Viral Spiral - How the Commoners Built a Digital Republic of Their Own
David Bollier (2008)


Harbingers of the Sharing Economy

The rise of the sharing economy had its roots among the renegades living on the periphery of mainstream culture. At the time, they were largely invisible to one another. They had few ways of making common cause and no shared language for even naming the forces that troubled them. It was the 1990s, after all, a time of alluring mercantile fantasies about the limitless possibilities of the laissez-faire “information superhighway.” Even for those who could pierce the mystifications, the new technologies were so new, powerful, and perplexing that it was difficult to understand their full implications.

The renegades, while sharing a vision of technological progress, were disturbed by many on-the-ground realities. A small network of hackers, for example, was enraged to learn that software was becoming a closed, proprietary product. Companies could prohibit interested individuals from tinkering with their own, legally purchased software. On both creative and political grounds, this development was odious to Richard Stallman, a brilliant programmer who soon hatched a dream of building a protected kingdom of “free software,” the subject of chapter 1.

Meanwhile, a loose community of legal scholars and tech activists was becoming alarmed by the antisocial, anti-democratic tendencies of copyright law and digital technology. Scholars such as Lawrence Lessig, James Boyle, and Hal Abelson began to realize that copyright law and software code were acquiring unsuspected powers to redesign our political and social order. They also began to understand the ways in which the public domain is not a wasteland, as conventional minds had long supposed, but a highly generative zone of culture. This intellectual journey is described in chapter 2.

Finally, it was becoming painfully apparent to yet another amorphous band of renegades — artists, musicians, writers, scientists, educators, citizens — that copyright law and technological controls were artificially restricting their creative freedoms. With scant public attention, the music, film, and publishing industries were using their clout to protect their archaic business models at the expense of innovation and the commons. This onslaught ultimately provoked one exemplary commoner, Eric Eldred, to team up with legal scholar Lawrence Lessig to mount an unprecedented constitutional challenge to copyright law, the focus of chapter 3.

None of these surges of innovative dissent was well funded or particularly promising. For the most part, they were improvisational experiments undertaken by public-spirited individuals determined to vindicate their visions for a better society. With the benefit of hindsight, we can now see that while many of these initiatives were only partially successful, each was indispensable to the larger, later task of imagining and building a digital republic to secure basic human freedoms, the subject of Part II.

License: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license.

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