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Lessig on Digital Barbarism

Lawrence Lessig has posted a review of David Halperin's recent book, Digital Barbarism.

Halperin, who authored the (in)famous New York Times article calling for perpetual copyright, has now compiled his ideas into a book. Lessig offers a much-needed critique, including citing misconceptions about Creative Commons (Halperin conflates it not only with "freeware" with software... more

The tragedy of the Commons in the developing world
Paul Jacobson · Johannesburg Gauteng (South Africa) · Feb 21st, 2008 5:38 pm · 37 votes · 1 comment
blackout 4, polkabike (, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 (
blackout 4, by polkabike
When we come together on this site to celebrate our creativity we perhaps tend to take advantage of certain other everyday necessities that are more commonplace, and yet also included in this thing we call the "Commons". One of these things is electricity. Another is our connection to the Internet. For the most part these two utilities enable much of the sharing we do online and without them, the wonders made possible by tools like Creative Commons, GPL and more like them, would be pretty limited.

South Africa has recently been struck by an energy crisis, which has virtually swept aside all other contentious issues and has become the preferred topic of discussion in virtually any social or business context. The energy crisis affects almost everyone, some people more than others. The rolling blackouts have reminded us of the urgent need to develop and maintain our electricity supply, a shared resource that sustains much of what we do in our daily lives. Regardless of whether you attribute the crisis to corruption or ineptitude on the part of the South African government that knew about the impending crisis as early as the late 1990s, the fact is that our demand for electricity outstrips the country's ability to supply the power needed. The effect on the South African economy is potentially devastating and we are bound to feel the effects of this crisis for years (perhaps even decades) to come.

It doesn't help that electricity supply in South Africa has been the sole domain of Eskom, a parastatal with a monopoly over this fundamental resource. Rather than facilitating the development of the country's ability to keep up with the explosion of economic growth since 1994, this monopoly has slowly strangled development until darkness began to envelope us, literally. Another sector has suffered a similar fate. Until recently, Telkom has enjoyed a legal and practical monopoly over South Africa's telecommunications infrastructure and, with that, our connection to the outside world through the Internet. Although it hasn't been traditionally regarded as part of the Commons, meaningful Internet connectivity in the 21st century must be regarded as a shared resource all people should have access to. With the sheer volume of information and knowledge being shared across this mesh of copper, fibre glass and radio spectrum increasing every day, the inability to participate in the wired world constitutes a deprivation of a vital resource and threatens to explode the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

What better illustration of this disparity than the stark difference between the availability of broadband in South Africa compared to more developed regions like North America and Europe. A mere eight percent of the South African population was estimated to have access to the Internet in 2007. This represents roughly 3.85 million South Africans out of a population of around 48 million. Of those people who have access to the Internet, only 650,000 or so users have access to some sort of broadband technology (although there is a dispute as to which of Telkom's ADSL services are properly regarded as "broadband"). A couple of years ago I recall hearing that more than 50 percent of the population in the United States had access to broadband and much of the balance of the population had access to the Internet through dial-up. I am sure those statistics are skewed more in favour of broadband access now.

Now South Africa is not alone in its plight. In Africa there are a number of other countries with their own examples of underdeveloped resources. In many of these instances the root causes are largely corruption and profiteering by a tiny minority while the vast majority of the population remains impoverished.

South America has its own sad tales to tell. In 2001, Brazil experienced the culmination of a similar energy crisis to the one of which South Africa now finds itself in the grip. The crisis in that country seems to have been caused by a combination of a terrible drought which starved the Brazilian hydroelectric industry of as much as 90 percent of the water required to power the country, as well as a poorly managed privatisation initiative. The Brazilian crisis could have been a template for the situation South Africa finds itself in. Like Brazilians, South Africans find themselves facing rolling blackouts and exhortations by the government and Eskom to save power and turn off lights and appliances during peak consumption times. I can't help but wonder why the South African government didn't see the Brazilian crisis as a reason to review its decision not to invest more in local power generation.

So what does all this have to do with the Commons? Everything. We tend to focus on intellectual property when we talk about the Commons and we have forgotten about the forms of the Commons we take for granted. What is the Commons but a resource that is collectively shared by and for our collective benefit? Is that not an adequate description of electricity and, at the beginning of the 21st century, meaningful access to the Internet? If that is the case, is a failure to develop the infrastructure to facilitate access to these shared resources not a fundamental tragedy of the Commons? This tragedy is more dire when you consider that without these two simple resources our growing culture of shared digital content and creative expression doesn't even take its first breaths. What could be more tragic?

tags: south africa policy-law electricity load-shedding blackouts power-failure utilities commons developing-world

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farhad We cannot think of civilization without electricity. According to UN research data, by 2030 half of the worlds population will be living in slums without safe water and electricity.Micro-credit and cooperative lending initiatives
have become something of an urban cargo cult among well-meaning NGOs but they have little macro impact on the reduction of poverty, even in Dhaka, Bangladesh,home of the Grameen Bank; increasing competition within the informal sector is dissolving self-help networks and social solidarities essential to the survival of the very poor. This is the reality and you are absolutely right. But we must not give up our fight. This time we will win!
farhad · Dhaka (Bangladesh) · Feb 29th, 2008 5:15 am
your call: is this comment useful?
your take: useful lame

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