May 20, 2009

Participatory Government Online: Not a Pipe Dream

Posted in Business & technology, Global discourse, Public discourse tagged , , , , at 8:13 am by M L Clark

In an undergad political science course a few years back, I recall being challenged to present explanations for public apathy in Canadian politics. Out of a class of some thirty students, I was the only one to argue that there wasn’t apathy — that low voter turnout among youth was readily offset, for instance, by far higher youth turnout in rallies, discussion forums, and the like. Youth were absolutely talking politics: they just weren’t applying this talk in the strictest of official senses.

My professor always did love such counterarguments, but my classmates never seemed to buy them. Rather, many argued that the “fact” of disengagement was not only accurate, but also healthier, because it meant that only those who “actually cared” about policy would set it. (We were working, at the time, with figures like only 2 percent of the Canadian population being card-carrying party members.) Many of these same students likewise believed that economics was not only the ultimate driving force in our culture, but also the only driving force that could lead; and also that true democracy was unwise because only a select few (I could only assume they counted themselves among this number) were able to govern wisely.

At the time, Facebook was two years old. YouTube was one. And the online landscape, though unfurling at a mile a minute, was still light years from its present levels of group interaction. My sources for the presentation in 2006 were therefore an uncertain medley of old and new media: news articles and statistics; online party forums and Green Party doctrine.

I didn’t have at my disposal, for instance, incredible videos like Us Now, a documentary encapsulating the many ways in which average citizens — seeing truly accessible means of interacting on a collective level with their environment — are achieving great success breaking down the representative government model to something much more one-on-one.

Nor did I have The Point, which provides anyone with an account and an idea the means to start a campaign, co-ordinate fundraising, organize group activities, and otherwise influence public change. (Really, check it out — it’s fantastic.)

And most regrettably of all, I didn’t have the Globe and Mail‘s Policy Wiki.
This last, I just discovered yesterday on BoingBoing.net, when they noticed the Globe and Mail’s newest project on the website: The creation of a collectively developed copyright law proposal, to be sent to Ottawa for their consideration on July 1, 2009.

As a huge policy geek, and a member of the new media generation to boot, I saw this as a goldmine of opportunity — and yet there is plenty else on the website for other policy development, too: discussion forums and wiki projects alike. So of course, in my excitement, I sent the link to a few members of the old generation — only to receive a curious collection of responses, dismissing the above as an exercise in anarchy, while simultaneously criticizing old-school committees as never accomplishing anything properly.

Well, old guard, which is it? Is our present model of representative government failing us in certain regards, and should we thus try to engage different policy-building models? Or is the same model which, despite early challenges to legitimacy, created an online encyclopedia as powerful as the Encyclopedia Britannica, by its very nature as an open-source community project unfit for political consideration?

Us Now makes the point that the internet’s promise of a more dynamic and accessible global community has had many false starts (spam, scams, and the proliferation of child pornography rings come personally to mind). But long before we became cynical of the internet’s capacity to improve our social impact, we as a society were already well used to doubting the potential of our fellow citizens to act intelligently and in the pursuit of the communal good. You can thank Machiavelli’s The Prince, Italo Calvino’s Crowds and Power, and bastardized readings of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations in part for this.

A little while ago, however, I got around to reading John Ralston Saul’s The Unconscious Civilization, a CBC Massey Lecture Series essay collection about the rise of the management class and the utter reversion of the democracy/free market equation to the extent that the notion of democracy itself has suffered massive political distortion. Written just before the first real explosion of online communal projects — be they open source software, open-access socio-political groups, or information-dissemination tools — what Saul wasn’t able to account for in his work was the balancing force of technology itself. Rather, when he wrote these essays, technology was still very much a cornerstone of continued economic distortions in lieu of real democracy. Now, though, it’s clear that technology created through the corporate model has itself emerged as a platform for participatory government — and thus also as the undoing of those same, hierarchical economic forces. Coming full circle is fun!

So, to get back to this matter of “trusting in the intelligence of individuals, and their capacity to act in the common good,” yes, there is a lot of circumstantial evidence to the contrary on the internet. Heaven knows, for instance, that the low-brow interactions which inspired CollegeHumor.com’s We Didn’t Start The Flame War are in fact a daily, persistent reality online, and make up a substantial percentage of commentary therein.

Yet any parent will tell you that the way to raise a responsible child is to give her responsibilities to live up to; a child entrusted with none will invariably continue to act like one. So rather than using, as a test of our group potential online, those sites that in no way engender a sense of responsibility for our actions, why not look at those sites that do — like ThePoint.com, and the Globe and Mail Policy Wiki?

Furthermore, if our current model of representative government no longer yields the level of public engagement we crave (read: in the ways the government wants to see), maybe it’s because citizens at large haven’t been given the opportunity to feel like real participants at all levels of the democratic process. And maybe, just maybe, the internet not only can change that perception, but already is.

After all, those same students who, in the comfort of a political science classroom just three years back, so boldly proclaimed that collective decision making was a waste of time? You’ll find every last one on Facebook and LinkedIn today.

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May 18, 2009

To Pay or Not To Pay: The Internet’s Most Intricate Crisis

Posted in Business & technology tagged , , , , , , , at 10:24 am by M L Clark

Within two months after Last.fm, a music streaming service, signed into partnership with four major record labels, Amazon.com saw a 119 percent increase in online music sales. Through an ad-based revenue model Last.fm was able to offer free access to a database of songs numbering in the millions, and to group them into “stations” wherein your tastes would yield similar artists or songs in that vein. The catch was that after three iterations of one song, Last.fm would display an advertisement directing listeners to affiliate partners selling the tune. All in all, it was a sweet deal: We got free music, the big labels got paid, the small labels got exposure, and contrary to popular wisdom about downloaders detracting from music profits, online sales were through the roof.

So, of course, Last.fm switched to a subscription model on April 22, 2009: Now International Users have to pay “three” every month — three euros, three dollars: whatever is regionally appropriate. And honestly? This makes tremendous business sense: Last.fm has to pay for every track you listen to from a major label, and when it can’t negotiate adequate terms for payment with a label, sometimes that label just cuts out.

Nonetheless, as part of the Napster generation I can’t help but note how, the more things change online, the more they’ve ultimately stayed the same. From Napster to Pandora to Muxtape to Seeqpod and, of course, a slew of others, the introduction of free big-label music under any number of guises has always, invariably ended in a curtailing of services (at best), or else a complete redirection of the site’s aims and/or bankruptcy.

Notice anything funny there? Take a look at how this cycle begins: With the desire to give something away for free. Not to make a profit on it; just to scrape by — and only when profit margins drop deep into the red, to impose fees on the consumers. Yeah, you might say, it’s easy not to try to make money on something you didn’t create (the music). But… if history serves us well, it’s not. People just don’t pass up the opportunity to exploit the work of others for their own profit. So how is it that models like the ones listed above ever existed in the first place?

The answer perhaps lies in our generation’s unique conditioning: if as individuals we still demanded that our own creative output be viewable solely through a pay system (as Amazon is proposing in blog subscriptions for Kindle), we’d be hypocrites to demand free content from others. But growth on the internet has proven instead too nuanced for such hypocrisy: while some services have always tried to charge for content, the blogosphere, YouTube, GoogleVideo, MySpace, DeviantArt, Flickr, news aggregates, and other such websites have always run on a free viewing model. In short, by now we’re more than used to posting a piece of writing, a photo, a video, or a song online and expecting nothing monetary from it. Art and entertainment have entered into a free-for-all creation domain, and while this doesn’t mean we don’t still hold in high regard those artists and entertainers who dedicate the whole of their lives to such work, it certainly means we have different expectations for our engagement with them.

As such, the story of those aforementioned music services means just what seems to mean: That our first push out into the world of the internet is just as likely to be in the pursuit of free access as it is to be about exploitation — and thus, that we as consumers can forever expect to find ourselves latching on to free content, taking it for granted, and having subsequent power plays or business models then wrest that freedom away. A cry of foul will emerge, we’ll flood a comments page with angry protests… and then most of us will clear off, find a new free music service, and repeat.

Rest assured, this isn’t as hard to stomach as it sounds: we’re already quite used to learning to pay for goods we’d always taken for granted — how else can you explain bottled tap water? But the story of free music is a fast-paced tale that also speaks volumes about deeper, more complex payment issues at work on the internet.

Because while the struggle for survival of music streaming services cater to our more immediate fears about The Man, there is a longer, more drawn-out battle being waged in turn for the whole of the internet. Yes, I’m talking about the attempts of Internet Service Providers to make heavy internet users pay more, or divest the whole medium of its equal playing field by allowing some companies to pay for prioritized access, effectively shutting small companies and websites out of the mass market. Or what about Bell Canada, which last year found an ally in the CRTC when the Canadian Association of Internet Providers complained that Bell was “throttling” access for peer-to-peer applications — a direct challenge to net neutrality? When the CRTC sided with Bell in the case, they likewise permitted, and set precedent for, the legality of an ISP interfering with an individual’s use of the service he’s paid for, through “traffic-shaping.”

And then, of course, there is the anti-piracy bill passed by the French National Assembly on May 12, 2009: anyone caught downloading or sharing copyrighted files three times can now be suspended from the internet for two months to a year on that third notice. Chillingly, the law would not require a trial or court order: All the ISPs need do is send you your warnings, making this a huge win for corporate control of the medium.

This, then, is the real conflict of the internet — an on-going negotiation being fought in a much more protracted, expansive way than any music streaming service need fear: but a negotiation, nonetheless, that will shape the future of the internet for us and those to come.

For now we take our freedoms and equality online for granted — just as we do our free music moment by moment. The question is, if the lesson of music streaming services has taught us anything, what can we really say about how free or equal the internet as a whole will be just ten years down the line?

And what, right now, can we do about it?