The year of the hybrid?

Economies, not cars.

Last night I saw Larry Lessig present “Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy” as a part of Evan Korth’s amazing Computers and Society speaker series.  The talk was an improved iteration on the talk I saw him present at Wikimania ’06, but it was much tighter – concentrated, but not too dense. He included a few new examples and anecdotes, collapsed earlier presentations into compact sub-segments, and has incorporated Benkler’s hybrid economies (articulated in The Wealth of Networks) into the Read-Only->Read/Write->Hybrid progression.

It really is a pleasure listening to a world-class orator (he has argued cases in front of the supreme court) deliver an argument, and I was trying to pay attention to his rhetorical style, and the ways he has honed the structure of his argument over time.

First, a small bone – For a while, Lessig has been making a bold and provocative assertion that text has become the Latin of our time, and audio and video are the vulgar. Arguments over the correctness of tense aside, I sure wish he would start using the word ‘vernacular’ instead of ‘vulgar’.  ‘Vulgar’ makes the argument sound, well, a bit elitist to me, and when I repeat this claim, I remix it to ‘vernacular’.

More important than quibbling over this choice of words I was a little thrown off by the direction that Lessig wants to take IP reform. Last night he spent a bit of time outlining a scheme that hinges on the analytic distinction between professionals and amateurs. I think he may have been trying to appeal to an intuitive sense of fairness, or perhaps pragmatics, over how professional creators work might be protected by IP while amateurs should be free to create w/out regulation or restriction.

I thought it was downright odd that in one breath he was persuading us that we live in a hybrid world, and in the next trying to maintain the line between amateurs and professionals.  The line between professionals and amateurs is clearly blurring, as the difficulties in applying shield laws to journalists attests. Nowadays, who exactly is The Press, whose freedoms may never be abridged according to the First Amendment? I am really unclear about the definition of a creative professional in a hybrid economy. Would we need to introduce licenses to certify creative professionals? Even in the example of the baby video with Prince music playing in the background, would the situation change if the mother was making money off of google ad-words aside the video?

To me, if you take Benkler’s argument to heart, in a networked world many everyday interactions will be commodified, and favors will turn into transactions. We’ll all become some hybrid of amateur and professional. This doesn’t sound all good to me, as I am not sure I want to live in a world where everything has an exchange value… This paper by Nigel Thrift, Re-inventing invention: new tendencies in capitalist commodification, paints a grimmer picture than Benkler does about the sophisticated ways that knowledge workers are being exploited in the hybrid world we are hurtling towards.

Giving Chickens Microphones

By now you may have heard of the innovative citizen-driven election monitoring system, Twitter Voter Report (they are getting great press cycles, with purportedly more to come).  I actually wrote up and submitted the post that appears on, a wonderful blog that tracks innovations in data visualization.

This projects represents a really innovative use of Twitter as a “just-add-water” (gratis, but not truly free) infrastructure for distributed structured-data collection. It reminded me of a free platform a group at  UNICEF is building to collect distributed structured-data in the third world (for places w/out easy access to the internet, but with cellular connectivity) –  RapidSMS.

Imagine how many millions of dollars the government would have spent to build a cell-phone enabled election monitoring system (that likely wouldn’t work). Instead, a group of volunteer activists, weaned on the open-source, do-it-yourself culture of code jams, shared repositories, and issue trackers, decided less than a month ago that they could build this themselves on a shoestring.

This is definitely a big deal, and relates closely to a new tier of participatory media which I began to describe at my talk at CCNMTL’s New Media in Education conference this month. It also has everything in the world to do with the TagMaps tool I wrote about last November in my post Crowded Wisdom. Systems are coming online which are helping us synthesize vast volumes of tiny fragments of information into meaningful knowledge.

Twitter Vote Report allows anyone to report voter suppression, and problems with specific voting machines, but it support tracking wait times, which will be aggregated and mapped on the website.

Previously, when a voter had a complaint, he had to go through election officials who might have little incentive to admit a mistake – what tech executive Logan calls “a fox guarding the chickens” scenario.

“What this technology does,” he says, “is give the chickens a microphone.” [Baltimore Sun]

Finally, while we are on the topic, this was a great letter to the next president on what he can/should do with technology. How will President Obama utilize the historically unprecedented social networks he mobilized during his campaign?

Dear Mr. Tech President

For more information on Twitter Vote Report see their press page.

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