Category Archives: commons

a change in social spaces

Last week I went to an exhibit on Robert Moses, the legendary New York city planner, at the Museum of the City of New York. All the while making sure we drove through as much of the city that he helped develop as possible.
While Moses was a complicated man, and views on him vary a great deal, one thing that fascinated me about him was his use of social spaces. Here is a excerpt from a recent New York Times piece:

Perhaps the most powerful architectural expressions of that mission were the 23 public swimming pools with bathhouses Moses built in a five-year period beginning in the mid-1930s. A graceful colonnaded arcade shelters the shops and restaurants at Orchard Beach; the vivid geometric forms and intricate tile and brick work of the McCarren Park Pool in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, celebrate the therapeutic value of communal exercise. For Moses, those projects were part of a broader strategy to reinforce middle-class neighborhoods and deter residents from fleeing to the suburbs.

Moses believed large landmark projects provided an anchor for communities to build around, like the McCarren Park Pool, in our very own Brooklyn, which at it’s peak held 6800 swimmers and served as a social hub.
But such projects could not work today. No one has the type of power Moses had during his reign, and communities are often now built with a Jane Jabobs-like philosophy in mind; that is, emphasis, on restoration, not on construction. But now technology is again changing the idea of a city, and the role of social spaces.
BusinessWeek recently ran a piece that looked at the transformation of the coffee shop into the modern age social office. Technology, especially wireless, is changing how people meet and work together. I wrote a post titled “Reading Buildings,” a few months ago, where I wondered what libraries would be like if accessing of information became even less centralized:

What I find bizarre about all this is that when you walk into a Barnes & Noble all the seats are taken, so it seems that “reading buildings” of some sort have some demand. Maybe it’s the social setting or maybe it’s the Starbucks. Actually, that could be the future of the library: a big empty building that people bring their electronic books to so that they can read and drink their coffee in a social setting… quietly.

While technology poses the potential problem of atomization, it does pose an interesting problem for organizers and builders of social spaces: what sort of emphasis should there be on technology? Does bringing in technology, especially wireless, defeat the purpose of common social spaces? Or is that the new goal? Many websites now encourage meeting offline, but what are they to do once they meet?

wealth of networks

won_image.jpg I was lucky enough to have a chance to be at The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom book launch at Eyebeam in NYC last week. After a short introduction by Jonah Peretti, Yochai Benkler got up and gave us his presentation. The talk was really interesting, covering the basic ideas in his book and delivered with the energy and clarity of a true believer. We are, he says, in a transitional period, during which we have the opportunity to shape our information culture and policies, and thereby the future of our society. From the introduction:

This book is offered, then, as a challenge to contemporary legal democracies. We are in the midst of a technological, economic and organizational transformation that allows us to renegotiate the terms of freedom, justice, and productivity in the information society. How we shall live in this new environment will in some significant measure depend on policy choices that we make over the next decade or so. To be able to understand these choices, to be able to make them well, we must recognize that they are part of what is fundamentally a social and political choice—a choice about how to be free, equal, productive human beings under a new set of technological and economic conditions.

During the talk Benkler claimed an optimism for the future, with full faith in the strength of individuals and loose networks to increasingly contribute to our culture and, in certain areas, replace the moneyed interests that exist now. This is the long-held promise of the Internet, open-source technology, and the infomation commons. But what I’m looking forward to, treated at length in his book, is the analysis of the struggle between the contemporary economic and political structure and the unstructured groups enabled by technology. In one corner there is the system of markets in which individuals, government, mass media, and corporations currently try to control various parts of our cultural galaxy. In the other corner there are individuals, non-profits, and social networks sharing with each other through non-market transactions, motivated by uniquely human emotions (community, self-gratification, etc.) rather than profit. Benkler’s claim is that current and future technologies enable richer non-market, public good oriented development of intellectual and cultural products. He also claims that this does not preclude the development of marketable products from these public ideas. In fact, he sees an economic incentive for corporations to support and contribute to the open-source/non-profit sphere. He points to IBM’s Global Services division: the largest part of IBM’s income is based off of consulting fees collected from services related to open-source software implementations. [I have not verified whether this is an accurate portrayal of IBM’s Global Services, but this article suggests that it is. Anecdotally, as a former IBM co-op, I can say that Benkler’s idea has been widely adopted within the organization.]
Further discussion of book will have to wait until I’ve read more of it. As an interesting addition, Benkler put up a wiki to accompany his book. Kathleen Fitzpatrick has just posted about this. She brings up a valid criticism of the wiki: why isn’t the text of the book included on the page? Yes, you can download the pdf, but the texts are in essentially the same environment—yet they are not together. This is one of the things we were trying to overcome with the Gamer Theory design. This separation highlights a larger issue, and one that we are preoccupied with at the institute: how can we shape technology to allow us handle text collaboratively and socially, yet still maintain an author’s unique voice?

phone photo of london underground nominated for time best photo; photo agency claims credit for creative commons work

Moblog co-founder Alfie Dennen is furious that the photo agency Gamma has claimed credit for a well-known photo of last summer’s London subway bombing –first circulated on Moblog under a Creative Commons liscence — that was chosen for Time’s annual Best Photo contest. Dennen and others in the blogosphere are hoping that photographer Adam Stacey might take legal action against Gamma for what seems to be a breach of copyright.
We at the Institute are still trying to figure out what to make of this. Like everyone else who has been observing the increasing popularity of the Creative Commons license, we’ve been wondering when and how the license will be tested in court. However, this might not be the best possible test case. On one hand, it seems to be a somewhat imperious “claiming” of a photo widely celebrated for being produced by a citizen journalist who was committed to its free circulation. One the other hand, it seems unclear whether Dennen and/or Stacey are correct in their assertion that the CC license that was used really prohibits Gamma from attaching their name to the photo.
The photo in question, a shot of gasping passengers evacuating the London Underground in the moments after last summer’s bombing (in the image above, it’s the second photo clockwise), was snapped by Stacey using the camera on his cellphone. Time’s nomination of the photo most likely reflects the fact that the photo itself — and Stacey — became something of a media phenomenon in the weeks following the bombing. The image was posted on Moblog about 15 minutes after the bombing, and then widely circulated in both print and online media venues. Stacey subsequently appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered, and the photo was heralded as a signpost that citizen journalism had come into its own.
While writing about the photo’s appearance in Time, Dennen noticed that Time had credited the photo to Adam Stacey/Gamma instead of Adam Stacey/Creative Commons. According to Dennen, Stacey had been contacted by Gamma and had turned down their offer to distribute the photo, so the attribution came as an unpleasant shock. He claims that the license chosen by Stacey clearly indicates that the photo be given Creative Commons attribution. But is this really clear? The photo is attributed to Stacey, but not to Creative Commons: does this create a grey area? The license does allow commercial use of Stacey’s photo, so if Gamma was making a profit off the image, that would be legal as well.
Dennen writes on his weblog that he contacted Gamma for an explanation, arguing that after Stacey told the agency that he wanted to distribute the photo through Creative Commons, they should have understood that they could use it, but not claim it as their own. Gamma responded in an email that, “[we] had access to this pix on the web as well as anyone, therefore we downloaded it and released it under Gamma credit as all agencies did or could have done since there was no special requirement regarding the credit.” They also claimed that in their conversation with Stacey, Creative Commons never came up, and that a “more complete answer” to the reason for the attribution would be available after January 3rd, when the agent who spoke with Stacey returned from Christmas vacation.
Until then, it’s difficult to say whether Gamma’s claim of credit for the photo is accidental or deliberate disregard. Dennen also says that he’s contacting Time to urge them to issue a correction, but he hasn’t gotten a response yet. I’ll follow this story as it develops.