Combinatorics or combinatorial design is closely related to the legal battle between copyright lawyers and audiences for the right to remix. Due to the current regulation over intellectual property, any derivative work containing copyrighted material is subject to a penalty.
An important advocate for remixing has been Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig, who has written extensively on the necessity to strengthen our remixing culture and has developed formal protocols for indirect collaboration and sharing through the Creative Commons License. For Lessig, there is a clear distinction between what he calls “Read/Write” culture (RW) and “Read/Only” (RO) culture. RO culture is defined by societies that only consume culture, while RW cultures are able to both consume and produce.22 This distinction echoes the ideas presented by Jeremy Rifkin and Alvin Toffler when defining a “prosumer” culture, where the consumer becomes the producer of their own goods.23
For Lessig, literacy is not just determined by the ability to read but also by the ability to write and potentially alter the content. The current trend of corporate and media development is to develop RO cultures and protect professional creators through copyright laws. The production of consumers are considered amateur and of little value. In an RO culture, the user becomes the resource for the extractive capitalism that was defined in Chapter 1. Read Only means extractivism from rent. This stifles the possibilities for any autonomy or emancipation of the user. On the other hand, a RW culture threatens existing forms of production by providing cheaper alternatives or circumventing production chains, thereby reintroducing the individual’s labor into the production process. As Lessig states:
Yet the history of the Enlightenment is not just the history of teaching kids to read. It is also the history of teaching kids to write. It is the history of literacy—the capacity to understand, which comes not just from passively listening, but also from writing. From the very beginning of human culture, we have taught our kids RW creativity. We have taught them, that is, how to build upon the culture around us by making reference to that culture or criticizing it... reading, however, is not enough. Instead, they (or at least the “young people of the day”) add to the culture they read by creating and recreating the culture around them.24
What emerges out of Read and Write culture, especially if it is coupled with strong access to Common-Pool Resources and knowledge, is an emancipatory form of DIY culture that is not interested in self-production as a hobby but as a real capacity for organization and participation in and outside the market. If we are to understand remixing as a mechanism for social mobility, it is important to dismantle the protectionist provisions that have been achieved by copyright laws that perpetuate a model of value extraction as opposed to value production.
Faced with a socio-political agenda embedded in the notion of remixing, we are to reconsider continuous tectonics that generate, as we have discussed in Chapter 2, impenetrable designs that are resistant to social recomposition. Parametric design, in this sense, contributes to the construction of barriers of entry that annihilate user driven “free innovation.”
Combinatorial value production
Through the process of combinatorial design, it is possible to arrive at diverse possible outputs or design patterns. Some of these patterns might prove more valuable in a given context. The production of (valuable) patterns in a network can be studied by the rate at which an agent exercising recombination is able to explore different information states. For this to happen, a network needs to facilitate ways for order to be accumulated and propagated by the combinatorial actor, who, if we think socially, are the members of a community. This sets in motion a large crowd machine that can explore the possibility space with purpose. MIT physicist Professor César Hidalgo presents a compelling case for the rare configuration of atoms, described as information-rich states defining physical order, writing that “in a physical system, information is the opposite of entropy, as it involves uncommon and highly correlated configurations that are difficult to arrive at.”2’ Configurations that are “difficult to arrive at” could be understood in the context of design combinatorics, as explored in Chapter 3. Discrete units offer less friction to a process of recombination, opening the possibility of a higher number of iterations at the moment of recombination. Moreover, the process of reversibility, an ideal condition for discrete assemblies, allows for a reduction of waste in the form of obsolescence. The role of reversibility for reconfiguration and adaptability as a value proposition can be observed in the notion of “Architecture Mobile” by Yona Friedman (Figure 4.3) or the “Demountable Architecture” of Jean Prouvé (Figure 4.4).
Hidalgo explains how information grows through social structures such as firms. In his studies of the work of economist Ronald Coase, he explains that the friction generated by the cost of interactions, analogous to links in a network, can define the
FIGURE 4.3 Architecture Mobile drawingbyYona Friedman. Architecture is considered as a reversible reconfigurable structure.
system’s boundary. Coase uses these properties of links to explain the rise of firms and commercial enterprises. In the words of Hidalgo:
Coase’s intuition tells us that the ability of networks of firms to hold knowledge and know-how will depend on the cost of links. That is, when making and sustaining links is inexpensive, creating large networks of firms will be easier, and accumulating vast volumes of knowledge and know-how will be easier, too. When links are expensive, on the other hand, it will be harder to connect firms, and so it will be harder to create the networks of firms and people needed to accumulate vast volumes of knowledge and know-how. In short, when links are costly, our world becomes fragmented.26
This reflection by Hidalgo explains why companies like Apple seek to create autonomous ecosystems for the free exchange of ideas within a company. The closed architecture of Apple demonstrated in the “part-less” design of iPhones are tactics of power asymmetry to consolidate market power and advantage over social production.
A redistribution of power requires a reconsidering of networks as democratic and participatory infrastructures that seek to reduce the cost of links between individuals. A process of social recombination shouldn’t be understood as crowdsourcing, where hierarchy is able to extract value from social contributions but
FIGURE 4.4 6x6 M Demountable House by Jean Prouvé. Prouvés projects seek to establish protocols of deployment and reversibility, scaling elements to the capacity of human assembly.
Source: Image © Galerie Patrick Seguin.
rather as a flat, peer-to-peer form of mutual aid. Discrete Architecture needs to be understood as an effort to reduce the friction for recombination and increasing the iterative power of social free innovation. In an age of digital communication, the “playground” in which this act of social recombination takes place is the Internet. The project of constructing new standards for digital platforms is an imperative to reclaim the Internet as a tool for the propagation of knowledge and the flow of ideas, and not only as the accumulation of value by network providers.