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Exactly one month ago I casually noticed that Michel Bauwens was about to give a talk in Helsinki, an initiative of Pixelache and the University of Helsinki (along with the online journal Commons.fi  and Helsinki Timebank). It was worth attending, the conference was dense with information and examples of cooperation from all over the world: e.g. The Nutrient Dense Project, from Tasmania  or Wikispeed  (US), a collaborative process for car making.

While US prepare for presidential elections, in this small country like Finland today is municipal election day. Also the Pirate Party is present, with a high number of candidates. A good moment for talking about Peer-to-peer and the Commons.

Tasmania Sheffield

Bauwens is the founder of Foundation for P2P Alternatives: ex-entrepreneur, he has been developing a thought for “a new mode of civilization, where the core of decision-making should be located in civil society, and not in the market or in the State”. In the actual crisis of representative democracy there is space for new forms of horizontal egalitarism, on the model of computer networking, alternative to the classical hierarchical mode of organization. Renewing with the forms of cooperation of the past, of workers and peasants, a new economic thought can be developed.

According to Bauwens, the current system is based on a false idea of abundance of resources, supposed to be infinite, underlying the ideology of infinite growth. And on a false idea of scarcity, which makes us believe we always need to buy more. As we realize day by day and globally, sustainability is more and more necessary. The cost of this relentless expansion is the current stagnation.

New modes of production are being invented, such as peer production: “a for-benefit model” opposed to the “for-profit one, with a more positive impact on social happiness”. “A bottom-up mode of participative decision-making”, complementary to the democratic institutions but working for a “convergence between individual and collective interests”.

In a rapid and fascinating historical survey, Bauwens pointed out that the Roman Empire tried to get out of its crisis by re-localizing the productive resources. The emerging new system was fostered by the young Catholic Church, an open-source movement anti-litteram! Well before the Renaissance, the Templars in 12th century “moving money for pilgrims, invented the first bank accounts”.

While in capitalism the market relationship is based on unequality, in gift and/or exchange economy the relationship is more balanced, involving individuals voluntarily contributing to common projects. Even new currencies are being experimented, such as BitCoin  (valid to buy a Wikispeed car) and other alternative currencies

With open-source softwares such as Wikipedia, Linux and Arduino, shared property forms are increasing their weight (being in the US already 75% of the total). The underlying idea is universal availability, which implies the free circulation of knowledge. Under the pressure of the Internet, our world is becoming more and more controlled, copyright laws becoming more and more restrictive (the same fear which closes our frontiers?)

According to Bauwens and others, knowledge should be comprised among the Commons, that is a resource belonging to everyone. Intellectual property is a resource exactly as forests, atmosphere and ecosystems. New forms of licenses are already existing, such as General Public and Creative Commons Licenses.

“We need an entrepreneurial coalition to sustain the Commoners (…) Open business models go hand in hand with sustainable living”.

As it happened “with the Industrial Revolution, the arise of capitalism came along with a social change, the main system being in crisis. As at the end of the Roman Empire, when the pressure of Germanic tribes compelled to rethink a local strategy, in an emerging new system of values (Christianity); farmers were expelled by their lands, there were massive exodus: then peer-to-peer activities permitted to survive”.

Nowadays countries as Brazil succeed thanks to “a new way of thinking, solidarity economy”: Lula, as a ministry of Culture, encouraged open logistics projects, e.g. small coffees in the favelas with music, cinema and so on. Open research and crowdfunding make these experiences grow.

Bauwens wonders what the future political impact of this all will be: if sub-cultures need politics to defend themselves, a young generation of social entrepreneurs is emerging, “turning capitalism upside-down for social goals”. An ex. is the French Fair Trade Electronic, processes which imply “a direct intervention in the productive system”. As in the cases of the Greek potato movement, or the musical network in North-Eastern Brazil, its poorest state, with its internal currency.

With the end of welfare state and the subsequent devastation of civil society, good public infrastructure are needed; an ethical market place may be an answer to the decomposition of society, as capitalism was an answer to three centuries of religion civil wars.

We need to shift from the idea of scarcity to that of balance, optimize the resources, as in eco-villages or car-sharing agreements.

Nowadays it´s evident that “national States are uncapable to deal with the problems, a global orientation is needed, to p2p energy and technology”. We need to “manage the existing resources instead of fighting for scarce resources”, which may lead to “big social upreavals” in the near future. 50% of German energy is already produced cooperatively. With the support of the State the change may go double fast.

This process will lead to a transformation of the State in perspective, institutes for the Commons are needed, as Tommaso Fattori points out.

According to Bauwens, even “the invention of money has been a political choice, depending on a decision. In Middle Ages taxes did not depend on currencies. Money is design, not something given, and we can redesign it!

The challenge is to create new practices (as the Time Bank), de-monetized activities where people and nature come first. Creating an alternative circle to the current financial system.

If you are still curious, you can watch Bauwens´ talk here.

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Open Knowledge Festival third day (Thu 20.9.) opened in a controversial way and closed up with a wave of sheer enthusiasm.

The morning first talk was held by Finland´s former Prime Minister Anneli Jäätteenmäki, presently working at the EU Parliament: her visit was an unexpected one for this kind of audience and a courageous choice on her part. Jäätteenmäki´s career has been spotted by an act of lack of transparency, known as Irak-gate: elected in March 2003 for the Centre Party, she had to resign in June, accused to have used confidential Foreign Ministry documents for political purposes during the election campaign, against her rival Paavo Lipponen. The documents contained diplomatic information from a meeting between George W.Bush and Lipponen, where the latter would have offered Finnish support to the international coalition, a breach against Finnish official policy of neutrality – in a country where most of the people considered the Iraq war an illegal war of aggression. Jäätteenmäki had to resign rapidly, having lost the trust of both her party and the Paliament.

In spring 2003 Finland was probably the only country in the world where both Prime Minister and President were women. Some inferred that Jäätteenmäki´s conduct was heavily sanctioned also because of her gender. The affair showed indeed a mixture of lack of transparency and political clumsiness.

Her talk at OKFest didn´t convince either. If it may be true that the European Commission has moved forward since 2008 to nowadays, with its growing interest in open data, quoting ACTA ´s rejection as a victory of direct democracy sounded quite demagogical. A couple of provocative questions about EU´s lack of transparency came from the audience: “why farmsubsidies (about 55 billions € per year) are not published anymore?” On the contrary “in Latvia if you get any cent from EU it is instantly of public domain”, someone commented. And: “what do you think about the process leading up to EFSF and ERM and other European financial stability instruments? The process has been very closed”. She answered as she could,  pleading for more transparency in financial instruments and the European Central Bank ´s conduct, without anyway saying anything substantial.

Hans Rosling ´s evening speech contrasted sharply, with its combination of experienced brilliance and an impressive amount of facts. A professor of global health at Stockholm Karolinska Institutet, he spent two decades in rural Africa as a physician, tracking the causes of a rare form of paralytic disease. He is among the founders of Médecins sans Frontièrs (Doctors without Borders) in Sweden and of the Gapminder Foundation, a non-profit venture which aims to increase public conscience about how the world is changing and make statistical information widely understandable.

With a mixture of pragmatism, understatement and irresistible sense of humour, Rosling ranged over some major subjects, from population trends and their supposed impact about the environment, to poverty, new political balances and climate change.

But he especially insisted about one thing, the need to break clichés which circulate at large: “save all the poor children, and the environment will be destroyed”, “all Chinese cannot have a car” or “rainforest people live in balance with nature”. What´s wrong in these catch-phrases?

Data in hand, he maintained that “the demographical bomb” will not explose, due to facts that balance each other in the decades: if it´s true that Africa will double its population before 2050, and Asia will grow of another billion units, on the other hand the combination of prevention and difficult life conditions (e.g. in crisis areas) is already causing a shrinkage of the births. Frequent question like “why are there more children per woman in muslim countries?” prove to be totally wrong, as this is often not anymore the case: prejudice, ideology and ignorance often veil our eyes. Rosling affirmed that population in history has always been a constant, balanced by many concurrent factors. If it will take a certain time to decrease, it won´t certainly increase exponentially, as we fear. Followed the funniest scientific demonstration I ever attended! If you´re curious have a look here (starts at 56´37´´):

The modernized world is “no doubt a better world“, e.g. compared to the Middle Ages, when infant mortality was still dramatically high (as in the rainforest today), still “it is not good“. If China has the largest foreign exchange reserve in the world, with a consistent minority of new riches, 60% of the world population lives with 2-10 dollars a day, while 20% (in the so-called Western world) ownes 74% of the wealth. An unbroken silence filled the auditorium, as Rosling displayed the most dramatic data about poverty and child mortality, sharply contrasting with the laughters we shared a minute before.

The atmosphere changed again, with a brilliant commentary of the photo of the leaders of G20 summit 2008, during the blast of global financial crisis caused by the US:

Bush, the advocate of democracy, stands near Lula, not exactly a democrat (and moreover lending 30 billion dollars to the US); Sarkozy finds himself between a muslim and a buddhist (!), and so on. Rosling found many examples to support his opinion, the Western world is doomed to sink under its “toxic combination of ignorance and arrogance“. The term developing countries is a false one, they will be very soon the world, concentrating the most of the world population. “There is no such thing as we and them, and even less in the future”.

OKFest auditorium

The only hope is recovering from ignorance, fill the gap in our minds between what we think to know and what the data tell us, to accept and realize how the real world is changing (look at the beautiful interactive graphs, available together with the data, on Gapminder´s site). He anyway affirmed that open data and infovisualization are wonderful tools, but will not solve the problems per se: communication is central, to make data comprehensible and useful, and enhance global conscience.

And also environmental conscience, “climate is a too serious issue to be dealt with environmental activists” (!) Climate change is a fact, “we can observe daily the dramatic diminution of the ice at the poles: not only the area diminishes, but the ice grows thinner every day, will absorb more light, melt even faster and so on.

How our countries should report? We are not investing seriously in green technology, renewable energies. We need a serious debate about energy and resources, less emotional and more fact-based; look less at details and consider more the macro situation“.

He concluded, “watch The magic washing machine video, think about it: 7 billions people, everyone 1 washing machine!”

The following day was dedicated mainly to cook, in a truely professional large kitchen, Aromi. We anyway divided ourselves between our computers, to check out the last data, and the kitchen. Shortly after it was time for presentations, carefully documented in photos and videos. A fast, almost immediate passage between reality and its virtual duplicate!

In the process some aspects had to be abandoned, for both lack of time and need to reasonably limit the research and make communication and visualization possible: I had to drop the hypothesis about the decrease of energy consumption, as a complex element which would need further investigations (in some cases no clear decrease is registered, even though the industrial production diminishes). Also the idea of saunas lay on the ground, with the puzzling question of how many they actually are in Finland (waiting to be answered in the next project!) The two aspects were eventually linked, in the case that sauna were used for both cooking fish and personal hygiene, with a reduction of energy consumption.

The task of the day was much more visual-oriented than I expected, as someone used to express mainly in sound and words. It was nevertheless extremely interesting to try to change perspective, to consider a totally different approach. Finally the composition of the dish was a pleasantly silent moment, voiding the mind from the strict data comparisons.

In this respect the idea of the workshop was really good: cooking food is putting one´s hands back into the real world and one´s feet on the ground, after all the hypothesis and speculations arisen from the data. And the task, using data (as any other abstract material) to generate something utterly concrete and physically enjoyable, was a meaningful one. As it often happens, more ideas came after everything was over, such as visualizing in the dish the dimensions of the three factories considered (from Western Finland, Ostrobothnia and Lapland), the relations between number of employed/unemployed people, the impact of the loss of the factories on the regions (more dramatic in less industrialized areas, as in Kemijärvi, Lapland), and so on.

The tasting was another nice social moment, in certain cases a challenge – not always amazingly visually presented food tastes as one would expect. The most éclatant case was Rossana´s cocktails, a study about suicide rates in Finland, Germany and Italy, where the proportions of alcoholic drinks depended on the most consumed ones in the three countries. In general the dishes were really tasty and colourfully multicultural, and finally even the cocktails found their estimators! Check out here for the final results.

The moment implied the rapid destruction of the works, in a merry mixture of creativity and destruction – a mark of the transiency of life. In this I feel much less pessimistic than Bauman[1], who complains that nowadays works of art are not thought any more to last, but to be rapidly consumed, as everything else. If this may be partly true, on the other hand using perishable or recycled materials goes on the contrary in a more natural direction, dropping the Romantic idea of art as eternal. As the ancients said, panta rhei (everything flows). A wiseness also Oriental philosophies teach us again. Without necessarily attaching to this natural phenomenon a negative sense.


[1] Z.Bauman, op.cit., p. 186