The EcoPort Foundation
General Philosophy and Technology Strategy
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Questions, comments and suggestions: t.putter@ecoport.org


"...."

Nelson Mandela, 1953  

Geneva December 2003

Opening the first UN summit on the digital divide, the Secretary General Kofi Annan said much of the information on the web was not relevant to the real needs of people. He said this "content divide" was one of the challenges facing political leaders, business delegates and community activists.

 

Nelson R. Mandela:

‘EcoPort gives me hope for the future of our children, that they will learn to love and nurture Nature.’

http://www.ecoport.org

 

Farmers in a banana garden in Tanzania consulting the EcoPort Internet/wwww database downloaded to a laptop computer.
The EcoPort open-source, digital library & encyclopaedia delivering the equivalent of 35 tonnes of school textbooks and 35,000 pictures to a family in a mud hut in rural Africa.


 

Introduction

The following essay is a general description of EcoPort and the EcoPort philosophy. It serves both as an overview and as a 'manifesto of creed' intended to convince and motivate individual owners of information to share and manage their knowledge in EcoPort as a global public good under the patronage of Nelson Mandela and Edward O. Wilson.

This essay also makes the case for further strengthening collaboration and coordination among agencies and donor institutions active in the area of information sharing, as an appeal for further opportunities to manage knowledge coherently. In particular, the relative shortcomings of the world wide web as a medium for collaboration and its pitfalls as a channel of publication are explored within the framework of a brief, corroborating discussion of the nature of knowledge. An unorthodox approach to 'information warehousing' is proposed and illustrated with reference to topical, cross-cutting programmes and initiatives such as those envisaged for <NEPAD>.

This essay also serves as background to explain the historic insistence on the part of EcoPort management that the issue of the Digital Divide goes beyond its technological dimensions. We have consistently focused attention on the fact that content is critical in the bridging of the digital divide inasmuch as communication without content is an obvious absurdity. Moreover, we have repeatedly drawn attention to the danger that the mere delivery of content to passive recipients poses in the form of the master-slave relation that is the 'central dogma' of the www as unabashedly revealed in the system's webmaster terminology. These attitudes are the ingredients of a form of digital imperialism that could devastate the culture and process of learning and human emancipation. This top-down approach could have far reaching effects on local communities unless a third step is taken. Thus, beyond seeing the digital divide as (1) a technology installation problem and (2) a content packaging-challenge, EcoPort makes the case that we critically need (3), an enabling process of local control over knowledge generation and validation to balance the dangers posed by any one-way medium and process open to indoctrinating abuse and commercial exploitation.

What is EcoPort?

EcoPort is a communal database wherein different people can store their own information and manage it as their own 'virtual' database. Contributors control their own records under password access. Much as modern internet banking allows an open-ended and widely distributed network of clients to use a central database to manage their own accounts. In such a banking database and service, your money is stored centrally but you have local control of your account through a secret, personal password. The difference between money in your bank account, which only you can own, and information in EcoPort is that information, unlike money, can be owned by many people at the same time. Each person shares what they know and all of us benefit by having access to the sum of all similarly shared information.

What about copyright and commercial exploitation?

To prevent one person making a profit at another person's expense, for example by taking information donated to the EcoPort pool and selling it for the seller's private financial gain, all the information and knowledge in the central store is subject to 'copyLEFT' rules. Under copyleft, individuals first use copyRIGHT to reserve their rights, and then, when they have thus secured the 'right of control' they are in a position to decide how others may or may not use the goods. (For further information about global public licensing, visit the GNU/Copyleft website where the copyleft regime is explained.)

In EcoPort, all contributors retain all rights to any commercial, for-profit use of the 'open-source' data stored in the communal, 'knowledge warehouse'. However, they also give any public user permission to use the information freely for educational and other purposes provided the user does not use it commercially or for private financial gain. In this manner, and from the application of these and other standard protocols, the EcoPort system and service comes into existence and is managed as a global public good.

This copyleft condition not only applies to the original data, but to all subsequent composite information products assembled from the originally 'free' elements. Thus, members of the global EcoPort users community can benefit from free information to make new ideas, but the new ideas themselves are subject to copyleft. In this way, we all benefit, not only from each other's generosity, but more importantly, from a process wherein one person's genius can be shared freely by all whose component data and sub-ideas are assembled into new solutions and innovative public good outcomes.

Feasible Utopianism

An understandable first reaction to this rather utopian idealism is that people can't be expected to give things 'away' without receiving a reward in return. To this, there at least two answers: Firstly, ideas, unlike money, cannot be given 'away'. Thomas Jefferson captured the essence of this difference when he said:

'He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.'

Secondly, and inescapably following from the first, EcoPort contributors may 'give away' what they know as individuals, but they gain cost-free access to the sum of what everybody else shares. This is an outcome of potential material award that has different implications depending on which of the following four classes we fall into as individuals:

People who know more information than they sell

The overwhelming majority of us who use information also know something which we never publish to sell commercially. We buy the information we need without any prospect of income from selling what we know or learn. All of us in this category can only win by sharing what we know in an open-source system like EcoPort. Of course, to the global majority of the world's poor people, buying any kind of information is simply not an option. Unless they get free access to information, which I regard as the fundamental currency of the knowledge economy, millions of geniuses will live and die without making a contribution to humanity. (By the fact and nature of the normal distribution, a tiny percentage of humanity has genius potential. Limited by material constraints, the loss of this genius measures the opportunity cost of *not* managing knowledge as a global public good. Just as we have to conserve biodiversity because a single species might hold the cure for cancer, so too would it pay us to share knowledge freely because we never know when a child somewhere is a latent Nelson Mandela; a Mozart or an Einstein.)

People who write books and sell information

Next there is the minority of people who write books, take photographs or otherwise actually sell information. To such authors, the income from selling 1000 books, assuming they get 15% of the book's retail price, is equivalent to what it would cost them to buy 150 books of other authors at the same price. (Price itself does not affect the ratio calculations). An author who sells 10,000 books makes the equivalent 'income' of 1500 books if the income (as 15% commission on retail value) is not taken as cash. (For every 5% of commission, the bookseller receives the equivalent of 50 books/1000 sold.)

Very roughly, this example reveals the class of knowledge owners and circumstances wherein altruistic and philanthropic generosity in EcoPort might not be financially rewarding. The author of the Harry Potter books clearly cannot benefit from putting her books in the public domain on the Internet. But, there is a very interesting continuum between the world majority of poor people on the one hand and the author of the Harry Potter books on the other. And, this gap is also a direct measure of the nature and exponential gap between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots' — a gap that has recently opened so widely that most thinking people feel at least morally uncomfortable with its often obscene implications. To reduce this gap, we offer EcoPort in the conviction that public goods (altruistic charity and philanthropy driven by informed self-interest) are humanity's best solution to balance the tension between private goods (personal profit) on the one hand, and public service (paid by tax revenue) on the other hand, as the latter is most typically and ideally managed by democratically elected governments. Public goods are also recommended here as a strategy to address the critical gap in developing countries created by the paucity of civil services and infrastructure that exists in the middle ground between the needs of citizens on the one hand and the policy layers of managing national economies on the other.

Advertisors and Philanthropists

However, there are two further categories of knowledge owners and agents to whom different considerations might be applied.

On the one hand there are people who sell products rather than the information about those products. For example, stamp collectors, display pictures of their wares as advertising; as a means of attracting clients to buy the physical stamps themselves. An avid stamp collector does not want a picture of the stamp but the stamp itself. The picture is fungible: anybody can own it and therefore it has no scarcity value, whereas the material object itself has value in proportion to its physical scarcity. Certainly there are people who compile and sell stamp catalogues, but buyers of the catalogue pay for the cost of the services provided by the collating author; they do not buy the images themselves. (Incidentally, this example illustrates how information that is in the public domain, such as pictures of stamps, can nonetheless be used for commercial purposes and private enterprise.)

The educational potential of advertising

Stamp collecting is widely recognised as being highly educational: most parents would be delighted if their children were to collect and maintain a collection of stamps of say the butterflies of the world. While the number of owners of actual stamp collections is limited to the physical number of stamps in existence, theoretically there can exist an infinite number of virtual stamp collections and collectors. A printed catalogue would be one example of a virtual stamp collection, but since such printed catalogues are not cost free, ownership still incurs a cost which could be seen as 'friction' that impedes a child's urge and interest to learn about stamps.

In contrast, making digital images of stamps available on the Internet and in the public domain, vastly increases the number of children who could create virtual stamp collections in a cost-free manner that would largely eliminate the friction imposed on 'incidental' education by managing information in analogue form; either as the stamps themselves or pictures of the stamps in printed catalogues.

Problems and promise of the digital divide

I do not ignore or deny the fact that very few disadvantaged individuals and communities have access to computers and/or the Internet. But what I do draw attention to are the facts that:

(a) a community information technology centre, or a communal computer (as in the days when many people used public telephones because they could not afford personal telephones), is a much more practical and cost-effective way of giving people access to information. Bear in mind that a single CD-ROM can store the equivalent of 10 tonnes of books so that an entire library housed in a large building, could be stored in a shoe box, let alone be shared on a communal computer installed and used as a public utility; and,

(b) personal access to digital information and ownership of a personal digital device is not only changing extremely rapidly but is also radically more amenable to solution. For example, building a modest library for a school, would nonetheless (i) cost far more than installing a communal computer, (ii) still only deliver one physical copy of each book, (iii) still require physical duplication on paper when multiple copies are required, (iv) still require *repurchasing* of new editions and redistribution of the whole book when say 20% of its content changes' and (v) printed material would still be susceptible to fish moths and physical deterioration.

Obviously, computer screens are poor substitutes for reading a book in bed, but they are the only option in poor communities where the cost of owning a book often costs as much as a person's total annual salary. And bear in mind the number of people on this planet who earn less than one dollar per day. (How, I wonder, would landing a man on Mars change their fate?).

Only an ostrich could choose to remain blind about the implications and achievable promise of a future of universal ownership of a personal digital device (solar-charged or driven by 'wind-up' energy) and pervasive, if not saturated access to radio-transmitted Internet traffic, e.g. via WiFi that eliminates the 'last mile' gap of telecommunications. (Giving every person on this planet cost-free use of a personal digital device and creating globally accessible and free Internet access would certainly cost less and achieve far, far more than landing a single human being on Mars. Moreover, it is doable within years rather than decades.)

A moral opportunity for philanthropy

Allow me to use an analogy please to explain our approach and why we adopted it. Imagine two scenarios: In the first, a group of people are all using a single copy of Excel — a central, communal workbook to which the individuals can add their our own spreadsheets. In such a communal workbook, users can build formulae that use values from many other spreadsheets in the same workbook. Thus, one contributor may maintain a spreadsheet on currency exchange rates, another a spreadsheet on produce prices and yet another, a spreadsheet on shipping costs.