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Howard Rheingold - Innovation and the Commons
San Francisco, April 2007 
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The opportunity to produce culture, rather than just consume it, is the result of increased access to powerful computers combines with their networking in a decentralized architecture. Rheingold points out that the potential of technologies has often been realized through their reception by users rather than the manufacturers themselves. Those at the top of the media industry have a basic interest in resisting these changes. Their survival should not be what concerns us, but rather the health of culture, and the potential decentralized collaboration offers for the solution of longstanding problems.

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00:00:00 Interview with Howard Rheingold
00:00:05 I think it's important to understand that the radical democratisation
00:00:09 of innovation was built into the architecture of the internet.
00:00:13 The people who created the fundamental structure f the internet realised
00:00:18 that they didn't know how people were going to be using this in the future.
00:00:21 So rather than centralising control, as it was in the telephone network,
00:00:26 in some kind of big central office, some kind of technology that
00:00:32 controlled how the entire internet would work, then control was decentralised.
00:00:37 That is anyone who's got a personal computer and plugs it into the internet, as long as their
00:00:42 communication with all the other computers and plays by the rules of the internet,
00:00:47 than they can decide they're going to turn the internet into the the world wide web as Tim Burners Lee did.
00:00:51 And they don't have to get anyone's permission, they don't have to rewire anything, they simply
00:00:56 persuade enough people to do it. If you want to invent Google in your dormitory room
00:01:02 or you want to start open source software by communicating with a number of friends
00:01:08 you can do that because the architecture of the internet enables that.
00:01:13 If you wanted to change the way the television broadcast network works, good luck,
00:01:19 you're going to have to get the majority of the shareholders to agree with you
00:01:24 or you're going to have to replace some very expensive equipment.
00:01:29 The inventors of the telephone thought it would be a great way to broadcast concerts
00:01:34 and resisted the social use of the telephone. The use of the mobile phone for
00:01:41 sending text messages was invented by teenage girls, not by telephone companies.
00:01:48 The internet was not created by the telephone industry,
00:01:53 the personal computer was not created by the computer industry.
00:01:58 People who see what's possible using existing technologies to create new technologies,
00:02:04 who want something, who desire something, who have a vision
00:02:08 quite often very young people, quite often people who are not wealthy before they do this,
00:02:14 have invented much of the digital world. I think there's a lot of hope
00:02:19 that we have 3 billion telephones in the world today. People who were not in on
00:02:25 the internet revolution or the PC revolution now have the means of production
00:02:31 and the means of distribution, not only of culture, but of innovation in their hands.
00:02:36 We have some very significant problems to solve in the world if we're going to
00:02:40 get through the 21th century. I think mobilizing and educating the minds of
00:02:46 the largest number of people we can, is our only real route to finding some kind of solution.
00:02:57 And I think to the degree that digital technologies afford mass education and afford people
00:03:00 who weren't in on innovation before to come up with a new idea that might work tomorrow;
00:03:05 A new medicine, a new means of research, a new kinds of energy usage, is really our hope
00:03:13 and that restricting innovation to the incumbents, to the existing companies,
00:03:19 to the official holders of licenses for technologies that exist today, is going to restrict our ability
00:03:27 to innovate our way out of some of the very serious problems we have.
00:03:34 Property is really a a bad word to use to describe things of the intellect
00:03:40 because property has to do with exclusion. You can make something property if you can
00:03:45 build a fence for it, you can enclose something if you can build a wall around it.
00:03:51 Generally there is a physical means of exclusion and there's a law that goes along with it.
00:03:57 In England there were the parliamentary enclosure acts and there were
00:04:01 the literal enclosures with hedgerows and stone fences of land.
00:04:10 In the american west the range land was free and all could graze it
00:04:17 because it was too expensive to fence it. Barbed-wire changed that and you could
00:04:21 turn it into property. Now we're seeing that digital means of restricting who can use
00:04:30 intellectual property, including scientific information,
00:04:33 is enabling enclosure of what used to be free, as in scientific knowledge, medical knowledge.
00:04:40 And at the same time what used to be property - music, cinema -
00:04:47 now becomes very, very easy to transmit across barriers.
00:04:56 Certainly people who create cultural production should be able to make a living
00:05:02 and people who are creating new medicines or who are creating new works of art,
00:05:09 should be able to build on the work of others.
00:05:12 Property gets in the way of finding a solution - property is looking backwards
00:05:19 towards a physical world in which physical barriers enabled people
00:05:24 to exclude others and to control distribution.
00:05:29 We need other means of controlling distribution and of rewarding people who create innovations.
00:05:36 If you're talking about the distribution of cultural material of music and cinema,
00:05:42 well, there's a long history of whatever the incumbent industry happens to be
00:05:49 resisting whatever new technology provides, so the video recorder was very strongly resisted
00:05:59 by Hollywood and it happened that the electronics industry prevailed and it turned out that
00:06:07 Hollywood is still there, and in fact the incumbent entertainment industries make great deal
00:06:13 of their money from the sale of recordings. I'm not the first one to document this -
00:06:21 there's a long history of resistance in the music industry to any kind of innovation.
00:06:27 The sheet music people resisted the recordings, there's a natural tendency for an incumbent
00:06:38 industry to resist changes in technologies that are going the threaten their business model.
00:06:45 I don't think anyone other than the shareholders of those companies particularly care
00:06:55 about how those industries survive - do we really care about buggy whip, manufacturers or
00:07:02 whale-bone corsets anymore? Innovations have come along that have made those
00:07:08 things irrelevant. What we really care about is a broad and rich and robust distribution
00:07:18 of culture and some kind of incentive for its creation.
00:07:22 Now I can envision a world in which
00:07:25 you have a peer-to-peer distribution of cinema and of music, and in which
00:07:32 there's a lot of piracy and in which people do pay creators - maybe not everyone pays.
00:07:40 That might be a world in which you don't have mega stars making billions of dollars
00:07:45 but maybe you'll have hundreds of thousands of garage bands who are able to
00:07:51 make a living from their 4000 fans each, and quit their day jobs.
00:07:59 Is that a richer world in which we have more people making music?
00:08:05 Maybe they're not making as much money,
00:08:07 maybe we've eliminated these mega distribution companies in between
00:08:12 the creators of music and the fans.
00:08:15 Will big blockbuster mega budget movies go away?
00:08:25 I don't think so, but what we are seeing is an emergence of a vernacular -
00:08:31 of all sorts of people making four minute movies for the internet, or for the mobile phone.
00:08:38 And I think, you know just as we saw with the printing press, it was not just
00:08:42 church scholars writing in latin, we began to have a vernacular literature that we're seeing
00:08:50 the emergence of a vernacular literature in other forms as well.
00:08:54 I think the questions we have to ask are not about the health of existing industries
00:09:01 but the health of culture.