My Brain on Freedom

Mike Linksvayer

A cost of participation in free knowledge movements is “stupidity” – an assault on intelligence, wisdom, reason, knowledge. The net effect of free knowledge on intelligence is probably positive, possibly hugely positive if free knowledge movements succeed in thoroughly commoning the noosphere, making collaboration and inclusion the dominant paradigm for all economically valuable knowledge production and distribution. But the stupidity costs of free knowledge are real and painful, at least to me. Fortunately the costs, if acknowledged, can be decreased, and doing so will increase the chances of achieving free knowledge world liberation.

I want to explore briefly how individuals, communities, and society are affected by various kinds of costs of free knowledge. This is going to be cursory and incomplete. Very possibly also stupid: my mind has been infected by free knowledge for about 25 years.

Commitment makes us morally stupid, lazy, and unconvincing. Claiming that knowledge freedom is a moral issue is not a valid moral argument, but merely an unsupported claim which ought be embarrassing if not immediately followed or preceded by justification and more importantly, critique of said justification. This is not to praise people who claim that freedom (or openness) is a matter of efficiency rather than morality – they haven’t avoided making a moral claim. Moral claims about freedom and efficiency as top values have been relentlessly scrutinized by moral philosophers and social scientists. Still there is much more to say. Free knowledge movements probably have much to contribute to the discourse, but we have to stop being satisfied with straw man arguments and propaganda, even while acknowledging that such have a place. Paths forward include breaking down and scrutinizing “free as in freedom” from the perspectives of various conceptions of freedom and other values and objectives such as efficiency, equality, and security. Doing so will make you morally smarter, more interesting, and make it more possible for people and movements with non-freedom top goals or different conceptions of freedom to join in the struggle for free knowledge.

Opportunity cost. Participating in free knowledge movements often entails filling one’s brain with ridiculous trivia (e.g., about copyright), developing one’s skills to workaround underdeveloped systems and institutions (e.g., administering one’s own server, [self-]publishing with little or no support for financials, distribution, marketing), and self-exclusion from dominant venues and tools. Each of these has a huge cost. You could be learning something non-ridiculous, developing capabilities and competitive advantage rather than engaging in a brutal exercise of de-specialization. One step forward is to admit that these are huge costs, take them on carefully, and avoid criticizing those who fail to fail to take them on, at least not without acknowledging that they are costs rather than, or at least in addition to being moral imperatives. Once admitted, free knowledge movement actors might prioritize reducing these costs.

Scale. Free knowledge movements are often thought of as “bottom up” – see phrases such as “many eyes make bugs shallow” and “democratized innovation”, the idealization of DIY, decentralization, and contribution by individuals and small non-profits; and suspicion of huge government and companies – at best dominant institutions can be “hacked.” Now DIY and bottom up innovation and small non-profits are vital and cool (well maybe small non-profits are only vital) – but alone, they are dwarfish and stupid. Huge systems and organizations are not only corrupt and unjust – they have huge economies of scale, deep and specialized knowledge, and win markets and wars. Small scale free knowledge actors are foragers who feel comfortable among their kin and kindred, fearful of the farmers and their kings and armies – and are about to (on the scale of human history) be driven to extinction. If freedom is important, freedom movements abhorring large institutions is the ultimate stupidity. The path forward is clear – the handful of already sizable free knowledge organizations such as Wikimedia, Mozilla, and Red Hat must get much larger, entrepreneurs (“social” or “for-profit”) attempting to create more free knowledge “unicorns” (we can count consumer surplus and other social values in the “billions” evaluation) encouraged, and sights set on taking the commanding heights (e.g., mandating free knowledge through procurement and regulation) rather than voluntary marginalization and hacks. One conception of a stupid person or movement is one that consistently fails to meet its stated goals, or consistently is outperformed by its competition, effectively taking two steps back for every one forward, with bonus for failing to realize this is what is happening. In this sense dwarfish free knowledge actors are stupid, and will remain so until they crack the logic of collective action, mostly through huge free knowledge institutions, though other improved coordination mechanisms may help as well.

Diversity. Free knowledge movements aren’t very diverse, which contributes mightily to the costs of joining and scaling, and thus intelligence, in addition to missing out on intelligence benefits of diverse perspectives documented elsewhere. Much has been written about lack of diversity in free knowledge movements, and there is currently considerable effort by various actors to increase diversity, so let me re-confirm my biases; that is, make additional suggestions. Moral certainty is bad for diversity. It is repulsive on its face, but also allows continuing failure to make free knowledge concerns pertinent to more diverse groups. Huge opportunity costs make participation feasible only for the relatively privileged, self-limiting diversity. Lack of scale makes free knowledge movements insular and non-diverse. Like hanging out with culturally similar committed free knowledge hacks? Great, you’re in the right social club. Want world liberation? The cost in the short term might be shedding some certainty, insularity, and fear, and thus feeling stupid. It’ll make you, me, and free knowledge movements much smarter in the longer term.

Toxin. One topic endemic to most free knowledge movements is worth calling out as an especially potent brain toxin: licenses. Yes they’re necessary for the most part given bad default knowledge governance. But they make us stupid, over and above knowledge of copyright, patent, and other regimes entailed. Identities are wrapped up in particular license preferences. Consequential claims of license effects are strenuously argued with zero evidence. No worked-out model, no empirical evidence, whether from economics lab or natural (possibly instigated) experiments. Anyone looking at these debates from the outside (unfortunately almost nobody does so we’re spared the richly deserved embarrassment) ought to laugh at the level of evidence freedom observed. Emphasis on licenses is morally ruinous. Developers, authors, etc. are placed in a privileged position: supposedly freedom is the right of all, but creator choice is lionized. The consequences are terrible too: creator choice is a recipe for dwarfism. Licenses are a distraction as well from public policy. Acknowledging again that licenses are necessary, the step forward seems obvious: re-conceptualize licenses away from vehicles of creator choice towards prototypes for commons-favoring public policy. This exercise and actualization will make free knowledge movement actors much smarter – we’ll have to engage with the non-dwarfish implications of free knowledge and actually convince people with other top policy concerns rather than hide from them.

One way to decrease the stupidity of free knowledge movements is more cross-fertilization and knowledge and tool sharing across said movements. Stupid-making knowledge acquisition about topics such as copyright and licenses ought not need to be re-experienced in each free knowledge movement silo. Intelligence-building comprehensive criticism also ought be shared across silos. Breaking apart the silos would also increase diversity – each has a different mix of participants, even if they are also almost all biased in some of the same ways. While good for the whole, a warning to individuals: attempting to learn about and cross-fertilize multiple free knowledge movements might come at an extra high cost to your intelligence.

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