Tim Morgan publishes his third blog post in our Emerging Fellows program by asking about the ownership of capital. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
If you can’t open it, you don’t own it. That is the unofficial motto of the world-wide Maker Movement, which emerged along with the early development of the World Wide Web. It celebrates the fusion of art, technology, and do-it-yourself inventiveness. It inherited much of its emphasis on openness from the earlier Free and Open Source software (FOSS) movements.
FOSS formed in response to proprietary software which could not be changed by anyone but the copyright owners. FOSS advocates professed that collaboration via sharing source code was the best way to develop software. Makers embraced FOSS sharing sensibilities in no small part because automation was key to many of their projects. It was easier to bootstrap a new creation by copying and modifying existing code or hardware.
This free-as-in-speech information sharing ethos shaped the way the early Internet developed. Shared code forms the foundation of many commercial operating systems. Android alone powers over 2.7 billion smartphones and devices worldwide. The Internet and Web as we know them would not have expanded as quickly without shared-source software. This desire to share information is a design consequence of digital networks. Information can be copied with perfect fidelity as many times as desired. Perfectly copying information from computer to computer is fundamental to the design of the Internet. If the medium is the message, then the message of the Internet is to Share.
The drive to share is fundamental to human nature. Digital technologies unexpectedly created a new type of social structure that champions sharing - an Abundant Information Commons. Value is added by modifying for your needs; be it code, a design, a formula, or a written work. Those changes are then released back into the commons for anyone to use and improve.
Digital technologies are not completely free from restraints though. Individual possessiveness is in human nature too. Information may want to be free, but markets do not. Algorithms and hardware can put controls on data. Laws can penalize unauthorized use. The old ownership modes still exist, but now they are in tension with a network that wants to copy information. After several decades, we have reached an uneasy balance between owned information capital and shared information commons. Wikipedia did not replace Encyclopedia Britannica, but it did force it to adapt.
This balance is still shifting though. The more digital technology is embedded into everything, the more networks find new connections into physical, legal, and market domains. Cracks in the foundational layers supporting ownership are being slowly forced open by the roots and tendrils of ever-expanding networks. What was once purely physical is being bonded with the virtual.
Nothing owned is safe from this increasing integration with the digital realm. Networks want capital to be data-like and are actively working to make that happen by embedding code and connections in every owned thing.
The traditional capital triad of Ownership, Control, and Use is thus giving way to the networkable capital triad of Copying, Modification, and Sharing. The dynamic of how the virtual and real will fuse together will determine how future value is created.
The future of ownership is that if you want to own capital, you will need to find a way to open at least part of it and share.
© Tim Morgan 2019