A free culture for jobs and employment

In response to an invitation by Edge Ryders (see this blogpost), here’s my comment on the ties between youth labour issues and free culture / open movement, of which I am part.

Trying to think about free culture and jobs requires fusing together several issues that are not often thought about at once. Firstly, in the context of the post-communist part of the Baltic region, we should think about the current crisis conditions in the context of our communist-era experiences and the transformation period. It might be fruitful to consider strategies for coping with everyday life under communism - people “made do” back then under much harsher living conditions - as templates for solutions that apply as well today, albeit in totally different social, political and economic conditions. It seems that what is now emerging as handicraft and do-it-yourself movements, the makers approach or a frugality of life sometimes associated with the hackers movement, in our region has its roots in the past. “Do it yourself” was gaining momentum before the crisis - in my opinion as a reaction to growing automation and standardization of life; and to a need for doing work with your own hands, in increasingly non-material jobs and lifestyles. But in the time of crisis it gains a new, practical dimension. There’s a broader, theoretical backdrop to this idea, in the concept of Parallel Polis, developed in the 1970s, communist Czechoslovakia by a dissident, Vaclav Benda.

Benda believed that in face of corrupt, ineffective social, economic, political or cultural institutions that cannot be overthrown, the civil society needs to build their own “parallel institutions”. To this I would like to add one more idea, by a famous Polish dissident Jacek Kuroń - an idea formulated at the end of his life, already in the XXI century, and concerning our modern, ever more digital and technical societies. Kuroń - who for all of his life was not a thinker about technology - describes in his last book, “A Republic for my Grandchildren”, a state of wildness that our societies have entered because of rapid technological change. Change that caused previous values and ways of doing things to deteriorate. At the same time technologies do not provide by themselves new answers, values and ways of doing - or do so much worse than culture and social norms do. Thus we face currently the challenge of forming these new norms, applicable to a society rapidly changed by digital technologies; Kuroń is fully aware, that looking back, at past solutions, is not an option.

Putting these two ideas together, we can reach the conclusion that a new Parallel Polis is being constructed today, which attempts to establish collectively new values, modes of acting and being, and new social institutions. I believe that at the heart of this activity is inspiration by what can be described an “internet culture” - the original core values of internet’s creators and institutional models developed by its pioneer users. Lawrence Lessig calls this the “Net 95”, believing that 1995 was the peak moment at which internet architecture supported an “extraordinary democratic moment” and such values as freedom, equality, anonymity, open and universal access. I believe that modes of action developed for example within core internet governance (the RFC process), within the Wikipedia and other collaborative action communities (a process Yochai Benkler has described in general terms as "commons based peer production) give us institutional templates that are now being applied also beyond online communication. At this point it is worthwhile to quote William Gibson, who observes that there is “this perpetual toggling between nothing being new, under the sun, and everything having very recently changed”. Indeed, in these new institutions we see traces of traditional, commons-based institutions, or of ideas developed by alternative movements of the XX-th century. Nevertheless, there is a sense that they are being reworked and reapplied to digital conditions.

I have been personally involved in the free culture and pro-open movements since around 2004 - mainly as initiator and public lead of Creative Commons in Poland. Currently, my interests include such areas as Open Access in science, open education or open government and open data. All over this field, I see elements of such “new Parallel Polis” being established. Naturally most important is not the content being produced, but methodologies for collaborative action and for sharing that are being developed, and then applied to many different ideas. I believe that we are dealing with new modes of production, consumption, distribution and sharing of content - which, interestingly, are slowly being applied to material goods as well (with such concepts as open hardware, stellar success of Arduino electronics).

Yet there does seem to be a blind spot within the free culture / open movements, which concerns the issue of funding work that leads to the creation of content. This can be to some degree explained by the fact that the movement is agnostic to the ways that content is funded, and focuses upon what happens to content once it exists. Secondly, free culture is heavily applied in the field of non-commercial, amateur or volunteer action. There is also an optimistic faith at work, a belief that things will solve itself and new business and funding models will develop.

After over a decade of intensive development of open models, and at a time when a crisis is causing increasingly severe labour problems, it might be time to reconsider these assumptions - and place the issue of funding, of sustainability of new models of work much more at the heard of the open movement. It is a movement within which such issues have been addressed - but usually as side issues; and the solutions provided are partial or remain marginal, without a clear way of scaling to become much more common. One example can be that of large, collaborative free software projects - research on their participants demonstrates that even without financial profit, they gain experience, signal their skills, build contacts - all of which can translate to a later success on a job market, or as means of supporting a related “standard” job. But this model has not been applied successfully beyond software development. Wikipedia is a rare outlier in this case, and even in its case, due to differences between production of software and other type of content, much fewer people can make a “job” out of writing Wikipedia articles. This is in my opinion a key area in which insight is needed: on how scaling, sustainable job models - or if not jobs, sustainable lifestyles - can be build around open production and distribution models.

Some effort has been made of course to work with funding issues. Crowdfunding has been for the last few years a hyped term, but indeed the concept seems to have large potential. At the same time, it is easy to argue that there are limits to crowdfunding, and that quite possibly it does not work in every cultural context - and might turn out to be quite an American thing. The key issue, in my opinion, is how the crowdfunding model can be shifted from funding exciting, one-time, creative enterprises to providing stable, sustainable support - for example for an individual creator or maker. The Finnish Brickstarter project starts with a similar assumption: that a platform for funding and sustaining urban projects is very different from a platform for funding computer games. Similarly, while the general insight of collaborative funding will hold true, in details a crowdfunded job would have to look very different.

The last point I want to make concerns libraries. To give some context: even after a decade, and even with the singular example of Wikipedia as a mainstream open phenomenon, a lot of the models described above remain marginal. And seem strange enough and difficult to hold a small chance of scaling to a level, where they begin to solve social problems. 3D printing is an interesting area with large opportunity for establishing new jobs and enterprises, build around an open ethos, as well as open and thus relatively cheap technology - but it won’t scale quickly (and by the time it does it most probably will transfer from a “fablab”, craftsmanship or artisanal model to a mass-produced, standardized, corporate one). It is nevertheless worthwhile to study and develop these “internet inspired” solutions - either as small, local solutions; or as experiments that one day might scale. But it is also worth looking already now at spaces and solutions that approach these issues at a more mundane, easy to understand and implement way. And in the Polish context, libraries are today such spaces. In theory places for sharing of knowledge, in practice they are - as research conducted in Poland by the Library Development Program shows - places where a lot of people come searching for labour advice. There is plenty of talk in Poland about establishing new social / civic / public institutions - comparable to libraries, cultural centers and even social care centers (which in Poland, under the term “house of culture”, exist in every county) - but streamlined for dealing with social and cultural challenges of today. Trying to define a template for an institution that can be located at every county as part of a public network is a good exercise for simplifying and mainstreaming the fringe models and experiences described above. In my opinion, libraries are currently institutions most suited for conducting such an exercise. Especially if we agree that Parallel Polish does not need to be build from scratch. We know well enough from remix culture that new works are at best built by reworking existing ones.

Thus the field can today be described as very broad, to include not just areas of content production, but such concepts as crowdfunding or collaborative consumption.

This text is available under a Creative Commons Attribution license. The graphic is by Piotr Chuchla and is licensed under the same license.

About me: I’m a Warsaw-based sociologist and director of Centrum Cyfrowe Projekt Polska, an NGO working with methodologies that use digital tools to increase civic and cultural engagement. I co-lead Creative Commons Poland, work on copyright reform and openness of public resources, consult NGOs and public institutions on openness and have previous experience in long-term strategic planning at national level.


An old new resource

Great post, Alek! Much to think about here. My main takehome point is that communist-era Eastern Europe contained a lot of thinking and tinkering around the issue of how you get around roadblocks built (maybe even unadavertently) by institutions perceived as ineffective or evil. “Parallel institutions” is exactly what the most radical and “out there” Edgeryders are all about (I am thinking of the resilience crowd, for example): I had been wondering why the hacker scene is so strong in Poland and Eastern Europe in general, and now I have a better idea of what might be going on. This may be an old resource for you, but for us Western Europeans it is new! I would like to know more about groundbreaking dissidents and what we can learn from them.

I also agree (how could I not?) on the blind spot you see around funding open/free projects. But I do have a slightly different point of view, this: a business model is not necessarily about generating revenue. It can also be  about reducing costs. What another Edgeryder, Shareable’s Neal, calls “the sharing economy” is sustainable, because it reduces the costs of doing things, and so takes some pressure off the people participating in it.

Houses of culture

Thanks for this Alek! Lately and when talking about it with friends we’ve been getting increasingly annoyed about the use of these houses. in Cluj, Romania where I’m from we call it The Students’ House of Culture, a squared big old communist building that didn’t change much after the fall of the regime, and management is still political. It’s definitely not used full time and to its capacity, and most of all, there’s nothing innovative about it. I think somehow people see it so much as part of the city’s soul, that in light of tradition concerts and leisure activities are the only thing on the menu. however, we have this huge resource that’s technically available, so i just hope it’s only a matter of time before someone will remix the old with the new. Does that happened in Poland already or is it still at the level of discourse?

Now it has a name

Alek, thanks for a great post, which introdued us to some of the Eastern Europe thinkers of alternative social systems. I especially like this “Parallel Polis” concept – have thought much into the same direction recently, but did not know the idea already has a name.

I guess we can go a pretty far way within European representative democracies with this concept: when demonstrably building something for the public good, you will hardly get stopped, as the government is essentially supposed to do the same. There will of course be marginal conflicts about building codes, product certification, intellectual property etc., but these can largely be avoided by being friendly, or evaded by being mobile (for which I like Petros’ approach).

What is however a real, unsolved issue in “Parallel Polis” (if we want to see the Open Everything movement as that for a moment) is economic sustainability – just as you mentioned. In my view, the biggest part of the issue is that, as long as the set of open alternatives is incomplete, we still depend on legal tender for some part of our daily lives. Which transforms “economic sustainability” to a much harder issue of “financial sustainability”, given the scarcity character of legal tender money …

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Vanishing need for state money


Economic sustainability and financial sustainability are two sides of the coin. The more of the “Parallel Polis”  [PP] (a descendant of the Underground State from the 2WW times) we can build - and today we have initiated another piece: a hackery in Jawornik Polski - the more of economical loops closes witin its territory. And the lesser is the need for the state issued money. Asymptotically, we are getting to the point, where the only need for the state money is to pay taxes.

So, from the systemic point of view, it is quite possible to reach a stable economical situation, as a result of growing PP economy, ‘degrowing’ needs (selective self-constraining in favor of simpler needs, easier to fulfilled within PP) and certain level of a foreign trade exchange, just to close the gap. If we approach this problem in a structured way, it is quite uncomplicated - as long as we assume people are ready for such dramatic change in their lifestyle - but that’s the part the shrinking state/capitalism is doing for us.