EDIT 11/03/2016: Transformap is a platform for mapping out projects demonstrating alternatives to the dominant state-corporate institutions.

EDIT 27/01/2016: Great news! A consortium of web app development groups, including Enspiral and Loomio, have announced the formation of the Collaborative Technology Alliance.

Original post:

Over the past few months there have been many discussions in the Loomio Community about integrating Loomio with a whole range of other apps like CiviCRM, Diaspora, EtherPad, Slack, and more general discussions about allowing aspects of Loomio to be embedded within other apps. Each of these threads contains some discussion of the need for standardized protocols/APIs for each kind of data-sharing social web apps need. This is something I’ve written about before, in the context of the disturbing dominance of FarceBook and the GoogleBeast. As I said in the Slack discussion:

“I’m really pleased to see Slack and [free code alternative] MatterMost using the same API. I think the web app world gain a lot from a major push for open standardization, so for example one standard API for all apps in the style of Slack/ MatterMost/ RocketChat, one API for decision-making apps like Loomio etc, one API for microblogging feeds (Twitter, GNU Social, Pump.io etc). This way a project like Loomio could implement support for one API to support a whole class of other web apps.The web is massively extensible because HTML provides such a bridge between websites and browsers, regardless of vendor on either end.”

One of the projects mentioned in the Slack discussion who are working on common standards for inter-operability is ValueFlows, whose goal is to “… help a lot of alternative economic software projects that are solving different pieces of the same puzzle be able to work together”. A more general one I was already aware of is the Open Web Foundation, who have created some legal agreements, analogous to free code software licenses, for releasing all rights to standards/ protocols, thus making them guaranteed “open” (or “free” or “libre” or whatever ;) Not sure if they’re still active. They were set up a few years ago, with the stated intention of acting as an incubator for experimental standards, and thus reducing the churn of proposed standards going through other standards bodies like the W3C and the IETF.

I’ve seen a lot of these kind of projects come and go over the years, especially in bleeding edge fields. For example there have been about three Open Hardware Foundation type groups. I’ve been thinking for ages it would be good to have some sort of community stewardship wiki that tracks all these organisations, their goals and activities, and their relationship with each other, along with contact info. A sort of “Foundation of Foundations Foundation” (a Foundation that helps people build strong foundations for their Foundations). I suspect that if it was well used, such a wiki would help people find and focus their energy in the existing organisation or working group that’s most compatible with what they’re trying to do, and reduce the proliferation of standards, protocols, and even organisations. It could also help people working in stewardship organisations learn from each other successes and mistakes, figure out what kind of invisible structures (social, legal, financial) are best to suited to their purpose, and share things like constitutions, codes of conduct, and conflict-resolution policies as “open source” documents.

Filed January 26th, 2016 under open social networks, open source

I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while, but I finally got to it in response to a thread on the Trisquel forums. As Richard Stallman says on GNU.org, except for a handful of edge cases, every piece of “free software” is also “open source” software. The key question is, of course, “why are there two separate discourses advocating for what is, in practice, exactly the same outcome”?

The standard answer Stallman and others give, is that there are two distinct social movements, one about an ethical approach vs. one about a development style. In practice, this isn’t the case. Almost every major libre software development project cares about user freedom *and* collaborative development, whether they use the language of “free software”, “open source”, or some compromise (FOSS, FLOSS, libre, or my favourite, free code software etc). Again, with the exception of a few edge cases, user-abusing software systems (eg tivoization) are built by corporations who  raid the commons to reduce what they spend on development labour. They do this to GNU packages just as much as any package developed by “open source” development organisations. There are very few widely used packages developed by “free software” advocates behind closed doors with no acceptance of submitted patches, and since they are still under OSI-approved licenses, I don’t know of anyone who wouldn’t accept them as “open source”.

So, why are there really two competing discourses within the wider libre software movement? To understand this, a class analysis is needed.

Stallman and the original free software hackers had a similar class role and outlook as organic farmers, that of the cottage industry, where everyone is both a producer and a consumer. Because they were also the users of the software they wrote, just as organics farmers eat food from their own farm, it was natural for them to prioritize the wellbeing of users. Because they relied for their economic survival on selling their labour to an employer, outside of their free software hacking activities, they were effectively working class, and saw the world in terms of what was good for the majority (ie workers not capitalists).

The group who founded the open source movement on the other hand, were small business-people, aspiring to make a comfotable living from libre software, or in O’Reilly’s case selling libre software manuals under ARR (All-Rights-Reserved) copyright. To achieve their goals while libre software was a tiny fringe movement, they needed to convince business customers and financiers that libre software was viable. To figure out how to do so, they had to adopt the class outlook of the business establishment, whose priorities are what is good for sales and profit, regardless of the long-term interests of the majority of people in their roles as workers and customers (or their environment). The technical term for this class outlook is petit-bourgeois.

This then, is the reason why the “open source” discourse seems more subject to corporate hijacking and reducing the issues of software freedom to questions of development methodology. Because the very purpose of coining the term was to give the impression that libre software is compatible with a capitalist system which, by its very nature, is about centralizing control over behaviour (or “workplace discipline” and “public order”), and monopolizing resources (or “accumulating capital”). The truth is that the nature of libre software, and to a lesser extend the internet is general, is to decentralize control and resources, allowing opportunities for self-managed work and free (as in beer) tools to be plentiful at the periphery. So, libre software may be compatible with modified forms of business, markets, and investment (social enterprise, crowdfunding etc), the kind advocated by the left-libertarian authors of ‘Markets Not Capitalism‘, but it’s perhaps more compatible with not-for-profit stewardship, and moneyless peer-to-peer distribution. A fact that corporations, despite finding free code useful, probably find very unsettling, which may be why they are now trying to hijack the larger digital commons movement with the discourse of “collaborative consumption” in a “sharing economy”.

Filed January 21st, 2016 under Uncategorized

A few years ago, I got interested in some projects that were working on creating the software framework for distributed search engines, where many computers could share the task of indexing the web, and returning search results to users, instead of search being dominated by a handful of corporations with giant data centres. I wrote one blog post introducing the topic in 2009, and a year later, a follow-up on the fate of the Wikia Search project. Intending to follow-up further, I started a wiki page on the topic, but it never got past being a stub.

I’ve been thinking for a while that the general research I’ve been accumulating on the Disintermedia wiki, particularly lists and projects and information about them, would be of use to more people if I put it on the wiki of the P2P Foundation. So today I found the P2P Foundation page on distributed search engines, and did my best to integrate what I’d recorded in my blog entries and wiki page into what was already there, as well as adding a little bit of analysis.

I’ve now removed the ‘SharedWebGuide‘ link from the main Disintermedia index page, but I’m considering replacing it with a link in a new section of pages I’m following and contributing to on P2P Foundation. Eventually, all the genuine research on the Dis wiki could end up there, and my political rants etc could have their own section. Watch this space.

Filed January 20th, 2016 under Uncategorized

Three months ago, I watched the inspiring documentary ‘Capital C‘, which followed a handful of projects, large and small, through their crowdfunding journey, and shared it with CommonsTransition’s open discussion group on Loomio.org. One of the responses I got was from Bob Haugen, who said:

>> My problem with both crowdfunding and grant-seeking is that they become arenas for competition between projects, when I think we need to be collaborating and connecting and creating something bigger together. <<

The first thing I want to say about this is that what I find exciting about crowdfunding is *not* that it offers an alternative to traditional ways of doing charitable fundraising like bucket collections (although it does), but that it offers an alternative to traditional ways of doing *investment*. This is a point a lot of people seem to miss, as you can see in the responses when I republished ‘Crowdsourcing vs. Outsourcing: Who Benefits?’ on theDailyBlog.

I agree with Bob about the problems with grant-seeking, although as I said when I replied to him on Loomio, I think this has a lot to do with the behind-closed-doors ways funding decisions are made. I really don’t agree that it’s a problem with crowdfunding though, for two reasons.

Firstly, the money available for giving out grants is a finite pool to be fought over, and it can be suddenly shrunk by government cost-cutting turning the whole exercise into a zero-sum game of musical chairs. With crowdfunding, how much money a project group can raise depends on how well they can communicate the importance or usefulness of their project, and how much they can inspire people to contribute. Obviously it helps, especially with high targets, if they can also inspire them to encourage the people in their social networks to do the same, and to pass on the call to their networks, and so on.

Secondly, crowdfunding promotes collaboration more than competition because of the very public, transparent way the process works. If someone launches a crowdfunding campaign to reinvent the wheel, someone will inevitably point out - maybe even as a comment on the campaign’s page - that the wheel already exists. Either the group convinces enough people their wheel would be suitably new and different and they get funded, or they don’t. If there are a number of groups crowdfunding for essentially the same thing, chances are only one will get funded, and the other groups can either pool their efforts with the group that got funded, or move on to a different project. If more than one gets funded, no doubt they will hear about each other, maybe even make contact, and make sure the way they develop their project has points of difference.

Whatever happens, because the groups have crowdfunded, there is a much greater chance they will get to know about each other, which opens up new possibilities for working together. This is especially so if the people who give to crowdfunding campaigns give priority to projects who release their work under libre licenses. So it’s important for people who support commons-based peer production to support crowdfunding platforms like Goteo, which only host campaigns for groups who intend to share the fruits of their project under libre licenses.

Filed January 18th, 2016 under Makers, documentary

I really want to see more professional quality, crowdfunded films and web series released online, especially in the sci-fi genre I love, and ideally under CreativeCommons or some other libre license. This has been achieved in some cases with video games, like the crowdfunded development of Wasteland 2, documented in the excellent documentary Capital C. But for fan-funded independent development to become a common way of creating sci-fi films and series, we need the work being made this way to deliver the goods, not just competent special effects, but an entertaining story about interesting characters going through challenging and exciting adventures.

Which brings me to the latest sci-fi short I’ve seen online. Exit Plan has an interesting premise, and the digital animation of the robots and environments is good enough to allow the audience to suspend disbelief and focus on the story and the characters. Sadly, like so many of the indie sci-fi shorts I’ve  seen online, capable camera work, editing, and visual effects, are let down by weak writing and acting. We get a premise told to us through narration, rather than shown to us through establishing shots and character interaction; no establishment of characters to get us invested in their success or failure; lengthy exposition delivered as dialogue, and a range of other classic screenplay sins. Each of the actors pull off some good moments in Exit Plan, so I’m inclined to blame the patchy acting on the poor dialogue they have to work with, and perhaps inexperienced directing. The fact remains that I’ve seen much more convincing performances, even in indie sci-fi.

This problem of poor writing and acting afflicts even some semi-professional, fan-funded efforts like Star Trek Renegades. Although being able to build on an established story universe and familiar characters, and starting with the promising scenario of a Macquis-style crew rather than the usual formula of following the adventures of a Federation ship, Renegades has such cringe-worthy dialogue and performances that I couldn’t bring myself to finish watching the pilot. I find all this rather ironic, since good writing and acting are not the expensive parts of making a sci-fi film, at least in theory.They are the part that a committed group of film-makers should be able to get right, even working on a shoe-string budget.

Give us an exciting and unpredictable story, characters we care about (whether we like them or despise them), believable dialogue, and convincing acting, and follow the film-making golden rule of “don’t tell us, show us”, and most sci-fi fans will forgive the most budget of special effects. If you can’t get those basics right, even a bazillion dollar special effects budget still can’t deliver a quality film experience, as both the Star Wars prequals and the Hobbit films demonstrated.

 


Filed January 14th, 2016 under Uncategorized

I just read in a report by TheDailyBlog that the New Zealand government intends to host the signing of the Low Wage Treaty (or “Free Trade Agreement” in Newspeak) on February 4 this year. What kind of civil disobedience could be effective against something as abstract as the TPP? What about:

  • a week-long boycott of all imported products/ all products sold by transnational corporations (bonus effect of sharing knowledge about where our products come from, who profits from them, and what the alternatives are)?
  • a mass public share-in where people give each other copies of movies, music, software etc whose copyright is owned by corporations, or alternatives to them (eg GNU/Linux as an alternative to Windows)?
  • teach-ins about natural health and healing practices which don’t require buying anything (in protest against drug patents and the way they hike up the price of health care)?
  • collaborative sprints to create freely shareable text books and other learning materials not held hostage by ARR (All Rights Reserved) copyright (in protest against the way ARR copyright learning materials hike up the cost of education and stop teachers freely building on each others work)?
  • other ideas?
Filed January 13th, 2016 under News

Update 20 Jan, 2016: PhoneBloks is another modular phone project. This introduction is from 2013.

Update 8 Jan, 2016: TechTimes published a story on modular handhelds in November last year, which confirms that the FairPhone 2 is designed to be more modular than a conventional handheld. It also briefly mentions Project ARA, and another crowdfunded project called the PuzzlePhone. Their campaign ended in December last year, unfortunately falling far short of their ambitious funding target, but hopefully they continue with the project regardless.

Original Post

I haven’t really been onboard with the mobile revolution (handheld devices like “smartphones” and tablets), and one of my main objections has been the wastefulness of building computers that seem designed to be thrown away and replaced every couple of years. Most mobiles are not designed to last and difficult to repair; its often cheaper to buy a new device than to get one fixed. The trend towards storing user files and even personalization data “in the cloud”, rather than local storage, further reduces the motivation to repair. Even when people take really good care of their handhelds, they often become unusable after a couple of years anyway, because software development for both iThings and Androids is targeted towards newer models that exist in larger numbers.

Enter Project ARA, an initiative of Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP), a research group originally created by Motorola, but now part of the GoogleBeast. The project has created a modular handheld, in which components like screen, cameras, speakers, and batteries can be easily swapped out. This allows the average user to both repair and upgrades their own device, in the same way that the modular PC, with its standardized slots and sockets, and the ubiquitous USB socket, empowered users to chain together a combination of hardware for their specific needs.

For this to work, ATAP must have created a set of standardized package sizes, sockets, and slots, which new components must fit in order to work with a Project ARA device. I’m hoping that following the example of previous Google projects like the WebM multimedia format and WebRTC (Real-Time Communications), these standardized interfaces will be released as open standards, rather than being encumbered with patents, and that Google don’t plan to act as gatekeepers of what hardware is allowed to work with Project ARA-compatible devices, as Apple do with software on their iThings.

This modular innovation also has the potential to address one of my other major concerns about handhelds, including both internet-capable “smartphones” and old school “feature phones”. If cameras can be removable, so can microphones, cellular modems, wi-fi chips, and GPS chips. A user could choose to plug them into the phone only when they want to use them, vastly reducing the handhelds capacity to be always-on surveillance and tracking devices.

Because of this, I’m hoping this modular approach gets adopted by another handheld project, FairPhone. Their main concerns are about social justice. This includes wanting to make handhelds that are more durable, and repairable, and it seems to me that the modular approach of Project ARA is an excellent fit for that goal. Their other goals includes making their hardware using raw materials that support peaceful local economies rather than military dictators and rogue paramilitaries, ensuring all workers involved in designing and manufacturing handhelds have fair wages and working conditions, and ensuring the hardware they make can be easily recycled when it does finally wear out.

FairPhone also say they want to support “open source”, in order to defend the “open platform” approach to software development we are used to on PC, rather than the iThing approach where one hardware manufacturer controls acts as gatekeeper of all software development on the platform. So far they are shipping with Android, but it would be good to see them work on making their devices compatible with a 100% free mobile OS like Replicant.

Adopting a modular approach to hardware would mean making the device itself an open platform. This might seem to reduce the control FairPhone have over whether all compatible hardware addresses their other social justice concerns, but they could take on the role of a certifying organisation, like those that exist for organic food and fair trade, and encourage users to buy only FairPhone certified handhelds and components.

BTW Happy summer solstice to all my southern hemisphere readers, and to all northern hemisphere readers, happy winter solstice and new year (our new year in the south, like yours, really ought to be celebrated around the winter solstice, not the middle of summer).

Filed January 5th, 2016 under open hardware
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