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Ubiquitous Commons

the commons in the age of ubiquitous technologies

An emancipated society, on the other hand, would not be a unitary state, but the realization of universality in the reconciliation of differences.

Philosophy

The Commons

The commons is the cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of a society, including natural materials such as air, water, and a habitable earth. These resources are held in common, not owned privately. The resources held in common can include everything from natural resources and common land to software. The commons contains public property and private property, over which people have certain traditional rights.

Today, the commons are also understood within a cultural sphere. These commons include literature, music, arts, design, film, video, television, radio, information, software and sites of heritage. The crowdsourcing movement and among others Wikipedia are examples of the production and maintenance of common goods by certain communities in the form or videos, music, or encyclopedic knowledge that can be freely accessed by anyone without a central authority.

Caring for the commons is an act of individual stewardship (long-term care for a given resource for the benefit of oneself and others including the resource itself) and collective trusteeship. It is the very essence of being ‘whole’, the fundamental basis of interdisciplinarity. It is one of the few ways we have to acknowledge our debt to the past generations, and to embody our link to future generation. It shows we believe in ourselves as an enduring civilization, not an economy.

Digital Commons

Mayo Fuster Morell proposed a definition of digital commons as "as an information and knowledge resources that are collectively created and owned or shared between or among a community and that tend to be non-exclusivedible, that is, be (generally freely) available to third parties. Thus, they are oriented to favor use and reuse, rather than to exchange as a commodity. Additionally, the community of people building them can intervene in the governing of their interaction processes and of their shared resources".

Examples of digital commons are Wikipedia, a type of Free Software and Open-source hardware projects.

Digital Commons are usually enacted by assigning particular licensing schemes to data, content, information, knowledge and products (such as software), establishing the rights to use, reuse, remix, reinterpret them.

One of such licensing schemes is the Creative Commons.

Creative Commons

Creative Commons (CC) is a non-profit organization headquartered in Mountain View, California, United States, devoted to expanding the range of creative works available for others to build upon legally and to share. The organization has released several copyright-licenses known as Creative Commons licenses free of charge to the public. These licenses allow creators to communicate which rights they reserve, and which rights they waive for the benefit of recipients or other creators. An easy-to-understand one-page explanation of rights, with associated visual symbols, explains the specifics of each Creative Commons license. Creative Commons licenses do not replace copyright, but are based upon it. They replace individual negotiations for specific rights between copyright owner (licensor) and licensee, which are necessary under an "all rights reserved" copyright management, with a "some rights reserved" management employing standardized licenses for re-use cases where no commercial compensation is sought by the copyright owner. The result is an agile, low-overhead and low-cost copyright-management regime, profiting both copyright owners and licensees. Wikipedia uses one of these licenses.

The concept behind the Creative Commons has been very well received, tuning in to the needs and transformations of society, which has transformed into the Knowledge, Information and Communication Society. Hundreds of millions of videos, images, articles, knowledge elements, software and other digital artifacts have been licensed under these schemes.

Given this, the concept is not without criticisms. From the idea of the redundancy of this concept over the one of copyright, to the potential harms coming from the proliferation of licensing schemes which are not interoperable, to the possibilities for license misuse and more, Creative Commons has been the subject of multiple critical debates, also spawning heated criticisms coming from more radical freedom of information advocates (for example Copyleft advocates, the Free Software Foundation and more), and from the subjects whose benefits and business models come from more traditional approaches to copyright.

That said, it must be noted how the Creative Commons have achieved the important goal of recognizing a global societal transformation, and have produced a process in which the rising importance of digital content in the protection of human rights – such as freedom of expression and of the right to education and information – have found a toolkit for their preservation and active enablement, both at technical, legal, social, political and psychological levels. In the process, they have also enabled the formation of entirely new business models, education/information/knowledge models, and creative industries for the arts, music, design, and more.

Copyright as an Open Protocol

In analyzing the architecture of the Creative Commons, it is interesting to note Joi Ito's vision, describing Creative Commons as a protocol, atop the stack of Internet protocols, which is usable to enable interoperable definitions of the rights of usage on content and information and, thus, the possibility for operators and users alike to know how they can use, remix, interpret, process and recombine such content.

“I used to work in mainstream media and with large corporations. And honestly I felt very stifled, I couldn’t do what I wanted to do without asking for a lot of permission. What I saw with the internet was that it was a great way for people to innovate, to think and create without asking permission, without having to wait until they are older. It was an amazingly open thing. And for me, innovation, whether it’s political innovation or technical innovation or any kind of positive change, is supported by this idea of the open internet.We have various layers: very early we had the ethernet, and then we had the Internet protocol TCP/IP, and then we had the web and now we have Creative Commons, which is very similar because it’s trying to create an open protocol that allows things to connect without asking permission. Because in the past, you had asked permission to connect a modem to the Internet. Then you had to ask permission before you set up a site. And now you have to ask permission before you use somebody’s content. And the idea of Creative Commons is to make a protocol that makes it easy to connect without asking permission. This makes it impossible for large companies and governments to control the interconnect.The non-profit things that I do and the for-profit things that I do are very similar because the for-profit companies that I invest in are trying to innovate in technology and social software by using the Internet. They are typically very small teams of people who create some product. And I think these small start-ups are creating the technology and the infrastructure that builds these open networks. And they have the DNA of the open networks. And the non-profits that I work in like Global Voices, Witness or Mozilla, Creative Commons, they are all non-profits that help try to coordinate all the people who are involved in trying to create this open Internet.For me I think that the open internet is not only an important business thing, I think it’s the pillar for an open society in the 21st century.”

Joi Ito on We Magazine

The Ubiquitous Commons

In these years we, as human beings and as members of local, global and translocal societies, are living yet another step in our social and political mutations.

From the notion of the Information, Communication and Knowledge Society we are moving onward to embracing the Network Society.

Network society is the expression coined in 1981 related to the social, political, economic and cultural changes caused by the spread of networked, digital information and communications technologies. The intellectual origins of the idea can be traced back to the work of early social theorists such as Georg Simmel who analyzed the effect of modernization and industrial capitalism on complex patterns of affiliation, organization, production and experience.

The term network society, nettsamfunn, was coined in Norwegian by Stein Braten in his book Modeller av menneske og samfunn (1981). Later the term was put to use in Dutch by Jan van Dijk in his book De Netwerkmaatschappij (1991) (The Network Society) and by Manuel Castells in The Rise of the Network Society (1996), the first part of his trilogy The Information Age.

Van Dijk defines the network society as a society in which a combination of social and media networks shapes its prime mode of organization and most important structures at all levels (individual, organizational and societal).

It is easy to see how this process is currently going ahead at full speed, with profound impacts and transformations on the ways in which we work, relate, care for our health and well-being, express, ensure our rights, relate, share information and knowledge, educate ourselves, consume and, in general, live our daily lives.

In the Network Society Information and Knowledge are ubiquitous.

Services like Google, Facebook and Twitter create a knowledge/information, identity and information/updates ecosystem which is spread across devices and modalities which interact with what we know about the world and its inhabitants, and also transform the ways in which we experience places, locations, events, monuments, tourist locations, restaurants, venues and more.

Messaging applications reach us ubiquitously. Imagine running in a park, within nature, and receiving an important message from the office: the park instantly – if temporarily – disappears, replaced by an ubiquitous office, from which we interact with colleagues and co-workers.

Devices, sensors, gadgets and wearable technologies (and, soon, prosthetics and bodily add-ons and plugins) interconnect our bodies, emotions, medical conditions, movements, feelings and more to the network, exposing them on social networks, sharing them with services of the most varied kinds and more.

CCTV cameras, security and surveillance schemes, algorithms and processes of various types provide even more ways in which information and knowledge are generated with every one of our gestures, movements, clicks.

This condition is far from being transparent and clearly understandable.

The information we produce – wether we realize it or not, wether with an explicit click or by behaving in certain ways which can be algorithmically interpreted – is sold and purchased millions of times without us realizing it. And, most of all, without being able to have our say about it,wether it is to preserve our privacy, to create our own business model or in the desire to be able to determine just how our information is used, as individuals, and as members of a society, culture, organization, nation or else.

The terms of service documents which we sign for when we register to online services are not enough: barely accessible and understandable without professional legal advice, they are also too many and well-placed so that they become just too many to read, or they pose a condition of exclusion from the services which they relate to.

On top of that, these services are of peculiar types. For example Facebook. With its 1.3 billion subscribers and its policy of expansion to provide authentication facilities to millions of websites, apps and other services (even ones in the physical space), it is not a mere web application, but an identity provider and a massive societal connector. Thus, this problem cannot be simply dismissed with banal answers such as “You don't like what Facebook does with your data? Unsubscribe!”

On top of that, the interface politics and policies of these operators dedicate major efforts to the creation of visual, interaction and relational narratives which convey the supposed controllability of the publicness and privateness of these online spaces. These are opaque situations, in which an expectation of controllable publicness and of privateness is created in billions of users which is instantly betrayed, with algorithms and processes systematically abusing these expectations.

Ubiquitous Information and Knowledge is different from the content which can be handled using, for example, the Creative Commons or other current licensing schemes. It is not about mp3s, JPEGs, GIFs, PDFs, MOVs or other digital formats.

It is about the data, information and knowledge produced by bodies, locations, movements, desires, expectations, cultures, which are created, reproduced and mediated ubiquitously, online, through mobile applications, sensors, cameras, augmented reality, maps, Internet of Things, and more, consciously and unconsciously, and about the ways in which these information and knowledge are used.

This is still uncharted territory: laws, regulations, practices and common understandings still live in a grey area which is undefined and not-perceived.

Ubiquitous Commons is the commons in the age of Ubiquitous Technologies.

To start a shared, global, dialogue about these issues and about their impacts we propose:

the design and creation of an international legal toolkit using which people and organizations will be able to affirm how they wish the information and knowledge produced under these schemes and modalities shall be used;

the design and creation of a series of technical/technological tools to establish a “protocol” using which people and organizations may declare how these kinds of information and knowledge have “some rights reserved”;

the design and implementation of the schemes according to which these information and knowledge may be “protected” or “published”, across civic uses, private ones, limited private (with a specified set of subjects..), public domain or else;

a series of accessible, usable, inclusive ways in which people and organizations will be able to use the Ubiquitous Commons in their daily lives and practices.

Architecture

Protocol Positioning

Let’s start from positioning Ubiquitous Commons within the general technological scenario. Ubiquitous Commons operates on the general domain of the ubiquitous technologies, those devices, apparatuses, objects and processes which are disseminated and distributed in the environment and which are network connected, thus producing data through their functioning and the activities, interactions and behaviours of their users.

Ubiquitous Commons is a legal-technological protocol: it positions itself among the other technological protocols which operate at the level of networks and technologies and among their legal implications and the set of laws, regulations, standards and norms which regulate them. Ubiquitous Commons is an open protocol.

Ubiquitous Commons positions itself above the application protocol.

In the image above, we have operated a logical classification of currently available protocols:

physical (the ones which deal with the physical interactions which allow to transfer data and information, using electromagnetism, optic fiber, etc.);

network (the ones which deal with the logic of data transmission, such as routing, network identification, etc.);

cloud (which deals with the localization, whether physical or logical, of the storage, intelligence, processing power of the services and applications which we use, and which can vary from local up to the the effective cloud storage and processing services);

application (which deals with the experience connected to applications and services, their interfaces, service access points, sensorial experiences and more).

In this scheme, Ubiquitous Commons is positioned above the application protocol layer, allowing the users to manage (autonomously and by being interconnected with a society of peers) their interactions with applications and services, and the data which they produce through these interactions.

This positioning corresponds to a series of different scenario for positioning Ubiquitous Commons related infrastructure in the applications, services, devices and environment apparatuses which we use everyday. For example, Ubiquitous Commons can be enacted through add-ons or modifications to current web browsing technologies (for example browser plugins or extensions); as modifications to the hardware of devices and appliances; as the transformation of service access points; and more.

Currently two different types of implementations have been experimented: a browser plugin, allowing users to use Ubiquitous Commons in most of their user interactions with social networks, cloud services like Google mail, and more; a series of prototype firmware modifications for a number of wearable consumer devices (such as FitBit running wearables).

Protocol Logics and Architecture

The general architecture is shown in the image below:

Protocol Architecture

Here is a step-by-step explanation of the diagram:

When data is produced

  • in the Ubiquitous Commons environment, users can define a series of identities, which they hold and manage in what we have defined as their identity pool;
  • each identity corresponds to a digital certificate, composed by a private and public key;
  • identities can be of different types:
    • individual (e.g.: me, John Smith);
    • collective (e.g.: all the people in my neighbourhood, the citizens of Rome, the researchers of some institute);
    • anonymous (e.g.: an entity who can be addressed, but for whom the correspondence with their legal identity is unknown);
    • temporary (e.g.: an identity whose effectiveness is limited in time);
    • nomadic (e.g.: an identity which can be passed on from one legal-administrative identity to the other);
    • or a combination of the above (e.g.: for example, the people participating to a certain event could constitute a collective, temporary identity).
  • whenever a certain user generates data, this data is encrypted;
  • the encrypted data is coupled with an attribution, stating which Ubiquitous Commons identity generated it (from), and which Ubiquitous Commons identities can access the data (to);
    • this attribution is generated by the “from” identity;
  • the encrypted data goes on to the service or application for which it was generated for;
  • the attribution goes on to a peer-to-peer network or infrastructure –currently the BlockChain – in which the identifiers of the content (data) and of the from-to identities are published;
  • in this way, the user can grant the availability and access to this data to the specified identities, determined autonomously.

When data is accessed

  • a user who desires access to the data, executes a query onto the peer-to-peer infrastructure, asking whether data identifier X has been granted access to the user’s Ubiquitous Commons identity (the “to” identity in the attribution, picked from one of the identities in the accessing user’s identity pool) by the generating user (the “from” identity);
  • if the user turns out to be attributed with the possibility to access (the query returns a positive result), the user obtains the decryption mechanism (recomposing the private key necessary to decrypting the data);
  • the user uses the decryption mechanism to decrypt and access the data;
  • the transaction is logged onto the peer-to-peer network.

Possible Domains of Application

The protocol and its implementations, thus, enable users of the various types (the identity types) to autonomously express how they wish the data they produce to be used: the access control to data is externalized from applications and is hosted within a peer-to-peer infrastructure (which is used as a metaphor of society) and which is, thus, managed collectively; the process of ensuring that data is used in ways which are compatible with the ones which the identities producing that data have expressed, turns into a commons.

The research group, as indicated by the many updates from the previous months, are exploring a number of possible application scenarios, indicated in the image below. More scenarios are possible and some are coming up in the upcoming months (both coming from us and from other, independent, communities).

As described above, the emerging uses of Ubiquitous Commons fall within two main families, which can also be simultaneously present in the various scenarios: Internet of Things (IoT) and Digital Content. The first refer to the data produced by the enormous variety of network connected devices which markets are expressing. The second refer to the number of ways in which users generate digital data, information, knowledge and, in general, artefacts within their daily lives.

The main directions in which current Ubiquitous Commons applications are being explored are shown in the image above:

EDUCATION

Ubiquitous Commons can be effectively used in education scenarios. First of all, it can be used to define Knowledge Commons (and this is also valid for practically all of the other listed scenarios). By describing the individual, collective, anonymous, temporary, nomadic identities who can access knowledge it is possible to create knowledge environments in which knowledge is owned and managed by communities of users which can be inclusive as desired.

This notion is particularly valuable for education and research, where this process can be enacted to produce knowledge environments which can benefit wide areas of society which can access them by default, through the open protocol, achieving levels of radical, manageable, relational, inclusive, fine tuneable openness.

For example, this process can be enacted in regards to multimedia education materials, to students projects, to the results of production activities constructed within education processes, and more.

RESEARCH

The same can be said for scientific and humanistic research.

This goes in the direction of easy applicability and diffusion of Open Science processes, in which the results of research can be easily and conveniently disclosed and made available through the technological and legal protocol and its implications, including interoperability, computational accessibility and more.

This is valid for scientific publications, for example, and even more for data sets.

The implications are such to suggest the emergence of entirely new ways in which Intellectual Property (IP) can be managed, introducing new models oriented towards maximizing collaboration and the emergence of new socially conscious business models.

HEALTH

The implications for health are evident. Whether we are dealing with biomedical devices, data, medical records, trials, wearable technologies or the many manifestations of digital data and content in hospitals, clinics, research and general medical practice, Ubiquitous Commons can suggest and enable ways in which digital information can be shared in inclusive and responsible ways, being able to describe precise, inclusive as needed communities who can access the data, potentially causing accelerations on scientific research, the possibility to share efforts, the possibilities coming from being able to access data which is produced by a number of different subjects computationally, through a peer-to-peer network infrastructure, and more.

As in other cases, this also produces the opportunity to create new forms of relationships and of shared perceptions of participation, collaboration, responsibility and objective with all of the involved stakeholders, for example between patients, doctors, researchers and medical institutions.

SENSORS

Ubiquitous Commons enabled sensors can be used to explicitly express who the data they produce is available for, instantly enabling scientific and social practices, new business models, new alerting models, which can be designed to be shareable with a wide variety of subjects.

DEVICES

The same goes for devices, appliances and other forms of network connected objects, whose data production (automatic or in relation to user interactions) can be configured in similar ways (for example at the moment of purchase, or through an App) to enable pluggable service models, relations, user interactions, businesses, opportunities for science and for civic life.

RURALITY

At Ubiquitous Commons we have been exploring the many possible usages of this kind of scenario for rural life. Countryside, agriculture and rural villages and areas are progressively generating growing amounts of data, through devices, sensors, digital tools, social networks, smart appliances, IoT and more. The possibility to create common resource pools from these data, and to describe their collaborative management within high quality relational environments creates immense opportunities for business, social innovation, sustainability, shared immagination, construction and valorization of social capital, creation of shared sense of meaning and of objective, and more.

Currently, this is one of the most active threads in which we are experimenting adoption of Ubiquitous Commons based models, thanks to the collaboration with RuralHub.

CIVIC SENARIOS

From energy to traffic; from participatory decision-making to sharing and recontextualizing spaces; from collaboration to safety; from notification of emergencies to participating to collaborative action and production; from not being alone to creating shared meanings. Multiple types of data can be shared and used to obtain these and more effects.

Ubiquitous Commons is being investigated to bring transformative practices to apartment buildings, neighbourhoods, spaces in the city and to the ways in which people understand how they can actively and meaningfully take part in collaborative processes, also transforming the roles of institutions, which can become effective, caring catalysts, enablers and facilitators of these processes.

CONSUMER

The possibility to enable consumer devices, appliances and more to use Ubiquitous Commons opens up entirely new scenarios for exploration of consumer behaviour, both from the point of view of the protection of their privacy and intimacy, and from the one of being able to draw useful insights from people’s behavioural patterns, with enormous benefits for the environment, energy, education, research, policies and more.

SOCIAL SCENARIOS

The myriads of digital expressions of citizens all over the world constitute an immense wealth which is usable to describe emotions, relations, behaviours, conflicts and emergence in cities. These can be used to collectively extract meaningful insights and valuable understandings of what drives us, what we imagine, the things we desire and expect, and to use all of these understandings to start wide participatory actions and performances to transform our lives, promoting well-being, inclusion, differences, cultures and general, inclusive development.

As of now, the possibility to collect all of this information is limited to a handful of large operators, secret services, marketing companies and other large operators, and is not producing wide social impacts. On top of that, it is also not crear (nor it can be) what data and information people and organizations produce, as algorithms and opaque practices arise and progressively control and orient our daily lives. On one side we cannot use this data; on the other side it is even complicated to understand what it is.

Ubiquitous Commons allows for attributing citizens control over the data which they produce, and also to generate shared, meaningful patterns of perceived sensibility and responsibility, by enabling novel reflections in terms of identity, relation and belonging.

These can be used to foster new practices in which a new concept of digital public space emerges, which is accessible and inclusive, and also respectful of people’s right to self-determination and self-representation and, thus, to be able to more freely express our subjectivities, as individuals and as participants to multiple relational networks, cultures, belief systems. From consensus to co-existence.

More applications and updates are coming up. Please refer to this blog and subscribe to the newsletter (on this website) to be notified of updates.