Sunday, May 05, 2013

It's not about gadgets, it's about governance

I've been researching and talking a lot lately about Digital Civil Society. These are the elements of our society where we use our private resources for public good in and on digital platforms.

It includes "digital activism," civic technology, social network organizing, open data sharing, and nonprofits built on digital assets - such as WikiMedia, Creative Commons, Mozilla Foundation, Kiva, DoSomething, the Digital Public Library of America, Public Library of Science, Reg4All and many, many others.

To make talking about it easier, I refer to the non-digital ways of using private resources for public good as "analog" civil society - the ways we've been doing things like organizing, protesting, helping, sharing our private resources for centuries. The distinction is rhetorically easy, but also makes it sound as if the activities are more distinct than they might be. We are doing many of the same things - giving, volunteering, sharing, protesting, helping - but using digital tools.

So, is it the tool that matters? No. I don't think it's the gadget - phone, tablet, computer - that makes the distinction between digital and analog worth considering. I think it is the underlying economics of the assets that really matters.

In technical terms - digital stuff works differently than analog stuff. Think about a digital book. One original is all you need to make countless copies. The copies are indistinct from the original. Everyone can access online digital material simultaneously. You'd never really need to produce (ooops, almost wrote "print") more than one original if you put it in a digital library.  Everyone who wanted to could have free, immediate access to it.

Except for the impact that this is feared to have on authors and publishers, there's nothing (technologically) preventing digital books from working this way. But they don't - because as much as we care about libraries we also care about authors. The Digital Public Library of America, and the decisions it's making to thrive in the current complicated environment of technical possibility, legal requirements and business model concerns is a good example of how the digital assets that underlay this library require it to be quite different from the Carnegie-building library in your community.

Analog actions tend to be about money or time, and the regulations and rules we've written to structure this sector of our economy have been about money.

Digital actions require us to think about how digital assets (data, bits, ones and zeroes) work. How they can be copied, owned, shared, stored, scaled, and preserved. We need to think about how we use, share, preserve, and protect private digital assets for the public good.

Digital civil society is not about gadgets. It's about governance.

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