces of the commercial market. This means that some of the people using Plone use it because it helps them get their jobs done efficiently. Others have called this “productivity arbitrage“, and it is a concept that may hold the key to designing successful open source projects.

It is challenging to imagine working backwards and trying to design a software ecology which captures the hearts and minds of such a diverse following. No small task.

As Rheingold said “There’s been an
assumption that since communism failed, capitalism is triumphant,
therefore humans have stopped evolving new systems for economic
production.” – Is Plone’s ecology an example of one of these new systems, and if so, what are our distinguishing characteristics?

Plato and the Laptop

SocratesWell, midterms have come and gone, and somehow I managed to complete my two papers on time, somewhere between San Francisco and PloneCon in Seattle.

In my class on the Social Impact of Mass Media I was really impressed with Peter’s Speaking into the Air, and wanted to revisit the Phaedrus. While reading it I was making connections to read-only/read-write culture, and wanted to explore that connection to Plato’s analysis of writing. Also, his conversation has everything in the world to do with my thinking on the effects of Technology on Epistomology itself, and Memory in particular.

Still, when I sat down to write the paper, I kept getting drawn back into conversations around OLPC, until I realized that’s exactly what I should be writing about!

Plato and the Laptop: Prescribing Educational Technology for Society’s Ills

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