Owning the Future

Art, Technology, and Society: The World in Twenty-Five Years

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 16, No 1 (Spring 2005)

Joan Shigekawa

The following remarks were presented at a symposium that was part of the 2004 Ars Electronica Festival: TIMESHIFT—The World in Twenty-Five Years. This festival for art, technology, and society was founded in 1979 and is held annually in Linz, Austria. Joan Shigekawa, associate director of Creativity and Culture at the Rockefeller Foundation, spoke on the final panel of the symposium, “TOPIA,” which was designed to “present scenarios around a wide variety of topics relating to art, technology, and society. It is intended to be detailed, inventive, and audacious.” Shigekawa spoke on her own behalf, and edited her comments for publication in the GIA Reader.

The future is not something that happens to us. It is something that we make happen. So I decided to ask some “What If” questions about what kind of future we will own:

What if access to the world's knowledge were open...wide open?

What if the convergence of the arts, humanities, and sciences enabled totally new forms of art and totally new forms of knowledge?

What if information and communication technologies (ICTs) were able to give the means of creativity not just to the few but to all peoples?

What if, as Clay Shirky and The Economist predict, technology finally freed us from twentieth century restraints on spectrum, and, in moving from spectrum scarcity to spectrum abundance, we built a global high-speed wireless digital network that could reach even the most remote and rural corners of the world?

What if the model for sharing the world's intellectual power and creative energy existed already and its name was open source?

What if the pre-conditions for the future were already here, but were ours to lose?

Here is a different view of the future, equally possible, built on a countervailing set of actions:

What if efforts to build new systems for promoting innovation and the free flow of information were choked off by expanded intellectual property rights?

What if private interests, working through the state, used international treaties to shut down collaborative models that threatened the existing media business structure?

What if the public shared commons of ideas and knowledge shrank dramatically because all facts and databases were private property?

What if math itself were to become a crime? ...as it already is in the United States under President Clinton's Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

What kind of future do we own then?
Let me tell you a true story. When William Ivey was the chair of the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts he got a call from South Africa. They wanted to know why it was U.S. cultural policy to block local African content from being broadcast on South African radio. Chairman Ivey said that it certainly wasn't NEA policy and he called the State Department. Not their policy either. It came from the U.S. Department of Commerce trade representative. His position: local content set-asides are restraint of trade and unfair to American media.

How could special interests shut down the future of an open world?

Let's take a look at the proposed “Protection of Broadcasting” treaty at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) under discussion in Geneva.

Among the proposals currently on the table is a new set of rights for broadcasters that gives copyright to the transmitters of information even if they are not the creators of the information, even if the works are in the public domain, and even if the authors wish to have the works distributed without restriction.

And there are proposals to extend coverage beyond broadcast to cablecasting and webcasting technologies. One proposed definition of covered content would be “sounds, images, sounds and images, or the representation thereof.”

Thus proposals for this new international treaty basically say: if you transmit it, you own it...and you own it for fifty years. That's fifty years when, as creators, you lose the right to freely distribute your own work. It's sort of like the telephone company saying that it owns whatever you say on the phone.

This same treaty also recommends anti-circumvention measures intended to restrict “unauthorized” use of materials. According to James Love from the Consumer Project on Technology (CPTech), “it would stifle all innovation in tools that send and receive information,” since “the current WIPO discussion extends to all information transmitted online and over the air.”

Lest you think that this is abstract, the Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights (SCCR) of WIPO will meet to work on the text of the proposed treaty this November [2004].

The text of these proposals is available on the WIPO web site. To find out more go to the web sites for CPTech and the South Centre/CIEL (Center for International Environmental Law). If you Google the South Centre/CEIL and CPTech you can read their analyses.

And WIPO is only one of the many international rule-making bodies working in this terrain: Think WTO. Think TRIPS—the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights. Think of the numerous bi-lateral trade agreements that are in constant negotiation. Think of the European Union and the U.S. Congress.

So, if these proposals are adopted what happens to my What ifs? What happens:

TO the idea of knowledge as a global public good accessible for to all? TO the opportunity for an accessible and affordable global high-speed wireless digital network that will reach even the most remote and rural corners of the world?

TO the possibility of sharing the world's intellectual power and creative energy based on an open source model?

TO the feasibility of providing digital tools for creativity to all peoples?

Creativity's new forms
Ars Electronica has charted the evolution of new ideas and new tools for creativity for twenty-five years, and there is every sign that we are still only in the early stages of development for new forms of art.

Digital actors are now standing in for their human counterparts, graphic novels and new visual and animation languages are exploding, and in New York City's Soho, Location One, under the leadership of B-92's Drazen Pantic, is setting up an Experimental Studio to identify and share the best open source tools for access, distribution, creation, editing, and collaboration. LEMUR, the League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots, may even change the orchestra. The potential for interactive formats on gaming platforms is rapidly evolving.

And the core creative languages of movement, music, spoken word, text-based art, drama, and dance are happening in a digital environment and are literally morphing into each other. We experience this in Rockefeller's Multi-Arts Production grant program for live performance of new work where it's no longer clear which disciplinary panel should review a project. The technology-driven change that has transformed modern science is also transforming the study of the humanities and the creative vocabulary of the arts.

Can this innovation continue?

How can we ensure that this transformation will continue? Who are our allies in support of creativity and innovation?

Help is coming from unlikely places. The developing nations understand what it means to expand access to the benefits of knowledge for everyone. Such countries as Brazil and Argentina are pushing back.

Here is a quotation from Brazil's submission to the next session of WIPO, taking place in September 2004. In it the Brazilian government calls for a new Treaty on Access to Knowledge and Technology to promote a real transfer of technology to developing countries:

In order to tap into the development potential offered by the digital environment, it is important to bear in mind the relevance of open access models for the promotion of innovation and creativity. In this regard, WIPO should consider undertaking activities with a view to exploring the promise held by open collaborative projects to develop public goods, as exemplified by the Human Genome Project and Open Source Software.

The people behind ideas like this need to hear that there is support for this position from the technology community, from consumers, from those in favor of competition and the emergence of new business models, from scientists, and from intellectuals.

Within the context of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, there is no more powerful example of human and institutional capacity building than that of the open source movement.

Many of you may know the story of an unknown eighteen-year-old student enrolled as a freshman in 1991 at a Mexico City university. On the wrong side of the digital divide, he could not afford his own PC. Using the university computers he found the open source community and gained a reputation by writing a file manager program for Linux. From 1997 to 1999, with open source collaborators, he led the development of GNOME, a graphical interface for Linux. This month [September 2004] he is on the cover of MIT's Technology Review with a tag line that asks: “Miguel de Icaza, Linux Sellout or Savior? How a Legendary Hacker got Novell to buy into open source”...and he is now the vice president of product technology for Novell.

The point here for us is not so much the merits of the software or his position inside a giant establishment software company. The point here is the journey itself—from Mexico City to Cambridge—a journey in which the universal language of code, a global communications system, and an open access network based on merit can enable anyone from any part of the world to create and to innovate.

How would it work?
What is it going to take to democratize information? ...to bring the power of technology to poor communities? ...to harness ICTs to help neighborhoods make social change at the policy level?

Here's how it worked in one African American community in Los Angeles. When researchers from UCLA asked them what they wanted to change in their community, community leaders said they felt that a rapid increase in the number of liquor stores was having a negative effect on quality of life within the neighborhood but they could not prove it. They wanted to stop the proliferation of liquor store licenses and malt liquor billboards. First they combined a GIS (Geographic Information Systems) neighborhood map with administrative datasets over a ten-year period: health data from the local hospital (emergency room visits, incidence of alcoholism, etc.) as well as the police department data (incidence of spousal abuse, arrests for violent behavior). Then the community researched and collected data about when and where the liquor stores had been opened. By inputting this data on a map of the community they were able to demonstrate a correlation between the increase in the number of liquor stores and the decline of quality of life within the community. Armed with information enabled by technology they made a strong case at the city planning agency and got the policy changed.

In Providence, Rhode Island, a citizens' group called the Providence Project noticed that an increasing number of abandoned buildings was beginning to create neighborhood blight. Using GIS maps and tax records they were able to identify the owners of most of the derelict buildings. They were also able to prove that an increase in vacant buildings correlated with an increase in crime on the block. It turned out that Rhode Island law stipulated that buildings delinquent in their taxes, where the owner had walked away, could be bought by simply paying the back tax bill. One landlord was buying up and warehousing almost all of the vacant buildings. Once they had the facts, they changed the law.

In Southeast Asia, information about prices in city retail markets obtained via the internet enabled farmers and fishermen in remote parts of the country to bargain for fairer prices for their goods.

The challenge
The challenge before us is to build an equitable system of access to information for all communities. How can the open source movement bring the power of technology to poor and remote communities? How can we build a system for the future where we can all co-exist across multiple networks within which we can create and share our cultures and ideas through open networks of communication in a cultural commons that is free and open to all?

We have the universal building blocks.

We have the pathways: every country has spectrum...the radio waves that carry communication.

We have the creativity and an incredible diversity of cultures that are constantly finding new ways to speak to each other, through such forms as music and dance and words, among many others.

We are beginning to have truly affordable tools for making our own media for the first time in history... it is becoming easier for everyone to create images and for everyone to publish.

We have the model for collaboration: the success of open source is proof of the concept.

But do we have the vision and the strength to hang on to what we have built and to share it? ...with the student in Mexico who cannot afford a PC? ...with the Maori chief who wants to use technology to re-animate and preserve her tribe's ancient culture?

What will it take?
What's it going to take to keep the forces of greed and outdated industrial command-and-control business models from creating a new Dark Ages where communication and the knowledge commons will be locked down and available only for the few? ...and access to essential learning tools will be foreclosed for most of the peoples of the world?

Some of the most advanced thinkers in the world are part of the global networks of artists, coders, and innovators in the hardware and software industries. They need to join with others to form a new global alliance on behalf of knowledge.

We have the chance, for the first time in history, for all of the peoples of the world to have open communication, to make their own media, to create meaning through shared experience, to create new knowledge. Can we make it happen? And can we make it happen now?

Here's a first step: Read The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World, by Professor Lawrence Lessig, who understands with an urgent and chilling clarity exactly what is at stake in this battle for the future of creativity.

Larry Lessig is a man of enormous vision and learning, all of it grounded in the discipline of the law. Sometimes it can be overwhelming because his knowledge is so deep. Don't let that stop you. Take from him what you can. Try to listen for action items. Try to envision what must be done to mobilize a network for change.

I'd like to close with a quote from my friend Christopher Bailey who works in the knowledge management area of the World Health Organization:

“Without a common pool of knowledge in which we share, create and learn, we will be without a key element of what makes us human and our lives meaningful. We will be without a common understanding.”

Joan Shihekawa is associate director for Creativity and Culture at the Rockefeller Foundation. She is a former GIA board member and former chair of Grantmakers in Film and Electronic Media.

Notes
1.  The basic idea behind open source is simple: When programmers can read, redistribute, and modify the source code for a piece of software, the software evolves. People improve it, people adapt it, people fix bugs. And this can happen at a speed that seems astonishing. The open source community has learned that this rapid evolutionary process produces better software than the traditional closed model. Open Source Initiative (OSI) is a non-profit corporation dedicated to the idea of open source through promoting its definition and managing a certification process. (http://www.opensource.org/index.php)

2.  The Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) is a controversial United States copyright law that criminalizes not merely infringement of copyright itself, but also production and dissemination of technology that can circumvent measures taken to protect copyright. It also heightens the penalties for copyright infringement on the internet. Signed into law by President Bill Clinton on October, 28, 1999. (Wikipedia.org)