Freedom in the Commons: Towards a Political Economy of Information

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I. A MOMENT OF OPPORTUNITY

In 1999, George Lucas released a bloated and much maligned "prequel" to the Star Wars Trilogy, called The Phantom Menace. In 2001, a disappointed Star Wars fan made a more tightly cut version, which almost eliminated a main sidekick called Jar-Jar Binks and subtly changed the protagonist--rendering Anakin Skywalker, who was destined to become Darth Vader, a much more somber child than the movie had originally presented. The edited version was named "The Phantom Edit." Lucas was initially reported amused, but later clamped down on distribution. (1) It was too late. The Phantom Edit had done something that would have been unimaginable a decade earlier. One creative individual took Hollywood's finished product as raw material and extracted from within it his own film. Some, at least, thought it was a better film. Passed from one person to another, the film became a samizdat cultural object in its own right.

The Phantom Edit epitomizes both the challenge and the promise of what has variously been called "the new economy," "the information economy," or, more closely tied to the recent technological perturbation, "the Internet economy." It tells us of a hugely successful company threatened by one creative individual--a fan, not an enemy. It tells us of the tremendous potential of the Internet to liberate individual creativity and enrich social discourse by thoroughly democratizing the way we produce information and culture. And it tells us how powerful proprietors can weigh in to discipline this unruly creativity; to silence the many voices it makes possible.

In this Lecture, I want to outline two fundamental social aspects of the emerging economic-technological condition of the networked information economy: the economic--concerned with the organization of production and consumption in this economy, and the political--concerned with how we pursue autonomy, democracy, and social justice in this new condition. We have seen over the past few years glimpses of this emerging economy and of its emerging political implications. We have seen the surprising growth of free software, an oasis of anarchistic production that is beating some of the world's richest corporations at their own game--making reliable high-quality software. (2) We have seen a Russian computer programmer jailed for weeks in the United States pending indictment for writing software that lets Americans read books that they are not allowed to read. (3) These and many other stories sprinkled throughout the pages of the technology sections of our daily newspapers hint at a deep transformation that is taking place, and at an epic battle over how this transformation shall go and who will come out on top when the dust settles.

Let us, then, talk about this transformation. Let us explore the challenge that the confluence of technological and economic factors has presented for the liberal democratic societies of the world's most advanced market economies. Let us think about how we might understand the stakes of this transformation in terms of freedom and justice.

In a nutshell, in the networked information economy--an economy of information, knowledge, and culture that flow through society over a ubiquitous, decentralized network--productivity and growth can be sustained in a pattern that differs fundamentally from the industrial information economy of the twentieth century in two crucial characteristics. First, nonmarket production--like the Phantom Edit, produced by a fan for the fun of it--can play a much more important role than it could in the physical economy. Second, radically decentralized production and distribution, whether market-based or not, can similarly play a much more important role. Again, the Phantom Edit is an example of such decentralized production--produced by one person rather than by a corporation with a chain of command and an inventory of property and contract rights to retain labor, capital, finance, and distribution outlets. …