I’m going to be speaking and then travelling today, so I will probably not get a chance to go online. However, Marcus Stanley has contributed some very useful “content” to my blog in the form of a critical comment about Harry Boyte. In my hotel room last night, I replied with a defense of Boyte. The same “comments” page also contains Nick Beaudrot’s remarks on Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?.
I’m on my way to Madison, Wisconsin, to talk to social studies teachers. Meanwhile, CIRCLE will be releasing a really interesting poll of college students. Visit the CIRCLE homepage around noon to see all the details. Among other things …
This is a topic that I would write about if I suddenly had three free months and could actually study the facts of the matter. Lacking those months (but having a blog), I hereby offer my untotored thoughts …
For centuries, companies and entrepreneurs have negotiated voluntary standards that spread throughout industries, so that (for example), you can buy a lightbulb and know that it will fit into your lamp back home: the sizes and shapes are standardized. Traditionally, the precise choice of a standard has been arbitrary–it doesn’t matter how many milimeters wide lightbulbs are, as long as they’re the same. To the extent that traditional standards raise issues of public concern, the main ones are safety (a really dumb standard can be dangerous) and antitrust (incumbent industries can deliberately create standards that are unnecessarily hard for competitors to replicate).
In the new world of networked computers, antitrust remains a concern, but there are many additional issues of great importance. Since standards are what allow computers to communicate and software to run on multiple “platforms,” they must be very detailed. It is in the standards process that the key design choices are made that shape email, webpages, document formats, and digital movies. Just for example, I once heard Tim Berners-Lee speak in Washington, and he said that he wished he had written the standards for the World Wide Web so that no information could be transmitted from visitors to owners of websites. That choice would have prevented privacy violations, but it also would have blocked many useful functions, including virtually all e-commerce. So I suspect we’re better off with the standards that Berners-Lee actually created. In any case, his choice to allow two-way communications had enormous consequences.
Market libertarians may view any standards as acceptable, since they result from voluntary negotiations. But even free-marketers should worry when monopoly companies dominate the standards process. Civil libertarians should want standards to protect constitutional values like privacy and free expression. Following Lawrence Lessig, they should view computer “code” as parallel to legal “code”; either one can abridge freedoms. Communitarians may see standards as opportunities to protect community interests, for example, by preventing viruses and terrorists’ messages from being encoded in picture files. Strong democrats may distrust a powerful process that isn’t overseen by elected governments. Advocates of the commons may view voluntary standards (which are “contributed” by hard-working code-writers) as a form of common property, except when standards are designed to protect narrow economic interests. And all observers should be interested that today’s standards often pay explicit attention to two issues–disabilities and privacy–but not to any other normative questions.
(No blogging today–too much turkey to eat and too many little tots to play with.)
Since 2002, some colleagues and I have been working slowly to create an “information commons” for Prince George’s County, MD. A real information commons would be a voluntary association devoted to creating public goods and putting them online. These goods might include maps, oral histories, historical archives, news articles, discussion forums, research reports, calendars, and directories. If community groups preferred to maintain separate websites, they could link to features on the commons site and thus “distribute” the commons across the web. The association would also lobby locally on issues like the “digital divide” and broadband access; and would provide training and support. Information commons in various communities would form networks and share software.
We decided not to start by creating an association, because we were afraid that community people wouldn’t see the need for such a body or the advantages of joining. Instead, we hoped to create enough exciting and useful content on one site that it would draw traffic and interest. We would then ask participants if they wanted to “own” the site formally by creating a non-profit governing board.
Progress has been slow for two main reasons.
First, we have chosen to work with high school students, and for the most part ones who are not currently on the college track. This has been extremely rewarding work, but it’s also a relatively slow way to generate exciting content. For instance, students spent a whole summer gathering excellent audio recordings that documented immigration into the County, but we haven’t figured out how to use that material online. It sits on a CD. Likewise, the kids took a very long time collecting information for “asset maps,” and the result was a relatively small set of incomplete (and now dated) maps.
Despite the slowness of this approach, I intend to continue to invest the majority of my discretionary time in the high school, because I find it extremely satisfying to work directly with kids.
The second obstacle is financial. We have had great difficulty raising money for the core concept of an “information commons.” Instead, we have raised funds from foundations with specific interests in, for example, history or geography. As a result, we haven’t had money or time to develop the commons itself. Instead, we have lurched from one project to another.
Ideally, we would always be busy with three tasks: 1) teaching high school (or middle-school) students to create digital products for the website; 2) working with college classes, churches, and other adult groups to help them to create content; and 3) installing and managing interactive features for the website itself, such as an open blog, a “wiki,” or a map that visitors could annotate. These features would have to be carefully monitored or else they would be vulnerable to spammers and cyber-vandals.
To date, we have only had sufficient resources to do the first of these tasks, and that only on a small scale. Recently, I’ve been thinking hard about the second job: recruiting independent groups to produce their own content. Based on some recent conversations, I am optimistic that by the spring we will have three groups feeding content into the commons site: the high school class, a college class, and possibly a group of teachers.