Access—transparency from surveillance
The failure of ephemeralization that we have discussed in Chapter 1 is the failure of the “trickle down” model of knowledge propagation. It has become urgent to dedicate at least an equal amount of effort to the problem of diffusion and implementation of new technologies as has been given to the problem of innovation. This was understood by Stewart Brand, who in 1968 founded and published the Whole Earth Catalog.11 The Catalog was an initiative to share and propagate information about a wide variety of tools and techniques. Buckminster Fuller is listed as a contributor and inspiration for the publication. The Whole Earth Catalog, a mid-20th century publication, remains progressive in its approach. Much of its content is dedicated to smart geometries that minimize the use of materials or clever ways to harvest land. Its subtitle Access to Tools points to the importance of the distribution of knowledge and access to performance and quality through the items in the catalog. At the center of the Whole Earth Catalog was a principle that design is a distributed form of social recombination, one in which a large repository of objects and technologies available would be accessible to individuals for improving society at large. The legacy of the Whole Earth Catalog has been profound and far-reaching, influencing a large number of other publications and business strategies. However, it is perhaps only today, on the back of a new and invigorated DIY maker-movement, that one can refer back to the significance of its format, as an open-ended list for public recombination.
The problem of knowledge production and protection for it to remain accessible to the public has been an ongoing battle as the power of copyrights has grown over time. In 1989 Richard Stallman developed the General Purpose License (GPL).12 The GPL was a response to what Stallman had identified as a problem that stifled the innovation and creativity of software developers. The problem was copyright laws and proprietary software. As economist Joseph Stiglitz has argued, there is no evidence that extensions of copyright laws have any benefit for innovation. Stiglitz categorized copyrights as property that does not generate additional value but extracts value as a rent.13
Stallman’s proposition was to devise a legal license—the GPL—that would ensure that software or content developed licensed under it would remain free to be copied, modified and distributed. In the words of David Bollier: “Instead oflocking the code up as private property it ensures everyone the freedom to copy, modify or distribute a software program as they see fit, including to sell it at a price.”14
Additionally, the GPL license had a recursive component, as any derivative work developed from a software licensed under the GPL would have to maintain a GPL licensing. In principle, this would provide a legal framework for the production and expansion of content in the public domain. As explained by Stallman, the emerging “free software” movement was not concerned with giving access for free but with the freedom of access.
Free software allows for public scrutiny of the extractive practices that software providers obfuscate behind the fine print of user agreements. By enabling access to the code of a software, members of the community are able to denounce features that violate the trust of users, features that if exposed publicly would deincentivize users to use that particular product. Not all users are expected to play this custodial role, but some will, and do. Without any public scrutiny or regulatory oversight, software becomes a black box: inaccessible and obfuscated from any public access.This leads for an opportunity to execute data extraction protocols for further commercialization.
While a closed copyrighted system currently is the format in which companies protect innovation, this mechanism restricts the free flow of knowledge to parties that could further advance the ideas put forward. This generates an artificial sense of scarcity. The stifling of innovation has occurred for years, as companies sit on patents and do not develop the patents’ technology further. This has been the case with the 3-D printing revolution that had to wait for years for the patents of plastic extrusion to expire, eventually allowing for a myriad of companies to look at 3-D printing from several different perspectives. The openness of software offers a key advantage in the propagation of knowledge. In the words of Joseph Stiglitz: “Abusing the patent system is another avenue for reducing competition. Patents are a temporar}' barrier to entry.”15
The argument behind copyrights is that by granting exclusive right of access and protection from competitors, the market incentivizes innovation. But patents have lost their original intent to operate as an incentive and have become a legal tool, used and abused to dismantle competitors. As Stiglitz argues, large corporations own thousands of patents that they allow each other to use, constructing serious defense against new entrants.16
The usefulness of patents is predicated in an economic framework of corporate competition where continuous innovation is the tool for market advantage.Yet this is not the only model of innovation out there. Eric von Hippel offers the framework of“free innovation” to describe the innovation done by users without a commercial interest. Von Hippel’s studies demonstrate that the model of free innovation lives in parallel to that of producer innovation and is able to operate in a far more organic and inclusive way.17 Von Hippel’s distinction identifies a different motivation for the pursuit of innovation. While producer innovation seeks to maintain a competitive advantage, the self-organizing peer-to-peer production that characterizes free innovation is always linked to a form of value production, where wealth remains in the network.18
Discrete Architecture and the combinatorial framework presented in Chapter 3 seek to accelerate and provide design theory for von Hippel’s free innovation paradigm, allowing parts to become a vehicle for the propagation of knowledge. In this paradigm, the performance of a part is not evaluated by its singular performance toward an output but rather as the social performance to contribute to a multiplicity of scenarios, what we have denominated “combinatorial surplus.”The part may be suboptimal for one design context but offer multi-context performance.
An analog)' can be found in the evolution and growth of the popularity of certain programming languages. The proliferation of different programming languages in the last 30 years has allowed for a myriad of different design paradigms. Some of these allow for modularity and the possibility of re-combination. The paradigm of Object-Oriented Programming (OOP) has become one of the most widely adopted programming paradigms for its capacity to develop autonomous and reusable objects. In an OOP paradigm, code is structured to define objects, or entities that have a definition independent of the context in which they may interact. These objects can be defined with a series of public and private variables that determine the access that other objects will be granted in a given interaction.The OOP paradigm is interested in the way objects can relate with one another through libraries, or lists of objects previously developed by other developers.
The value of the paradigm appears once a designer has accumulated a library of objects, accelerating their ability to respond to a new scenario and increasing exponentially the possible combinations between already created digital objects. Objects become custom tools for a designer. Their reusability becomes a valuable resource over time. This value is further amplified when pools of objects are made available for the use of others. The incentive for a developer to share the content they have produced with a network is based on the value acquired when all other members of the network have done the same. The result is a non-zero sum game, where everyone can benefit from the exponential capacity of recombination of self-contained objects. Designers who have engaged with programming, and in particular OOP languages, develop a profound understanding of the inheritance of knowledge, as software and code is always an aggregate of virtual objects and ideas that have been developed by others.This aggregate is not a collage where pieces are mashed together but rather a careful combinatorial pattern of discrete units.
In the context of OOP, objects constitute the building blocks for a form of social recombination. These phenomena could be studied and understood through the lens of the Processing.org community. Processing, a programming language developed by Ben Fry and Casey Reas,” builds upon the work ofjohn Maeda and many others at MIT who have sought to increase the literacy of programming by reducing the complexity that is faced by those learning how to code. The Processing environment places importance on the proliferation of design through the open sharing of code via online platforms. The language of Processing is Open Source and users are encouraged to not only engage the framework for design, but also to extend the framework through the development of libraries. Libraries become large pools of unrelated objects that can be accessed by a user in the implementation of a particular design.
Another example is the popular architecture programming framework Grasshopper for Rhino, developed by David Kutten.20 Grasshopper has popularized parametric design by increasing the accessibility for designers who seek to define networks that can output a multiplicity of outcomes through the simple glide of a slider. It is not the parametric design framework that is of interest here but rather social recombination model that Grasshopper, as well as many other visual programming languages, afford. Grasshopper has been designed to be a discrete combinatorial social tool, where developers are invited to contribute to new self-contained blocks of code in the form of capsules that are later to be recombined by users. The success in adoption of Grasshopper is due to its combinatorial approach to knowledge propagation and not necessarily for the design paradigm (that of parametrics) that it advocates.
From the Whole Earth Catalog to Grasshopper, the central structure that precedes social recombination is that of the “list” or repository of objects. Lists are important, as they begin to offer a possible formalization of the Commons. In his book Alien Phenomenology, Ian Bogost explores how the format of lists allows breaking from a tradition of continuity;
Lists offer an antidote to the obsession with Deleuzean becoming, a preference for continuity and smoothness instead of sequentiality and fitfulness.
FIGURE 4.1 Grasshopper plug-in for Rhino designed by David Rutten. The programming language is contained in discrete units that can be connected to perform parametric functions. Each unit, following the principles of Object-Oriented Programming, is a self-contained object with inputs and outputs.
FIGURE 4.2 Grasshopper plug-in for Rhino designed by David Rutten. The connection between units establishes a functional assembly.
The familiar refrain of “becoming-whatever” (it doesn’t matter what!) suggests comfort and compatibility in relations between units, thanks to the creative negotiations things make with each other. By contrast, alien phenomenology' assumes the opposite: incompatibility. The off-pitch sound of lists to the literary ear only emphasizes their real purpose: disjunction instead of flow. Lists remind us that no matter how fluidly a system may operate, its members nevertheless remain utterly isolated, mutual aliens.21
Lists offer a framework for collective construction, one that does not target a cohesive objective or totality like a system but rather targets a field for diverse and even contradictory contributions. Lists offer a framework for formalized Commons, as repositories of discrete units available for recombination. The emergence of value or meaning is linked to the contingent event of design as an act of recombination.