Alan N. Shapiro, Visiting Professor in Transdisciplinary Design, Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen, Germany

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Towards the Internet of Creators, by Alan N. Shapiro

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The Missing Layer of Creation

The Berlin-based art-media-technology startup company Ascribe GmbH1 brings to our attention the fact that the Internet that we have is missing a crucial ownership layer for creators. We don’t yet have an Internet where the creator of a photograph, a video, a piece of music, a segment of software code, a digital artwork, a journalistic piece, or a writerly composition is identified by a special authentication signature or a certificate of ownership. This attribution header should be built into the networked relationship between the uploaded file where the artefact of creation is stored in binary format and the decentralized-centralized ownership registry.

Corresponding to the Internet that we don’t yet have which protects the proprietary rights of originality and innovation is an economy of social capital where creators are justly rewarded both symbolically with recognition and with money. The idea of social capital involves simultaneously a reform of and an embracing of capitalism. We could start a social movement around the building of this progressive economy where the self-interest of creator ownership is balanced with the growth of community and the expansion of practices of collaboration. We could develop the culture and technology to make a real synthesis of respect for intellectual copyright and the highly significant values of open source and productive processes of sharing.

What Is Ascribe?

Ascribe GmbH is a company which does one thing really well: digital ownership. It will interact with the existing social media platforms. Ascribe’s robust software code connects with the block chain technology, a systems service related to the peer-to-peer online payment system bitcoin. The block chain records bitcoin transactions. The block chain is a distributed database operating through a network of communicating nodes running bitcoin software.

The Vision of Balancing Ownership and Community

I join forces with the art-media-technology startup company Ascribe GmbH, and I endorse their concept of developing a needed ownership layer in the Internet. This ownership layer technology will provide support to the vision of a social movement that is both cultural and technological, and which strives to construct an Internet of creators. The Ascribe digital artwork ownership registry database will help to promote creativity, the bottom-up empowerment of individuals and small enterprises, peer-to-peer communication skills and competencies, and collaboration with ‘strangers’ on projects. If people like something, they will want to collaborate on its further development. The Ascribe platform has software technology that is a version control system of artwork ownership, with ‘check in’, ‘check out’ and history features. The platform incites a balance between individual gain and community, between the goal of achieving economic sustainability through one’s own creative work and the empathetic, anti-big corporation, and democratic values of the open-source set of beliefs.

 Ascribe in its Own Words

To quote from Ascribe: “[We have the technology to provide] transparent, indisputable digital authentication.“2 “We believe that creators have a right to protect their intellectual property… We have built a secure, transparent ownership registry for digital property that tracks the chain of ownership of a digital file. This registry is decentralized and accessible while preserving privacy.“3 Creators will be able to claim undisputed ownership of their work using cryptographic Certificates of Authenticity. “Marketplaces can source legitimate work, with a clear chain of ownership history. Buyers can own authenticated digital content.”4 Reward those who create. Encourage the arts. “Attribution is the key to rewarding creators. If you know who created an authentic piece of art, there is no doubt that people will find a path to reward the artist.”5

From the Dichotomy of “Free or Expensive” to Fair

I feel like everything that I can obtain from the Internet is either free or expensive. Either it is available to me via a sort of universally encouraged piracy, or I go to a sleek, streamlined website run by a corporation and pay a high price for what I consume. I want to reward creators fairly for their work and creativity, but it is often difficult even to track down who the creator or owner of a specific photographic image or digital artwork is. Ascribe’s technology would make the specific information about ownership of each individual digital artwork universally visible. It would become routinely accepted by and in the world that one immediately and clearly sees this. Ascribe’s technology would exist in the context of ‘background’ and flexible payment systems and structures where creators and owners get properly compensated. I would gladly pay a small amount of money (or cyber currency) that is somewhere in between the current alternatives of paying nothing (for something that I am not really sure that I have the right to use) and paying a lot to a corporation. The corporation is likely to be exploiting its creative contributors (due to the general nature of corporate capitalism, and due to what is so far the lack of direct ‘social capital’ contact between creators and users/consumers).

Power to the Creators

With an ownership layer, we would progress from the Internet of big corporations towards systems and models which restore power to the creators. A transformation of the technological architecture would quickly translate into a change in the social architecture, in the architecture of power relations. The political economy would shift towards business models that support creators.

Use Case: Photographer

Scenario: I am an art photographer (or landscape or portrait or some other kind of photographer) and I upload my images to websites on the Internet. Under current conditions, either I leave my images unprotected or I use a proprietary ownership protection signature technology that is not universal. I do not know what the enforceability of this protection technology is going to be. Perhaps I work together with a specific law firm. People who use my images without proper authorization may end up getting surprised by the warnings they receive from the law firm and may regard this action in a negative light as a sort of extortion. There are websites which may make it appear that their images are freely available in the public domain even though they are not. Different countries around the world have different laws. No one can change the reality that we live a world of many countries, but a universally established and recognized attribution technology could significantly improve the situation. With a universal standard in place, as orchestrated by the familiar and widely accepted Ascribe technology, I the photographer will feel safe. I can make a living and practice my chosen profession. I can devise various and supple payment schemes. For example, I make a special limited edition of a digital image or photograph. There are a certain number of authorized copies. These copies have a special aura. They are especially valuable. Unauthorized copies might be allowed. But they would be less valuable. In another hypothetical scheme, those using an unauthorized copy would have to pay a fine.

 Use Case: 3D Printers and FabLabs

Bruce Pon of Ascribe GmbH writes: “Digital is funny. It takes a huge amount of effort to create a digital work but milliseconds to copy, distribute and store a perfect clone. Digital destroys the notion in the physical world that one can own a unique piece of something.“6 This is why it is important to connect the project of Ascribe to 3D printers and, for example, to the project of FabLabs around the world. Scenario: It is great to make something online, but it is increasingly urgent to make something in the physical world, and to connect these two activities to each other. 3D printing is defined as any of various hardware processes employed to make three-dimensional objects in the physical material world. Software controls the industrial robotic device that is the 3D printer. FabLabs are a fast-growing booming social and technological phenomenon of workshops for digital fabrication of one’s own smart devices. FabLabs (and MakerLabs) are contextually related to open source software projects, to the movement of ‘creative coding’ for artists and designers, to ‘open hardware’ micro-computers like Raspberry Pi and Arduino, to 3D printers, and to intellectual debates about new aesthetics and new object-oriented ontologies. FabLabs are a potential economic alternative to mass production and to many of the conventional assumptions about economies of scale. FabLabs are the beginning of new ideas and practices for small-scale sustainable economies. They can focus as well on good and fast prototyping for student and professional product, interaction and relational design. FabLabs have significance for education and invention. The first FabLab was started by Neil Gershenfeld at MIT in 2002.

The Balance Between Ownership and Open Source

I believe in seeking to establish compromise structures between copyright ownership and open source. This project has both economic and technological aspects. The open-source and freeware concepts elaborated in the IT industry are very well-intentioned, but they are partly obsolete. According to Wikipedia, open source software is supposed to be produced ‘altruistically’, with users granted the right to the program’s methodology. But egoism and altruism are outdated categories of classical economic theory. Freeware is supposed to be available at no cost, but usually with restricted usage rights. We need a hybrid concept of open source and protected source, a hybrid of having a sense of community and of being financially remunerated for one’s achievements.

 The Democratic Public Sphere

We live in a capitalist society where almost everything that is produced is privately owned by the individual or corporate entity who or which produced it. Yet this capitalist dimension is but an instance of our socio-cultural existence that is offset by the democratic dimension of the so-called public sphere. Surely the producers of cultural artefacts have the right to reap the monetary benefits from what they have produced. Yet these cultural artefacts become part of a democratic culture that is dedicated to the growth and development of the personalities of individuals. Open access and open source are real social movements in our society, an expansion of democratic rights.

The Open Society

I think that the concept of ‘open’ is a very promising beginning towards developing a useful and legitimate successor concept to ‘public’. So long as we do not understand ‘open’ in the simplistic sense of ‘giving everything away for free’ (freeware), and rather understand it in the sense elaborated by the liberal political philosopher Karl Popper in his 1945 book The Open Society and Its Enemies. Popper conceptualized the open society as being a short-lived transitional phase between the organic, tribal or closed society and the abstract, depersonalised bureaucratic society where much is decided by rules, regulations and automatic processes, and where there is a lack of face-to-face transactions or engagements among individuals. The open society is characterized by a critical attitude towards tradition, and by a collective awareness that individuals need to make moral and life decisions. The open society is anti-authoritarian. As the English-language Wikipedia article on Karl Popper elaborates, the government of the open society is held to be responsive and tolerant, its structural political mechanisms transparent and flexible. As heroic software developer and open source software advocates Richard Stallman and Eric Raymond say, open source means “free as in speech, versus free as in beer.”

A Twin to Creative Commons Licenses

According to the English-language Wikipedia article on the Creative Commons license, “A Creative Commons (CC) license is one of several public copyright licenses that enable the free distribution of an otherwise copyrighted work. A CC license is used when an author wants to give people the right to share, use, and build upon a work that they have created.”7 A Creative Commons license describes where and how things can be free. Consistent with the vision and potentials of the software technology of Ascribe GmbH, there could be a ‘twin’ to Creative Commons licenses which would focus on where and how creators get compensated for their work and creativity.

The Loosening of Money

            The virtual world platform ‘Second Life’, which was very popular a few years ago, and now is less so, implemented the concept of ‘Linden dollars’ as the local currency within the Second Life animated virtual reality world. This currency was (and is) not entirely fictional, as a certain amount of Linden dollars can be exchanged for a ‘real world’ currency like U.S. dollars or Euros. An exchange rate market is established. Cyber currencies like Linden dollars or bitcoin need, in my view, to be somewhat fictional, yet not entirely fictional. A major area of problems for bitcoin at the present moment is the challenge of establishing legitimate and reliable exchange rates with real-world currencies. I believe that ideas about fiction taken from literature studies could help to untangle the knots of this problem domain!

The Loosening of Ownership

            It is also valuable to begin an intellectual discussion about ‘the loosening of ownership’ and a certain loosening of the concept of private property. This is a paradoxical program, since Ascribe GmbH and I both firmly believes in copyright protection of intellectual property and in the right to ownership of creative works. This apparent paradox needs to be explored and clarified. As collaboration on creative works is more and more made possible by the technologies of creator-friendly social media websites with which Ascribe will cooperate or connect, there can and should be a certain loosening up of the ultimate and exclusive rights to a cultural artefact as ‘my property’. This possible modification relates to the area of discussion of the democratic cultural sphere and to open source. TV shows, films, websites, computer games, music, shopping malls, and amusement theme parks (for example) could have aspects of open access and open source integrated into them, exposing their design to the public. I the consumer would not be the owner of that TV or web TV show, computer game, or musical creation, but I would be allowed access to its design. The power of legal entities to intimidate me from creatively further developing the product or cultural artefact would be somewhat loosened up or limited. The pragmatic implementation of the open access concepts in genres and media of popular culture would unfold in the area of special licenses.

 The Internet of Advertisements

         As Ascribe GmbH CEO Bruce Pon points out, what we have now is an Internet of Advertisements. We have a plethora of “business models that mine your personal data to serve up ads.” 8 In the classical good old days of ‘the society of the spectacle’ (a term coined by Guy Debord of the Situationist International), big corporations bombarded us more or less indiscriminately through television commercials and billboards with their seductive messages to buy their products. Over time and in a transitional phase, marketing research and other postmodernist techniques of conscious and psychoanalytic control over the mind refined the targeting of the semiotic and subliminal messages both in their intensity and in the selection of to whom they were addressed. Now we have the Internet of surveillance; of self-surveillance, mutual surveillance, and the simulation of surveillance; of Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame, of exhibitionism, of the actress‘s walk-on part in the generalized system of micro-cosmic celebrity; of the collecting by the big corporations of total information about you; of the data mining of your real-time moment-to-moment looking, clicking and buying habits; and of the customized personalized advertisement with a target audience of one.

Your Future Has Already Happened

We are living in the realized dystopia of Steven Spielberg’s and Tom Cruise‘s 2002 science fiction film Minority Report – based on the same-named short story by seminal SF writer Philip K Dick. Take a look at that cornea-scanning personalized hologrammatic ad poster, and at that flying insect-sized ad that follows you around wherever you go, and, by the way, whether you like it or not, you are guilty of crimes which you have not yet even committed in that dimension which we know as forwards-running chronological tick-tock time, and ultimately your future and everything that you will do is pre-programmed and has, in effect, already taken place because the universal database knows everything about you and it knows what you are statistically likely to do.

 Please Dream for Me

And we are living in the realized dystopia of Paul Verhoeven’s and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1990 science fiction film Total Recall – based on the Philip K. Dick short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.“ You can’t remember anything for sure, or know which memories are your own, or tell the difference between reality and hallucination, because the big media database has taken over all these memory functions from you, and is carrying them out for you. You have been relieved by the network of machines of the burden of thinking, experiencing, interacting and dreaming. And if you end up lobotomized, you can still get a full refund.

 The Internet of Things

Beyond the horizon of the existing Internet of Advertisements is coming ubiquitous computing or the Internet of Things. Every little thing will have its own system-wide unique identifier in an IP address-like system. These objects will communicate with each other and with the existing Internet of Advertisements. They are engineered to be interface-addressable, and thereby available to be made use of by external processes of control and identification, but also promisingly by procedures promoting greater accountability, and increased autonomy for both objects and the human subjects who interface with them. I think that the Internet of Things is potentially a tremendously positive development for society and for the world. What can be called ‘coded objects’ are physical everyday life objects which rely on software for their functionality (Rob Kitchin and Martin Dodge, Code/Space: Software and Everyday Life, The MIT Press, 2011). The product design of these ‘coded objects’ can be achieved through a performance which only software code can make possible. In some cases, computing power will be embedded into the objects themselves. But many objects will be machine-readable objects that lack their own software but rather interact with external code, to which they gain access via their connectability to distributed information. Some objects will attain to awareness of themselves and of the surrounding world, saving their thoughts, experiences, interactions and dreams on recordable storage media for future use by information systems. The Internet of Things is a huge trend and is very beneficial for the world. It is good to participate in this advancement and to help influence it to be a liberating and emancipatory movement for humans and objects, for living subjects and for things.


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