Recent readings and reports turn up some provocative examples of what Brett Frischmann, Kathy Strandburg, and I call cultural commons — institutions that enable the structured sharing of knowledge and information rights and resources. The examples illustrate many of the promises and perils of institutions colored by degrees of openness and closure.
From the New York Times: “Swatch, Supplier to Rivals, Now Aims to Cut Them Off.”
Swatch’s dominance of watch manufacturing dates to the early 1980s, when Nicolas G. Hayek, father of the current chief executive, was entrusted by banks to take over two indebted watch companies. He merged them and turned the combined business into a mass-volume production platform [commons, if you will] for what the company’s Web site describes as “a low-cost, high-tech, artistic and emotional ‘second watch’ — the Swatch,” as well as for other brands.
The merger received the blessing of the competition authorities and was seen as a last-ditch attempt to save a sector whose work force had shrunk almost two-thirds in 15 years, to 33,000 employees in 1984.
Employment has since climbed back to 49,000, and watch companies now face the problem of recruiting enough qualified staff to meet their orders.
In June, the Swiss competition authority ruled that Swatch would be allowed to lower its deliveries of mechanical movements to third parties next year to 85 percent of the 2010 levels, pending an antitrust investigation and a final ruling on whether Swatch could stop supplies altogether. That ruling is expected in the second half of next year.
From the New Yorker: “Battle Lines,” reviewing Stephen Mitchell’s new translation of The Iliad. Mitchell and the reviewer, Daniel Mendelsohn, agree that the modern Iliad is recognized as a kind of wiki-composition (commons, if you will) rather than the work of a single, solitary author. They disagree over the wisdom of Mitchell’s approach, stripping away the accretions and interpolations to reveal what Mitchell claims is an even greater poem, leaner, more dramatic, more awe-inspiring. Mendelsohn argues (and I quote the abstract):
But too often his insistence on speed forces him to sacrifice nobility. Part of the way in which the epic legitimizes its ability to talk about so many levels of existence and so many kinds of experience is its style: an ancient authority inheres in that old-time diction, the plushly padded epithets and stately rhythms. All this, along with many other subtle effects, is gone from Mitchell’s Iliad, which, in its eagerness to reproduce what Homer says, strips away how he says it. The Iliad isn’t pure; its richness, even its stiffness, is part of what makes it large, makes it commanding, makes it great. It doesn’t need to be modernized, because the question it raises is a modern one: how do we fill our short lives with meaning?
Also from the New Yorker: “Crunch,” about the development of modern apples and particularly about the development and release of the “SweeTango,” a “club apple” [commons, of a sort] produced at the University of Minnesota. From the abstract:
Instead of an ‘open release,’ which meant that anyone could grow the apple, the university decided to release it as a ‘managed variety,’ or what’s known in the business as a ‘club apple.’ The university would grant a license to an outside company, which would establish a consortium that could market and grow the apple nationally. Growers could apply to the consortium for permission to grow the apple and, if accepted, would be obliged to sign a lengthy contract stipulating how and where they could grow it, as well as where they could sell it.
Not all growers are pleased.
And from one kind of apples to another: The Future of the Internet blog on Microsoft’s new Windows 8 app store and how it re-creates (in part) the gatekeeping problems posed by Apple’s iOS and Mac App Stores. That post builds on earlier arguments (Jonathan Zittrain) about “the end of the PC,” that is, the end of the idea that computer users have the power to add software to their machines without having their choices filtered by an intermediary. Comparatively “open” technologies are succeeded by technologies that are comparatively “closed.” This case, like the Swatch example shows that the problem of intermediaries is not simply their existence, but the nature of the power that they exert.