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The literacy ladder

A call for the reconstruction of the Commons is to acknowledge the social structures and contributions that are necessary to populate the literacy ladder in the public domain.The literacy ladder is a form of social production where participants of a network are able to populate a spectrum of knowledge. A weak ladder might take the form of an Open Source project that has been developed among expert users with very little documentation for how to engage and access such knowledge. The strong literacy ladder, on the other hand, is a road map to knowledge that emphasizes a gradual upward mobility. While this is a process well known to educators, as educational programs are designed in the form of degrees, many of these initiatives remain behind restrictive fees, forcing many students to incur debt in order to access knowledge. The liberation of access to journal articles such as the efforts by Aaron Swartz resonate with current educational efforts offered by Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) that seek to make public education a right, not a privilege, such as Khan Academy. The production of a literacy ladder is associated to the production of Commons not only as pool of resources but also as social systems. As has been outlined by De Angelis, a Commons as a social system needs three constituent pillars:

  • • pooled material/immaterial resources or commonwealth.
  • • a community of commoners, that is subjects willing to share, pool, claim, commonwealth.
  • • commoning, or doing in common, that is a specific multifaceted social labour (activity, praxis), through which commonwealth and the community of commoners are (re)produced together with the (re)production of stuff, social relations, affects, decisions, cultures.23

It is his second and third points on which we should concentrate today’s efforts and practices. The pursuit of competition as a form of progress has proven to be ill-equipped for allowing democratic access to knowledge production. The act of populating the literacy ladder with Open Source contributions, technical documentation or publicly available educational materials are acts of “commoning” that slowly start to identify emergent commoners who understand that a literacy ladder should operate as a form of“Commonfare,”24 or socially produced and collectively sustained social welfare. What is obtained from this move, as has been argued by social scientist Brigitte Kratzwald, is the possibility to re-think welfare through the lens of the Commons, offering an opportunity for citizens to take control and device bottom-up rules for organization. Commoning becomes a form of “selfprovision,” taking responsibility for the management of shared resources.2’ Such new commons-driven organizations should not be thought to replace provisions established by the state but to complement them, generating civic organizations that can negotiate both with the state and the market.

There is a risk that an Open Source approach wherein knowledge is produced socially could be exploited and utilized as foundational knowledge for lucrative enterprises. This presents a persistent thread of market enclosure that places shared common production at a disadvantage with proprietary enterprises due to its openness and public accessibility. Efforts such as the GPL license by Richard Stallman or the Creative Commons Licenses offer fundamental tools for protection of the commonwealth. Yet more can be done to break the power asymmetry between commercial interests and their access to the Commons. This is challenging, as any initiative that would attempt to obscure or restrict access to the Commons via commercial interest runs into the risk of increasing the barrier of entry to the public. This problem gives echoes yet again of Morozov’s argument, that openness is not the objective but rather a mechanism sometimes useful, sometimes problematic. Perhaps what is necessary is the development of a form of “Crypto-Commons,” structures that protect themselves from enclosures, through technical, legal or organizational means. An example of this can be found in the “Climate Strike License,” a software license where “developers can prohibit the use of their code by applications or companies that threaten to accelerate climate change through fossil fuel extraction.”26 As stated by the license in their website:

Climate Strike License violates the Open Source Initiative’s canonical Open Source Definition, which explicitly excludes licenses that limit reuse “in a specific field of endeavor,” we feel that as tech workers, we should take responsibility in how our software is used, and that the urgency of climate change cannot be limited by the ideological position of open source software.27

The production of software as infrastructure for the coordination and production of Commons, as discussed in Chapter 4, does not need to subscribe to the truism of openness but needs to establish clear (and technical) commitments for lowering the barrier of entry, contributing to the production of a literacy ladder, enabling self-provision and also resisting market enclosures that operate at a market advantage. The objective of socially minded technological progress should not be technology itself but rather a community of commoners that allows for a transition between architecture dictated by the current accumulations of capital and new forms of self-provision.

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