Book Experiment #2: Interop

Urs Gasser and I began a research project in 2005 to study Interoperability (Interop, for short). Our gameplan was to answer a straightforward question: do higher levels of interoperability lead to increased innovation? A few years and many case studies later, we had found a general correlation between more interop and more innovation in the context of information technologies.

But we also had discovered a few order things that we had not expected. We found that we were seeing interop stories everywhere we looked. Interop seemed to matter outside of the IT context, too. We also found that people in a wide range of fields had also been thinking about interop: those who care about economics, computer science, systems theory, complexity theory, and so forth. We decided that there might be a book project that could build from the base of our research into those original case studies.

As we began to write up the longer-form argument, we agreed also to experiment with the format of the book, as we had done in the context of Born Digital, Intellectual Property Strategy, and other book projects. The premise here, with Interop, (now, in fact, published as a book, by Basic Books) is to present the book along with a rich set of case studies, available freely online, that have served as the raw data for the analysis and theory we present in the book version. Our early case studies on digital music, digital identity, and mash ups in the social web were the first three. Over the next few years, we worked with a strong team of interns, as always spread across two research centers (the Berkman Center at Harvard in the US and the FIR ate the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland), to produce several more. These new case studies, also published freely online, range more broadly.

Over the next few weeks, we will roll out pointers, from our blogs, to these online case studies about interop. They can be read as standalone pieces or, better yet, as a companion to the Interop book itself. We look forward to your feedback.

Born Digital: The Video Version

One of the ideas that Urs Gasser and I had from the start of the Born Digital book project was to find a way to co-produce the ideas behind the book.  The concept was to celebrate, in a graphic way, the creativity and ability of young people.  We worked closely with dozens of student interns on literature reviews, background research, focus groups and interviews, drafting and editing of parts of the book, and so forth.  We’ve been blessed by an extraordinary team of young collaborators.

One specific example of the co-production: a group of students have completed another version of our book, made exclusively by them with no editorial oversight from us, in the form of a series of videos.  Each of these videos are based on a chapter of the traditional form of Born Digital.  The upshot is that one can now “play” the book by watching a short video of each chapter.  The videos are short, roughly 3 to 5 minutes long, and they’re all freely available online.

The purpose of this project is in part to push the boundaries of what a “book” is in the digital age.  I love the traditional codex and all that’s followed on from the original idea.  But I think also that there’s room for new designs for long-form arguments that make a series of complex, interrelated points and which require sustained attention to understand.  I’m convinced that the traditional book will survive, but I think it’s also important that we experiment with new formats as well.

I know that Urs and I are hugely grateful to the many students — and fellows and collaborators throughout our research network, like danah boyd — who have contributed their smarts and their innovative ideas to our shared understanding of Youth and Media in a digital era.

We very much hope that you will try out the free, online video version of Born Digital!  And special thanks and all credit to the student video creators and Sandra Cortesi and other terrific Berkman staff who organized the crew.

Welcome back, Urs Gasser!

It is our great good fortune at the Berkman Center that Urs Gasser has returned, on a full-time basis, to be our new executive director. I can’t think of anyone better positioned to move us forward in our second decade. Urs has been a longtime fellow of the Center, but most recently has been living back home in Switzerland, where he has been a professor at the University of St. Gallen, one of our key research partners. Urs is committed to the highest standards in scholarship; the expansion of our collective minds through serious, collective inquiry; and to having fun in the process. In addition to his leadership and teaching skills, Urs is a wildly productive legal scholar in his own right, and no doubt will continue to contribute directly to what we know about the law as it relates to information and networks around the world. He has been a terrific co-author to work with on projects such as Born Digital, the book we wrote together over the past few years.

One of the great things about Urs taking this job is that he is focused on international collaboration and on interdisciplinary scholarship. These are important goals for the Center in its second decade. Urs has a particularly strong skill set in both of these regards and a commitment to proving that scholarship can be stronger when we work together across geographic and disciplinary boundaries.

And personally, it’s just a joy to have him back with us full-time.

For more: listen to a podcast from Radio Berkman this week on Urs’s plans as executive director, as interviewed by David Weinberger. David has his own blogpost on Urs’s appointment here.

First Few Reactions to Born Digital

After about four years of planning, research, and writing, Born Digital officially came out this week. Urs Gasser and I have so many people to thank; we have been blessed with such great teammates and friends and helpful critics along the way. (Much of the work that the team has done is recorded, and will be updated, on the project’s web site, wiki, and so forth.)

I admit to being very sheepish about what comes next. Several people have sent kind emails that say, basically, “congrats on the book coming out and good luck with the promotion.” Thinking about “promoting” ourselves and our book (wrapped up, now, in our identity, as “authors”) makes me very queasy. I much prefer the idea of our participating in an ongoing public conversation about youth and media, a conversation that is well underway with lots of brilliant people involved. To that end, I’ve been thrilled to see the first three web 2.0-type reactions to the book.

- The Shifted Librarian comments — by photo! — on buying Born Digital for her Kindle. This is so fitting, and cool. (As I commented on her post, I got teased at a book talk at Google the other day that the Kindle edition was initially priced at over $20.00, which was more than the hard-cover cost of $17.00 and change; it’s since come down some.)

- I am grateful to the Librarians! Law Librarian blog has a post, which (justifiably enough, and in a mere few words; very economical) juxtaposes the marketing description of the book against what we actually say inside its covers; and,

- A brand-new friend — who contacted my via Facebook about his blogpost — JohnMac is wondering about where he fits into the scheme. I suggested that he is probably a Digital Settler, which is a fine thing to be, (and thought I’d point out this post, in which I responded to critiques from Henry Jenkins and danah boyd and others about the terminology we work with in the book). I have a feeling we’ll be doing a lot of explaining, and perhaps defending, these choices of terms — but that, it seems, is in fact part of the point!

Thanks to all who have contributed to this discussion already, and looking forward to much more — some of it playing out in the public parts of cyberspace.

Digital Youth, Innovation, and the Unexpected

The MacArthur Foundation’s Series on New Media and Learning, published by the MIT Press, includes a book called Digital Youth, Innovation, and the Unexpected (2008); open access version here. I opened this book first when I was writing a chapter on Innovators, for Born Digital, a book I’m co-writing with Urs Gasser. I had reason to come back to this book again in thinking about the Task Force we’re chairing, called the Internet Safety Technical Task Force, as there’s a chapter that centers on risk and moral panic in the context of Internet safety. (I’ve previously written about the series as a whole and the volumes Youth, Identity, and Digital Media and Civic Life Online.)

As with the other volumes in the series, there’s much in this book that informs and provokes.

The first essay, by editor Tara McPherson, has a title with particular to the lawyer interested in this topic: “A Rule Set for the Future.” It did not disappoint. This first essay serves both as a guide to the book as a whole as well as a description of six rules to lead to a bright future. As McPherson points out, “This volume identifies core issues concerning how young people’s use of digital media may lead to various innovations and unexpected outcomes, including a range of unintended learning experiences and unanticipated social situations. While such outcomes might typically be seen as ‘positive’ or ‘negative,’ our investigations push beyong simple accounts of digital media and learning as either utopian or dystopian in order to explore specific digital practices with an eye attuned to larger issues of history, policy, and possibility.” (p. 1) She promises that the book will take up a broad range of issues within this frame, including “policy, privacy and IP,” and to do so in a way that will inform a series of core questions, about what’s really new here, the historical background for these changes, the manner in which these changes are occurring, and what recommendations one might make for “policy, curriculum, or infrastructure.” (p. 2)

These issues that McPherson raises are in many ways the same questions we are seeking to answer in Born Digital, to be honest. She puts them nicely here. (And as a side note: the first footnote of McPherson’s opening essay points to the fact that there have already been — at least — three books on roughly the topic that Urs and I are working on: Prensky’s Don’t Bother Me, Mom — I’m Learning; Tapscott’s Growing Up Digital; Howe and Strauss’ Milliennials Rising.)

The bulk of McPherson’s opening essay is devoted to laying out “six maxims to guide further research and inquiry into the questions motivating this study.” (p. 2) These six maxims, or rules, are wonderful, both on their own and as a guide to the essays that follow. I will not ruin it by citing them all in this blog-post; you should read them for yourself if you are interested enough in this topic to be reading this paragraph of this obscure blog post. I will say that in Rule 4: Broaden Participation, she cites to a number of the prominent cyber-lawyers, including Lessig, Boyle, and co.

In her essay, “Practicing at Home,” Ellen Seiter does the unexpected: she “draw[s] out the similarities between learning to play the piano and learning to use the computer.” (p. 28-9) One such similarity is the barrier to entry of cost. Overall, it’s a worthy exercise. She informs nicely the issue of how to conceive of digital literacy in the curriculum. Her assessment of the digital divide data and literature, with an overlay of concerns about cultural capital and participation, (e.g., pp. 37-8) invoke Henry Jenkins’ fine work on the participation gap as a better way to think about the relevant split. (There’s also a critique of a passage in Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks on related grounds. (pp. 41-2) Ultimately, as Seiter admits, hers “is a pessimistic essay,” (p. 49) though one worth engaging with, especially for those of us who are hopelessly optimistic.

Justine Cassell and Meg Cramer take up the safety issue in the third essay, which is why I picked the book back up again now. It is a bit unexpected to see this essay in this volume — it fits less neatly than some of the others do with the rest — but is very helpful, especially when thinking about what we should really be worried about with respect to young people online. Cassell and Cramer lay out the facts about how great the risks are to young women of using the Internet, wonder why the media portrayal of the issue is quite so hyperbolic and misaligned with these facts, and ultimately “argue that the dangers to girls online are not as severe as they have been portrayed, and that the reason for this exaggeration of danger arises from adult fears about girls’ agency (particularly sexual agency) and societal discomfort around girls as power users of technology.” (p. 55) Cassell and Cramer do an especially nice job of placing into historical context the worry around teens online, in light of previous, similar fears that cropped up as earlier communications media became popular.

Christian Sandvig’s piece on “Wireless Play and Unexpected Innovation” offers a nice overview of how unexpected innovation may happen and what the prerequisites are for its occurrence. He locates Eric von Hippel within the literature and Sandvig’s own argument, which, as a von Hippel devotee, I found a helpful anchor for aspects of his argument. (p. 89) The last paragraph is an accurate — possibly scolding, certainly daunting — call to action. “‘Participatory culture,'” Sandvig contends, “will only move beyond the elite if the desire for decentralized control and widespread participation can animate changes in our society’s fundamental structure of opportunity.” (p. 94)

A cluster of essays that drive down further on the literacy and curricular questions follow. Sonia Livingstone offers insights aplenty in her strong essay on Internet Literacy. She stresses “the historical continuities between internet literacy and print literacy,” to great effect. (p. 115) She ends with a challenge nearly as ambitious and daunting (and just as accurate) as Sandvig’s. Paula Hooper has an instructive take on the use of programming in the curriculum. Sarita Yardi writes up a fun take on the “backchannel” in the classroom — “an exciting innovative space for a new learning paradigm.” (p. 160) Henry Lowood dives deep into games and “the expressive potential of machinima.” (p. 191) Robert Heverly reviews the topic of “growing up digital” and its impact on identity, privacy, and security — with many themes invoking the work of danah boyd (such as persistence).

The second-to-last essay, by Robert Samuels, is the most challenging. He argues, off the bat, “that in order to understand the implications of how digital youth are now using new media and technologies in unexpected and innovative ways, we have to rethink many of the cultural oppositions that have shaped the Western tradition since the start of the modern era.” (p. 219) Like the challenges at the end of the Sandvig and Livingstone pieces, Samuels’s argument strikes me as right, and hard work. He also argues “that we have moved into a new cultural period of automodernity.” I admit I did not understand it in full. (p. 219, 228-33) But I suspect that I like the idea of what he sees ahead: “by defending the public realm against the constant threats of privitization, we can open up a new automodern public space.” (p. 238) It sounds like something you need a whole conference on to understand properly, rather than the one-way street of a 20-page essay.

In the final essay, Steve Anderson and Anne Balsamo explore perspectives on the current state of digital learning. I am glad I made it this far in the book — propelled by the fine essays that preceded it — because they take up some efforts near and dear to our hearts at the Berkman Center, including Prof. Charles Nesson’s Harvard Law School/Harvard Extension School/Second Life class, CyberOne, taught with his daughter and my law school classmate Becca Nesson. (p. 249-51) Anderson and Balsamo end with a spirited manifesto for “Original Synners,” which I intend to think about adopting in my own teaching. (p. 254-7)

Taken together, these essays fit together as a series of detailed examples that string together issues that are not immediately connected in one’s mind. McPherson predicted as much in her opening essay. As she puts it, together, these essays, “encourage us to recognize that innovation as a cultural phenomenon often happens in unexpected places (as does learning) and produces unanticipated outcomes. They remind us to ask who innovation serves and how we might best reap its benefits for broader visions of social equity and justice. And, finally, they underscore that the term ‘innovation’ is value laden and historically complex.” (p. 5) It’s worth making it all the way through; the connections become clear in the full telling of the tales.

MacArthur/MIT Press Series on Youth, Media, and Learning

Last month, the MacArthur Foundation, along with MIT Press, announced the release of a series of new books on youth and new media. The series is a treasure trove.

I have been working my way through the six books over the past several weeks as I’m simultaneously working on late drafts of the book that Urs Gasser and I are writing on a similar topic, called Born Digital (forthcoming, Basic Books, 2008).

I’d highly recommend to anyone remotely interested in the topic to read these books. They are academic in style, structure and language, but remarkably accessible in my view. I’m not a social scientist, nor an expert in most of the fields that are represented by the authors (in fact, I’m not sure if there are any lawyers at all in the list of authors!), but the editors and authors have done a lovely job of making their fields relevant broadly.

For starters, the series Foreword, by the group of “series advisors,” is wonderful. I can’t imagine how six people came to agree on such a clear text, but somehow they did. There must have been a lead author who held onto the pen; it’s far too coherent to have been written by committee. (The advisors are: Mizuko Ito, Cathy Davidson, Henry Jenkins, Carol Lee, Michael Eisenberg, and Joanne Weiss. One imagines that the voice of the program officer at the MacArthur Foundation who made it all possible, Connie Yowell, is in there somewhere too.)

The Foreword is worth reading in full, but a few key lines: “Unlike the early years in the development of computers and computer-based media, digital media are now commonplace and pervasive, having been taken up by a wide range of individuals and institutions in all walks of life. Digital Media have escaped the boundaries of professional and formal practice, and the academic, governmental, and industry homes that initially fostered their development.” Those are simple statements, clear and right on. One of the reasons to pay attention to this topic right now is the pervasiveness, the commonplace-ness of the use of these new media, especially by many young people.

Also, their working hypothesis: “those immersed in new digital tools and networks are engaged in an unprecedented exploration of language, games, social interaction, problem solving, and self-directed activity that leads to diverse forms of learning. These diverse forms of learning are reflected in expressions of identity, how individuals express independence and creativity, and in their ability to learn, exercise judgment, and think systematically.” The work of the series authors, I think, bears out this hypothesis quite convincingly.

At the same time, the series advisors make plain that they are not “uncritical of youth practices” and note that they do not claim “that digital media necessarily hold the key to empowerment.” It is this spirit of healthy skepticism that one can hear through most of the essays in the series — and which is essential to the academic enterprise they’ve undertaken.

So far, I’ve finished the book on “Youth, Identity, and Digital Media” (ed. by David Buckingham) and “The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning” (ed. by Katie Salen) and am part of the way through each of the others. Each one is excellent.

In the ID book, I found particularly helpful the first piece on “Introducing Identity” by David Buckingham, which took on the hard definitional and discipline-related questions of identity in this context. He put a huge amount of scholarship into context, with sharp critiques along the way. The essay by our colleague danah boyd (on “Why Youth (heart) Social Network Sites,” a variant of which is online) is already a key document in our understanding of identity and the shifts in conceptions of public and private (“privacy in public,” and the idea of the networked public — related to but not the same as Yochai Benkler’s similar notions of networked publics). And the notion of “Identity Production as Bricolage” — introduced in “Imaging, Keyboarding, and Posting Identities” by Sandra Weber and Claudia Mitchell — is evocative and helpful, I thought. The many warnings about not “exociticizing” (danah often using the word “fetishizing”) the norms and habits of young people and their use of technology, as well as echoes of Henry Jenkins’ work on convergence and his and Eszter Hargittai’s study of the participation gap came through load and clear, too. (I am pretty sure I can hear dislike of the term “digital natives” in between certain lines, as well.)

There’s much more to like in the book, and much more to work into our own understanding of ID in this environment, than I can post here. There’s an equal amount of insight in the Games book too. (The class I am co-teaching with David Hornik starts in 31 minutes and I should probably prepare a bit more than I have already.)

Born Digital

For the past few years, Urs Gasser and I have been working on a book project together about a phenomenon that we have become obsessed with: how some young people, including our kids, use technologies in ways that are different that what we’ve seen before. The book is called Born Digital (Amazon seems not yet to know of Urs’ involvement; we’ll have to tell them). It’ll be out sometime in 2008, published by the good people at Basic Books.

(We decided to go with Basic Books because it is wonderful and we love the editors, and because they published the most important book in our field, Lawrence Lessig’s Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace and its sequel, Code 2.0. and other classics of the emerging digital literature, like The Cluetrain Manifesto.)

Our goals, among other things, in writing this book are to address and take seriously the concerns of parents and teachers and others perplexed by what’s going on; to highlight the wonderful things that some Digital Natives are up to; to make a series of policy arguments about what we ought to do about this phenomenon; and to set this issue in a global context — as part of the bigger story of globalization.

Two things prompt this blog-post: 1) to answer a persistent question we’ve been hearing from our friends and collaborators; and 2) to engage the assistance of anyone who wants to participate.

As with many overly-ambitious research projects, you start in one place and — you hope, I suppose — end up someplace a bit different that where you expected to get. That’s surely the case for us on this project.

So, first off, the issue. It’s a definitional issue, always an important starting point in a research project. We began this project interested in a distinction that others thought up and have pursued in various way: the difference between “Digital Natives” and “Digital Immigrants.” (There’s an interesting short history, which we track, of the etymology of these terms, a subject for another day.)

We wanted to hone in on what it means to be a Digital Native and what the practices and lives of Digital Natives tell us about our society and about our future. One of the primary struggles we’ve faced is that these two terms alone — Digital Native and Digital Immigrant — are unsatisfactory on their own. They give rise to discomfort on several levels.

One, we’ve heard a few times that the term “Digital Native” carries with it connotations that are not all good, that it’s un-PC. That concern is worth acknowledging and talking through with anyone concerned about it, but given that we think it’s a wonderful thing in most ways to be a Digital Native (or, indeed, native to many other environments, like Boston, my hometown — “I am a Boston native” and am proud of it), I think that’s not a crisis.

The deeper discomfort comes from what is a little math problem:

- Not all people born during a certain period of history (say, after the advent of BBSes) are Digital Natives. Not everyone born today lives a life that is digital in every, or indeed any, way. For starters, only about 1 billion of the 6.7 billion people in the world have regular access to the supposedly “World Wide Web.” In other cases, young people we are meeting choose to have little to do with digital life.

- Not all of the people who have the character traits of Digital Natives are young. The term “Digital Immigrant” doesn’t describe those people either — people like Urs and me, like our colleagues at the Berkman Center who are over a certain age — who live digital lives in as many ways, if not more, than many Digital Natives. Many of us have been here as the whole digital age has come about, and many of our colleagues have participated in making it happen in lots and lots of crucial ways.

We’ve been struggling hard with this problem. One of the benefits of “still writing” this book (we have a full draft, but are far from ready to go to print) and being in the throes of interviews and focus groups is that we are still working on getting it right.

We started out asking whether there is a straight “generational gap” between those Born Digital and those who were not. The point of our research, in the first instance, is to take up these terms Digital Native and Digital Immigrant, and work them over. What I think we’ve found is that age is relevant, but not dispositive. What I think we are describing in our book is a set of traits — having to do with how people interact with information, with one another, and with institutions — that are more likely to be found in those Born Digital, but not certainly so. Many people Born Digital have some but not all of these traits. Many people who were not Born Digital — you (who read this blogpost) and me and Urs and perhaps most Berkmaniacs, to be sure — have these traits and more, more even than most Digital Natives. That’s essential to the puzzle of the book. There is a generational gap, but it’s not purely a generational gap. It’s more complicated.

So, here is a typology which we think emerges from what we’ve learned:

1) those who are Born Digital and also Live Digital = the *Digital Natives* we focus on in this book (to complicate things further: there is a spectrum of what it means to live digitally, with a series of factors to help define where a Digital Native falls on it);

2) those who are Born Digital (i.e., at a moment in history, today) and are *not* Living Digital (and are hence not Digital Natives);

3) those who are not Born Digital but Live Digital = us (for whom we do not have a satisfactory term; perhaps we need one — our colleague David Weinberger suggests “Digital Settlers”);

4) those who are not Born Digital, don’t Live Digital in any substantial way, but are finding their way in a digital world = Digital Immigrants; and,

5) those who weren’t Born Digital and don’t have anything to do with the digital world, whether by choice, reasons of access or cash, and so forth.

There may be more categories, but these are the essential ones. Our book focuses on the first — those Born Digital and who Live Digital lives.  Though it’s not the focus of this particular book, the third category is also deeply relevant to the narrative.

It may well be that there will prove to be a generational divide between those Born Digital and those not Born Digital. What we are focused on here, though, is the particular population — rather than the generation — of those who were both Born Digital and Live Digital, and what their lifestyles and habits and mores mean for the present and the future.

As it often the case, danah boyd says it better than I could in her talk at 4S earlier this fall:

“While I groan whenever the buzzword ‘digital native’ is jockeyed about, I also know that there is salience to this term. It is not a term that demarcates a generation, but a state of experience. The term is referencing those who understand that the world is networked, that cultures exist beyond geographical coordinates, and that mediating technologies allow cultures to flourish in new ways. Digital natives are not invested in ‘life on the screen’ or ‘going virtual’ but on using technology as an artifact that allows them to negotiate culture. In other words, a ‘digital native’ understands that there is no such thing as ‘going online’ but rather, what is important is the way in which people move between geographically-organized interactions and network-organized interactions. To them, it’s all about the networks, even if those networks have coherent geographical boundaries.”

What we seek to describe in this book is an emerging global culture of people relating to information, one another, and institutions in ways that, taken together, has great promise for the future of democracies. Digital Natives — people born digital — give us reason for hope that this global culture could emerge. Some of their behaviors also give reason to worry, at the same time, about things like privacy, safety, information overload, and IP worries. We need to take these problems seriously and get in front of them, without ruining the environment that makes all the wonderful things possible.

In this book, we argue in favor of greater connectivity. That connectivity might be between parents or teachers or lawmakers who don’t live any part of their lives online and our kids who do. That connectivity might be between those in industry who are threatened by what these kids and others (us) are up to online and the culture that we represent. That connectivity might be between technology companies and their users, whose identities they seek otherwise to control. That connectivity might be between those of us in the rich world and those in less rich parts of the world, as GV makes possible. And so forth.

That leads to the request for help, or at least invitation to participate. Our goal is to carry out much of this research and writing in a public way. To that end, we’ve got a wiki at DigitalNative.org where anyone can come and contribute. Much of what we’re reading and learning shows up on this wiki. We’d love to plug our work into the work of others, and learn from what others are learning.

We are lucky to have an amazing team of people at the Berkman Center and the Research Center on Information Law at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland working with us on this research, too, including the focus groups and interviews we’re conducting. Our work is coming along much better than it otherwise would with the able guidance and critiques of this team at our backs. We are lucky, too, to be able to read the work of many social scientists, cultural anthropologists, neuroscientists, psychologists, teachers, and others — people like Mimi Ito and our colleagues at the Berkman Center, danah boyd, Corinna di Gennaro, Shenja van der Graaf, and Miriam Simun — who understand aspects (or the whole) of the phenomenon we take up here far better than we do. We’d love to have your help, too, in working through these problems online.

Keith Sawyer's Group Genius

On the long flight from Boston to Shanghai, I read R. Keith Sawyer‘s recent book, Group Genius. It’s definitely a worthwhile read for anyone who cares about how innovation really works as a functional matter; anyone who runs any kind of an organization; and anyone who ever struggles with trying to do something creative, whether alone or with others. Sawyer takes on the romantic myth of the solo author/inventor/genius with a persuasive argument about “the unique power of collaboration to generate innovation.” I happen to be pre-disposed to thinking he’s right, but the many examples he gives (Morse, Darwin, Picasso, companies like Whole Foods, YouTube, and Google, and so forth) helped to clarify my own thinking about innovation and creativity and how they come to pass.

A few thoughts that the book sparked in me (Sawyer talks a lot about “sparks”), for which I am grateful:

- Urs Gasser, Colin Maclay and I have a long-running series of conversations about collaboration across institutions, interdisciplinarity, and international comparative work in our field. It’s our shared (I think!) view that it would be very, very hard, if not impossible, effectively to study what we study — the implications of changes in information technologies on society, with an emphasis on law and policy — without collaborating with others. The Berkman Center, our shared professional home, works best, in my view, when it makes possible collaboration between creative people, some of whom work at Berkman/HLS and others who are just friends. In a more formal sense, we work deliberately with other institutions, like Urs’s Research Center for Information Law at the University of St. Gallen; JZ’s Oxford Internet Institute; Lawrence Lessig’s Stanford Center for Internet & Society; Jack Balkin and Eddan Katz’s Information Society Project at Yale Law School; our partner institutions in the OpenNet Initiative (the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab; University of Cambridge; and OII); and so forth. I am not certain that we are accomplishing “group genius” through any of these collaborations, but I am quite sure that our work would be much less richly rewarding without them. As the Berkman Center morphs from an HLS-based institution to one that draws more formally on the work of others at Harvard in the next year, we hope that our work will continue in this direction of more interdisciplinary, more comparative, and more creative.

- It made me reflect, too, on Urs’s recent blog-post about his two week stay with us in Cambridge this summer. We spent a good bit of time (never enough, of course) talking about what we want to say in the book that we are co-authoring, Born Digital, and what we hope to accomplish in the related Digital Natives project. This is a field in which many, many good and smart people have been working very hard to understand how young people use new information technologies and what it means. We hope for our work on this book and this project to be complementary, not competitive, to this emerging body of work. As lawyers, but also scholars interested in interdisciplinary work, we’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about what our “comparative advantage” is — what is it that our training and mode of analysis can enable us to offer to an increasingly rich body of literature. Our goal has to do with both understanding what others have come to know through good empirical and qualitative study; to use a global, not local, lens in assessing this emerging population (rather than generation) of digital natives; and then to offer useful thoughts on how to move forward to head off the worst problems (encroachments on privacy, intellectual property concerns, information overload/credibility issues) and take advantage of the opportunities (innovation, new modes of teaching and learning, civic activism, semiotic democracy). After conversations with Urs, Ethan Zuckerman, danah boyd, and others, I’m freshly persuaded that meaningful, lightweight collaboration is essential to doing sound work in our field (not that we’re there yet, but working on it, and the Group Genius argument helps a lot in this regard).

- Fundamentally, I’m persuaded also that our highest calling at the Berkman Center may be to create an environment in which scholars and teachers can do better work than they’d do on their own.

A few modest critiques:

- Sawyer’s last chapter talks about policy approaches to “Creating the Collaborative Economy.” Several of his proposals relate to intellectual property. Curiously, this chapter was the least persuasive to me of the book’s 11 chapters, even though I expect that I roughly agree with what he argues in his seven proposals. I think I was left unconvinced in part because it’s hard to talk about copyright terms, patent reform, mandatory licensing, non-competes, the standards-making processes, and other complex legal puzzles in a paragraph each. There’s at least one counter-argument for each of the arguments he makes that’s worth exploring, in most instances from the point of view of an economist. Also, with some of the arguments, such as “3. Legalize Modding,” I agree with the gist of the argument, but I wonder about the specifics of what Sawyer writes. First, how much of a problem there is in reality — is the DMCA Section 1201, with its current exceptions, standing in the way of much modding (other than very specific circumvention of TPMs that surround copyrighted works) in practical terms? Maybe, but there’s a serious empirical question to be answered. Sawyer claims: “There are thousands of people like the extreme bike jumper who invented a way to keep his pedals from spinning. One reason they don’t share is that those modifications are often illegal. The U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act — designed to prevent users from making illegal copies of software, music, and movies — has the side effect of making it impossible to modify the products consumers purchase.” (p. 223) While I’m no big fan of DMCA Section 1201, to which Sawyer refers here, it’s not the case that most consumer modifications of things they buy in general are illegal. The DMCA 1201 makes illegal just the circumvention of effective technological measures designed to protect copyrighted works — a much more narrow statement than the one that Sawyer makes here. So, the ban he refers to is the ban on the act of circumventing a certain set of technologies, not the making of modifications to something you’ve bought (copyright, separately, might disallow certain modifications under the exclusive right to make derivative works, but that’s a different argument). I realize that the act of circumventing and making the modification are related, but they’re different, to be sure. In short: while the punchlines may be right in this final chapter, the analysis perhaps warrants its own book, rather than a short chapter.

- One thing in the book puzzled me; I am not sure if others who have read it had the same question. On p. 108, he’s talking about how the most creative scientists also happen to be the most productive. The argument, building upon the work of Dean Keith Simonton, reads in relevant part: “… the sheer productivity of a person — the raw output of creative products — is correlated with the creative success of that person … it turns out that for any given creator, the most creative product tends to appear during the time of most productivity. Paradoxically, slowing down and focusing on one work makes a person less creative.” (pp. 108 – 9). In the graph on that same page, titled the Distribution of Scientific Productivity, I think it shows those scientists with the fewest articles to the far left of the graph (with the greatest number of scientists on this end of the graph) and the most articles (and fewest scientists accomplishing this feat) on the far right. (Separately, I wonder if it is a Pareto distribution?) In any event, the text seems to place Darwin at the “left in the figure” (emphasis mine), whereas I would have expected Darwin to be at the right of the figure. (p. 108) I might be misreading this section or misunderstanding the graph, or perhaps it’s just a typo. It’s not that important; I think I get the point of the argument.

Separately, on recommendation engines: As an aside, I logged into Amazon.com to link to Sawyer’s book there. I noticed that my first recommended book in Amazon is William Gibson’s Spook Country. The Amazon recommendation engine is clearly getting good: that’s the most recent book I bought, at Logan Airport before I left (sorry, Amazon; nice try, though!).

Interview with Urs Gasser

The Berkman communications team has been conducting a series of interviews with our fellows. The interviews are written up and posted to the Berkman website. The most recent interview is with Prof. Dr. Urs Gasser, a faculty fellow and the director of a research center at the University of St. Gallen. His center — along with a few others, like the OII, the Citizen Lab in Toronto, Dan Gillmor’s citizens’ media center — has become one of the key international partners to the Berkman Center in carrying out our mission.

An excerpt from the interview:

“Q: Have European markets taken a different approach than the U.S. towards regulating digital copyright? Is there an attempt being made to approach digital rights issues from a global perspective as opposed to a nation/market-specific point of view?

“Urs: Painted in broad brushes, it is fair to say that the U.S. and European copyright frameworks follow similar approaches as far as digital rights issues are concerned. This doesn’t come as a big surprise, since important areas such as, for instance, the legal protection of technological protection measures have been addressed at the level of international law – e.g. in the context of the WIPO Internet Treaties. However, the closer you look, the more differences among the legal systems you will find, even within Europe, where copyright laws and consumer protection laws, to name just two important areas, vary significantly if you move from – say – Germany to the U.K. as our Berkman/St. Gallen studies have demonstrated. But from the “big picture perspective” you are certainly right, there is a global trend towards convergence of digital copyright law, driven especially by TRIPS and the WIPO treaties, but also (and equally important) by bilateral free trade agreements.”

For more on Urs’ center and his colleagues, check out the Research Center for Information Law at the University of St. Gallen (I am proudly a member of its Board), as well Daniel Hausermann’s blog.