From free and open-source software, Creative Commons licenses, Wikipedia, remix music and video mashups. peer production, open science, open education, and open business. The world of digital media has spawned a new "sharing economy" that increasingly competes with entrenched media giants.
Reporting from the heart of this "free culture" movement, journalist and activist David Bollier provides the first comprehensive history of the attempt by a global brigade of techies, lawyers, artists, musicians, scientists. businesspeople, innovators, and geeks of all stripes to create a digital republic committed to freedom and innovation. Viral Spiral--the term Bollier coins to describe the almost magical process by which Internet users can come together to build online commons and tools-brilliantly interweaves the disparate strands of this eclectic movement. The story describes major technological developments and pivotal legal struggles, as well as fascinating profiles of hacker Richard Stallman, copyright scholar Lawrence Lessig, and other colorful figures.
It started with that great leap forward in human history the Inter-net, which gave rise to free software in the 1980s and then the World Wide Web in the early 1990s.The shockingly open Internet, fortiﬁed by these tools, began empowering a brash new culture of rank amateurs—you and me. And this began to reverse the ﬁerce tide of twentieth-century media. Ordinary people went online, if only to escape the incessant blare of television and radio, the intrusive ads and the narrow spectrum of expression. People started to discover their own voices . . . and their own capabilities ...and one another.
As the commoners began to take charge of their lives, they dis-covered anew that traditional markets, governments, and laws were often not serving their needs very well. And so some pioneers had the audacity to invent an infrastructure to host new alternatives: free and open-source software.Private licenses to enable sharing and by-pass the oppressive complications of copyright law. A crazy quilt of Web applications. And new types of companies that thrive on servicing social communities on open platforms.
At the dawn of the twenty-ﬁrst century, the commoners began to make some headway. More people were shifting their attention away from commercial media to homegrown genres—listservs, Web sites, chat rooms, instant messaging, and later, blogs, podcasts, and wikis. A swirling mass of artists, legal scholars, techies, activists, and even scientists and businesses began to create their own online commons. They self-organized themselves into a loosely coordinated movement dedicated to “free culture.”
The viral spiral was under way.
Viral spiral? Viral, a term borrowed from medical science, refers to the way in which new ideas and innovations on the Internet can proliferate with astonishing speed. A video clip, a blog post, an advertisement released on the Internet tumbles into other people’s consciousness in unexpected ways and becomes the raw feedstock for new creativity and culture. This is one reason the Internet is so powerful—it virally propagates creativity.A novel idea that is openly released in the networked environment can often ﬁnd its way to a distant person or improbable project that can really beneﬁt from it. This recombinative capacity efﬁciently coordinated through search engines, Web logs, informal social networks, and other means—radically accelerates the process of innovation. It enlivens democratic culture by hosting egalitarian encounters among strangers and voluntary associations of citizens. Alexis de Tocqueville would be proud.
The spiral of viral spiral refers to the way in which the innovation of one Internet cohort rapidly becomes a platform used by later generations to build their own follow-on innovations. It is a corkscrew paradigm of change: viral networking feeds an upward spiral of innovation. The cutting-edge thread achieves one twist of change, positioning a later thread to leverage another twist, which leverages yet another. Place these spirals in the context of an open Internet, where they can sweep across vast domains of life and catalyze new principles of order and social practice, and you begin to get a sense of the transformative power of viral spirals.
The term viral spiral is apt, additionally, because it suggests a process of change that is anything but clean, direct, and mechanical. In the networked environment, there is rarely a direct cause-and-effect. Things happen in messy, irregular, indeterminate, serendipitous ways. Life on the Internet does not take place on a stable Cartesian grid—orderly, timeless, universal—but on a constantly pulsating, dynamic, and labyrinthine web of ﬁnely interconnected threads radiating through countless nodes. Here the context is as rich and generative as any individual.Viral spiral calls attention to the holistic and historical dynamics of life on the Web, which has a very different metaphysical feel than the world of twentieth-century media.
The viral spiral began with free software (code that is free to use, not code at no cost) and later produced the Web. Once these open platforms had sufﬁciently matured, tech wizards realized that soft-ware’s great promise is not as a stand-alone tool on PCs, but as a social platform for Web-based sharing and collaboration. The commoners could then begin to imagine: How might these tools be used to overcome the arbitrary and confusing limitations of copy-right law? One answer, the Creative Commons (CC) licenses, a free set of public licenses for sharing content, helped mitigate the legal risks of sharing of works under copyright law. This innovation, in turn, helped unleash a massive wave of follow-on innovations.