Innovation Under Austerity

Yesterday at the Freedom to Connect conference, Eben Moglen delivered a fantastic talk entitled “Innovation Under Austerity”.  It’s about an hour long and is really worth the watch.

Eben lays out, in clear, compelling terms, the case for open, decentralized, bottom-up innovation as the clearest way for us to address the big and increasingly complex challenges we’re facing in the world today.  We have the opportunity to deliver the world’s knowledge to everyone, everywhere — and at the same time to unleash the most powerful force for positive change possible: our own creativity.  Eben’s main purpose of the talk is to introduce innovation as the frame for convincing our leaders to support an open Internet — that makes sense to me, and his talk should give advocates for the open internet a lot to go on in this direction.

I also want to point out one idea that really stood out to me: about halfway through, Eben hits on the important role that autonomy plays in the facilitation of innovation.  I never thought about autonomy in much depth before, but Eben lays it out as one of several forms of privacy (the others being secrecy and anonymity) that directly enables creativity and innovation.

Think about it like this: cities have always been places of great creativity and innovation.  A large part of the reason for this is that, in cities, people are able to escape “the surveillance of the village” and “the social control of the farm” (in Moglen’s words) — and experiment with “new ways of living”.  This is possible because cities give people the ability to be alone among the masses — while at the same time being together with others who share their interests.  They are able to escape (or temporarily divert from) the identity and context of their life, and explore new things without fear of social consequence.  They are autonomous, and that breeds innovation.  If you think about it, it makes perfect sense.

And the Internet is the same way — the old adage that on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog is a big deal.  The ability to be who you want to be, where, and when and with whom is a great part of the freedom of the net — it’s part of what drives community, and it’s a part of the foundation for innovation.  It’s easy to buy into the idea that real names are the foundation for civic discourse, when in fact history tells us the opposite.  If we’re not careful, we run the risk of enabling a total surveillance environment in the name of stability and progress — and Eben’s point is that we should use innovation as the frame for steering a different course.

There is so much more I could dig into in Eben’s talk, but I’ll leave it there for now.  For anyone who is interested in innovation, the internet, free culture, and “nerd politics“, this is a must watch.

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