Reviving pre-enclosure glory.
I met Danny O’Brien on 9/11/01, at a surreal dinner we pressed on with despite (or really, because of) the intense terror of the day. He was wearing a t-shirt from NTK, his seminal digital newsletter, bearing its slogan: “THEY STOLE OUR REVOLUTION. NOW WE’RE STEALING IT BACK”
Online culture has its roots in a strange swirl of hobbyists, the military, corporate misfits fooling around with their employers’ vast computer labs and students and academics dabbling in the early digital world.
It was no garden of Eden. There was plenty of fighting and plenty of difference, but there was, despite it all, a sense of mission: a collegial urgency to build a commons that would be part of the digital world that everyone could use.
Right from the start, there was a sense that this commons was wonderful and fragile, facing a remorseless enclosure movement that would turn all our collective work into someone’s private, rent-generating preserve.
It’s been 20 years since I met Danny, and the enclosure is well underway. Danny — who’s been warning us about stolen revolutions and fighting to steal them back since last century — has now embarked on a wonderful series of essays for EFF on the subject.
These essays are grouped under the banner of the “Public Interest Internet,” EFF’s equivalent to Ethan Zuckerman’s “digital public infrastructure” Hana Schank’s “public interest technology,” the EU’s “public stack” and Eli Pariser’s “New Public.”
Despite decades of sustained assault, the Public Interest Internet is still with us and still vital, from the Internet Archive to Wikipedia to Creative Commons to the vast array of FLOSS projects. Any effort to rein in Big Tech must not destroy these vital commons.
Danny: “When Big Tech is long gone, a better future will come from the seed of this public interest internet: seeds that are being planted now, and which need everyone to nurture them.”
Danny’s published two case studies so far. The first, “The Enclosure of the Public Interest Internet,” recounts how early film enthusiasts migrated from Usenet’s rec.arts.movies to the volunteer-maintained and hosted Cardiff Movie Database.
You probably haven’t heard of the Cardiff Movie Database, but you’ve certainly heard of IMDB, the Amazon-owned system it turned out, privatizing the hard work of public-spirited volunteers and turning it into the exclusive preserve of a digital monopolist.
IMDB shows us how volunteers’ passion projects can turn into someone else’s private concern, but as Danny writes, this isn’t inevitable. From Wikimedia to Openstreetmap, public interest projects have shown how to resist enclosure
The next installment is “Outliving Outrage on the Public Interest Internet: the CDDB Story.” The first great volunteer music metadata database became the private property of Nielsen.
But the volunteer love of music is alive and well: from gnudb to Metabrainz, public interest music metadata — a necessity for finding, enjoying, and paying for music — has resisted enclosure.
The next installment — still forthcoming — deals with the thorny question of how you finance a commons.
There’s always someone who wants to steal the revolution. But there’s always a rebel alliance who’ll fight to steal it back.
Cory Doctorow (craphound.com) is a science fiction author, activist, and blogger. He has a podcast, a newsletter, a Twitter feed, a Mastodon feed, and a Tumblr feed. He was born in Canada, became a British citizen and now lives in Burbank, California. His latest nonfiction book is How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism. His latest novel for adults is Attack Surface. His latest short story collection is Radicalized. His latest picture book is Poesy the Monster Slayer. His latest YA novel is Pirate Cinema. His latest graphic novel is In Real Life. His forthcoming books include The Shakedown (with Rebecca Giblin), a book about artistic labor market and excessive buyer power; Red Team Blues, a noir thriller about cryptocurrency, corruption and money-laundering; and The Lost Cause, a utopian post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation with white nationalist militias.