Law in the Internet Society
Building on our discussion in class today about how the rules about sharing affect the production of information, it seems to me that the focus on incentives is misplaced. I think an initial focus on incentives might be helpful for free culture advocates because of the emphasis the conventional narrative places on incentives. The conventional claim ranged against most efforts to increase sharing is that sharing reduces production because it reduces individual incentives. It's helpful to take apart that narrative by testing it against facts.

But it seems to me that the key variable is finance, not incentives. To take the example of a person writing a book, that person may be 100% motivated, and may need no financial enticement as an incentive. However, without an ability to finance research travel and living expenses during the long period of time it takes to write a good back, that book will not be produced. So, from a production perspective, the issue is finance, not motivation.

Conventionally, a book would be produced by a publishing company providing initial financing, in exchange for an ability of that company to make a profit by limiting access to the book to those who pay - to extract rents by limiting access. As Eben noted, that industry is changing, and some companies have shown an increased willingness to allow Creative Commons licensing.

Wikipedia and free software production tackle the finance problem in an different way. Many small donations of labor spread the cost. The right technology and social institutions enable the effective coordination of all these efforts into a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

I think the point I'm building towards is that even if we hold motivation constant, and assume highly motivated actors who need no monetary incentives, we still need to figure out financing mechanism that will work for the particular thing we are trying to produce.

For example, the Wikipedia could not be produced until the technology and social institutions existed to tap the motivation of many people and assemble it into a whole at low cost. So the threshold issue was finance.

The free software/wikipedia model of synthesizing collective efforts will work beautifully for many projects. But there are other projects which depend more specifically on the work of a single person over a long period, rather than the aggregation of many microworks. A musician or novelist or researcher doing such long-term, relatively individual-centric work could support herself by working part time, but we might as a society decide we want to have some of these functions performed full-time. If the current knowledge industry approach of limiting access to products to extract rents is abandoned, it will need to be replaced by a better financing mechanism. This might be a tax, or some type of subscription, or foundation grants, or something else entirely.

But as a starting point, I think it's important the purpose of clarity to distinguish incentives versus finance. I think the two are sometimes conflated in discussions about knowledge production and sharing rules - for example, finance is often treated as if it were an incentive (and it may be in some cases for some actors).

However, by distinguishing the two concepts, we can evaluate them each more clearly. The objection against sharing from incentives, I think, has little merit. However, the issue of finance is an important one, I think. There are some terrific sharing-friendly financing mechanisms, such as with Wikipedia and free software. But I think a lot of work remains in spreading access to and understanding of that type of collective effort model as well as developing sharing-friendly financing mechanisms for other more individual-centric kinds of projects.

-- DevinMcDougall - 09 Sep 2011

It could be that the problem is the confusion you're trying to clarify here, Devin, but it seems to me the difficulty might lie elsewhere. The collection of ideas I am putting forward depends in part on identifying an immense, globally transformative social value—the practical elimination of ignorance—the realization of which is presently, for the first time in the existence of humanity, impeded only by obsolete rules against sharing. The proposition offered in response is that the level of cultural and technological production depends on the strength of the rules against sharing, in a sufficiently direct way that reducing to near-zero the level of such rules would significantly (or even seriously) interfere with cultural and technological production.

The dispute, I think, is not over whether and when this decrease in production happens. If it were, then your point about confusion between incentives and finance (which might be more generally called "facilitation") would be relevant. We would potentially be trying to establish whether production declines because creators lose incentive to create, or because their financing or other facilitation for creation fails.

Actually we are inquiring, in my view, whether eliminating the rules against sharing has the effect of decreasing or increasing the level and quality of technological and cultural production and their associated rates of innovation. I will submit that there is no meaningful evidence whatever in favor of the idea of decrease, and that everything we have learned about hyper-connectivity and the production of digital goods and services teaches, on the contrary, that technological and cultural innovation—and also (not unimportantly) distributive justice—are produced orders of magnitude more favorably once—not if—the rules against sharing are destroyed.

In that somewhat simpler and more basic inquiry, getting to the facts is, as you say, the most important part of the process. Which is why I propose to have the conversation not as though it were about theory, which it isn't, but about what has happened in the world, some of which you mention and some of which it will take more thorough inquiry to unearth.

If it should turn out to be the case that the story "rules against sharing are necessary to cultural and technological production and innovation" is completely false, some inquiries in the sociology of knowledge and ethical theory would then be indicated: why is the false story widely believed; who promotes the idea actively, and how are they socially and morally situated with respect to knowledge of its falsity? Is trying to fasten ignorance, unnecessarily, on billions of people a crime against humanity?

It seems to me there is one basic question we are discussing from different angles, namely, what is the relationship of rules against sharing (RAS) to knowledge production (KP)?

I've presented some ideas on how one hypothesis that is often advanced, that decreasing RAS decreases KP, might be tested in a precise way.

If I understand correctly, you're suggesting that we should first test a different hypothesis, the hypothesis that decreasing RAS increases KP. You write that, on your read of the evidence, this hypothesis is more plausible, so it would be a more natural and fruitful starting place.

I'm agnostic as to which way the initial hypothesis is framed. I'm not familiar enough with the relevant details about how RAS operate in different contexts and how knowledge is produced to take a strong stance at a high level of abstraction.

I think my intuition was to start with testing and establishing the more minimalist claim - "it is not true that decreasing RAS decreases KP" - before building on that to move on to establishing "it is true that decreasing RAS increases KP." But either starting point will work.

Either way, if the goal is to understand how RAS affects KP, specifying as precisely as possible the causal pathways by which RAS is hypothesized to affect KP seems important. Precise subhypotheses about causal pathways make a systematic inquiry easier and enable focused gathering of evidence. Given the complexity of the phenomenon we're interested in, this type of reductionist methodology seems optimal, even essential. But I am open to and interested in suggestions about more effective strategies for addressing our shared question.

There are other, more complex empirical and normative questions you've raised about agenda-setting, distributive justice and unnecessary ignorance. I think those are important as well, even more important. I've just focused here on one initial empirical question.

-- DevinMcDougall - 14 Sep 2011



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r6 - 23 Aug 2014 - 19:24:25 - EbenMoglen
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