Impressions from the Free Culture Research Conference in Berlin
This is really a rich autumn in terms of conferences around peer production. The CPOV conference in Leipzig, the FCRC in Berlin last weekend and the upcoming conference in Amsterdam. And when I think of the CPOV in Amsterdam and the Hull conference in spring then it is even a rich year.
One of the interesting things is that for instance on the Free Culture Research Conference there were a couple of talks which could have been given on an Oekonux Conference very well. Seems like we adopted some topics very early when we had our first conference in 2001 🙂 . Of course I kept a couple of speakers as possible speakers for [ox5].
However, in contrast to the Oekonux conferences the named conferences are real academic conferences. I think there are two main differences to highlight. The first difference is that the slots for speakers are really short. In Berlin there were three speakers in 1 1/2 hours leaving 20 minutes per presentation which is little if you have a complex topic. It also doesn’t allow for larger discussions with and in the audience which we value high in Oekonux conferences.
The second difference of course is that the activists of different kinds are not represented in the speakers. Thus there are only academic presentations which are of course interesting – otherwise I’d not attend such conferences – but they are still only academic. For scientists there is an alienated incentive to gather academic merits by presenting the results of their work on such a conference and this alienation may shine through once in a while.
Well, but that’s not the point of my post. In fact I want to share some impressions from the Free Culture Research Conference with you. First here are some facts about the conference. It took place 2010-10-08..09 in Berlin at the Freie Universität. According to the organizers about 200 persons attended the conference. Compared to similar events it was my impression that lots of women attended the conference. I have no hard numbers but I could imagine that the female part was about 50%. Well, a friend said „well, the conference is about culture…“. I’d like to add that besides interesting talks I was really pleased to meet so many friends again in Berlin. I’d also like to add my thank you to the organizers of the conference.
One of the most interesting panels titled „New Forms of Production“ was right in the beginning of the conference. The utmost interesting talk of Peter Troxler was titled Commons-based Peer Production of Physical Goods – Is There Room for a Hybrid Innovation Ecology?. Peter reported results from three studies about FabLabs. I don’t remember the exact number but so far the number of FabLabs on this planet seems to be still small – in any case much less than 100. FabLabs in this sense are shops where there are these cool machines often called fabbers or 3D-printers which materialize physical goods From digital designs.
Those FabLabs are publicly funded and though they are made for the general public they are most frequently used by students. When the maintainers of the FabLabs are asked what they provide they replied infrastructure – i.e. the machines -, expertise and the FabLab network. Unfortunately I can’t say much about this network but Peter’s paper may contain more information about this. When the maintainers are asked what they provide their service for, there were two types: One type replied that they provide infrastructure for people to produce stuff, the other type replied that they provide infrastructure for people to produce cool stuff (aka innovation).
When asked what the maintainers take pride in running those FabLabs they replied that they take pride in the effects that using the FabLabs has on users. The pain of the maintainers is the funding. They are running on subsidies with no idea how to continue when the subsidies run out. There is also a tendency in the FabLabs to say „we don’t want to be business“.
Peter also gave a number of examples where designs created in FabLabs were interesting for business. One example was a small walking robot which has been designed and created in a FabLab but was so interesting for a company that they asked for permission to use the design. Another example was about a FabLab in Indonesia where it helped to produce cheap leg prostheses.
After the talk there were lots of questions from the audience and later on in a private conversation with again highly interesting answers. One question was about the cost models of these FabLabs. Peter said that there are basically two models. One is similar to a normal business where you need say $1000 per day for energy, wages, amortization, … The other model is more like „let’s have some space where we can build our fabbing machines ourselves“. Yes, people really build their materializers themselves! The latter approach of course lowers the barriers to have neighborhood FabLabs.
Another question about the business model was what about charging the users for using the FabLab. There are various opinions in the FabLab scene. One is that FabLabs should be free of charge. Another one is that charging say $20/half day is really ok. Another alternative are companies – i.e. not FabLabs – which sell the production of customer designs. So effectively there is a continuum from totally free of charge to selling some production capability.
Another question was about the costs of the raw materials. According to Peter the raw material varies from scrap materials you can obtain without costs to high-priced raw materials for special machines.
Another question was about using industrial robots in such FabLabs. Peter told us that at the moment the automotive industry is throwing out the last generation of industrial robots replacing them by newer models. FabLabs may have them for free of buy them for low prices. However, industrial robots are scary machines. In contrast to the 3D-printer type of machines it is well possible that an industrial robot kills a person during operation.
As I said this was one of the most interesting talks to me and I’d suggest that you check out Peter’s paper for more details. Though the other talks were also interesting I’ll report only briefly about some of them.
One of the few more theoretical talks was also in this panel. Ignacio de Castro Arribas‘ talk titled Productive Paradigms in the Digital Era: Antirivalry, Prosumption and Network Effects considered the concepts named in the title and discussed them in the light of peer production.
One of the interesting ideas was that prosumption strengthens the paths of prosumption. I.e. Ignacio sees a positive feedback cycle in prosumption models. An interesting insight was that the limits in peer production (projects) are a result of the respective architecture. If you improve the architecture then you can increase peer production. When thinking about it I notice that in the history of big Free Software projects there were indeed changes which changed the architecture of the project to allow more peer production.
Ignacio also distinguished peer production from hybrid production wherein peer production goes together with alienated labor. He said that if you need capital for the production then you have hybrid production. Check out Ignacio’s paper for more details.
Cornelia Zacharias gave a talk on Harvesting the Creative Commons – Comparing Netlabels and Indie Labels. She made a study where she compared netlabels with independent labels – where independent really means independent from the major labels. Personally I find netlabels an interesting concept since to me they seem to be the analogon to Free Software distributions: They gather material quality-check it and then distribute it on a peer production basis.
One of the prominent findings was that (in Germany) the indie labels are happy with the GEMA (= German collecting society) whereas the netlabels rely on Creative Commons licenses. An interesting finding was that some of the current maintainers of netlabels had been indie label operators formerly but felt ignored by the traditional music business.
Cornelia found that there are really two universes. Netlabels and indie labels have different customers / users and there are different „markets“.
IIRC the only talk about a Free Software phenomenon was given by Louis Suarez-Potts. In this talk titled „Making It New: OpenOffice.org“ he talked about the history of OpenOffice.org. Here is a quick history From my perception: OpenOffice.org started as StarOffice written by a Hamburg based company a long time ago. It was an interesting product but was never able to compete with the M$ office package. Then Sun bought the company and re-released the product as OpenOffice.org as Free Software.
Louis told that at some point OpenOffice.org had 150 payed developers but no community. Louis said that you have to create a manifesto to have a community. This needs not be a written text but can be a manifesto by action. For example this happened when Linus Torvalds started Linux. Having a manifesto „after the fact“ is much harder to do.
An important distinction Louis made between commodities and peer production products is that commodities are not interested in history and consequences of a product. In fact it is normally not possible to learn about the history of a product nor to learn about its future (as waste). Free Software – and other peer production products – give an option to learn about history and consequences, however.
Louis emphasized that centralized infrastructure is crucial. For instance modern cities could not exist if there weren’t centralized power grids. However, centralized infrastructure like Facebook is dangerous because you don’t control the means of production.
Louis had also a couple of insights which are not really new to us. For instance he said that Free Software puts the means of production into the hands of the people. He said that in Free Software projects consumers and producers merge – although you are not required to produce. He said that freedom is cool but not enough. Things need to work and in the end this is more important than freedom. Another insight was that a community works because the community members have common interests.
Another talk I attended was given by Mayo Fuster Morell. In her talk titled Commercial providers of online infrastructure for online creation communities she compared Flickr and Wikihow. Mayo’s claim was that it depends on the type of governance whether we can talk of commons-based peer production or not. Check out Mayo’s paper.
Another interesting talk titled Managing Boundaries between Organizations and Communities: Comparing Wikimedia and Creative Commons was given by Leonhard Dobusch and Sigrid Quack. They compared the two organizations being interested in the relation of informal communities and related formal organizations. Unfortunately at this point in the conference I had a hard time following the presentations because I were so full of impressions.
Also posted to the Oekonux mailing list.