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One of the problems in the Western world right now, in my estimation, is that we see “freedom” as an artificially good thing in an abstract & idealized sense. humans, whatever else we are, are animals, and we have developed biological and cultural systems to deal with the universe. and nothing is “free” in the universe. you must obey the laws of physics: when you get punched in the nose it hurts, and when you eat rocks, they taste bad and make you sick, and break your teeth. that they are painful helps you try to avoid getting punched in the nose, and discourages you from eating rocks instead of apples, both of which are helpful if you wish to survive in the world. that is what the universe is “like,” yet in the western world we have abstracted out “freedom” as some kind of thing which is good in itself. I too think freedom is good, but not “in itself.” i think it is good because increased freedom for a larger number of people results in a better ability to solve important problems (firstly, how do we feed and clothe ourselves, and protect our families, and then other more complex, but less important issues).

so librivox is a kind of demonstration that says: here are the rules. everything *else* is free, but the rules are not negotiable. and they are not negotiabale BECAUSE librivox has an objective that defines everything we do: “to make all public domain books available in audio for free.” the rules have been/are set in order to help us achieve that objective. everything is weighed against the objective, not against some abastract “freedom.”

that is very powerful. i believe one of the driving evolutionary forces that has made humans successful is our desire to build and pleasure at building things.

but building things takes discipline and dedication. it is always easier to sit on your ass and do nothing. and you are - in our very rich, and very easy world, “free” to sit on your ass and do nothing, but I don’t believe you will ever be happy if you take that approach. In order to be a happy human, I believe, you must build things.

and *that*, to me, is what freedom means: the freedom to build the things you want to build. not freedom to do whatever you want, wherever you want, because “freedom” per se is sacred, but the freedom to pursue objectives you believe in.

we have lost our sense of discipline, and I think that makes people very unhappy. I don’t mean that in any draconican sense, I just mean that in western world, we are told (by psychologists, parents, media, etc) that we can do whatever we want, that we are the centre of the universe, that our freedom is the most important thing and we have a *right* to it, that just believing in ourselves is enough to succeed. all of which is, frankly, bullshit.

and that kind of thinking makes, I think, for unhappy people, and a disfunctional society, because we are NOT the centre of the universe able to influence it with our belief in how important we are; we are just a little part of it, subject to its laws. among which is, not much ever gets done without work.

A few people have gotten involved with LibriVox, been impressed by the anarchist underpinnings, and argued that we needed to allow full freedom (ie to rant, to be disruptive etc). but librivox as a system works in part because of the laws of our little universe, some of which we understand, some of which are mysterious. I’ve been careful to try to defend and protect those mysterious things - even if I do not totally understand them (hence my defense of the “disclaimer” - I don’t want to mess with something that’s worked unless it is very clear that messing will make LV work better).

I read recently somewhere that real freedom only comes from the pleasure of succeeding within constraints. Which seems to me to be about right.

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I’ve been chatting a bit with Austin Hill of late. I convinced him to join the advisory committee of the Atwater Digital Literacy Project, and we seem to be interested in many of the same things, mostly revolving around applying the power of online communities to idealistic goals. His Top Secret Project-Ojibwe (based on aboriginal gift-culture) is coming out sometime later this year, which if I understand is going to be one central project, with many little side projects, such as gifter.org.

Anyway, that project, plus the thinking I’ve been doing over the last few years, and my experience with librivox lead to this little epiphany the other day. Perhaps this is happening already somewhere (and I haven’t fully thought it through or fleshed it out, but there you go)… enough chatter, here’s the idea:

BACKGROUND
1. internet and distributed communities are very good at:
a) building software
b) sorting/managing/making info available (wikipedia/librivox)
c) massive peer-review, monitoring
d) democratic ranking (technorati by links, digg by diggs, wikipedia for info etc)
e) leveraging small-chunk work to make a big project cheap and easy

2. free softare, wikipedia, creative commons, librivox are all examples of PARALLEL structures, that do not concern themselves much with what is happening in the mainstream, instead focus on building something different, in PARALLEL.

3. government is increasingly (or always has been) removed from the actual desires of people - part of this is because the process is hidden from most people. it takes real dedication, time, effort to influence policy (hence pro lobbyists = money talks, not voices)

4. what does government do?
a) raises funds (tax)
b) plans policy
c) plans programs to implement policy
d) decides on budget allocation for different programs
e) (sometimes) implements programs
f) monitors progress of projects

5. this process is hidden, inefficient, and subject to influence peddling. But effectively it makes the rules, gets the money and spends the money.

6. while groups of individuals are not able to make the rules, they can raise money, and spend it.

7. charity generally is subject to some of the same problems … and often only 30% (check #?) of money actually donated to charity goes to programmes - the 70% balance goes to administration, fund-raising.

8. much of the reason for 7 (above) is that getting funding is difficult, time consuming, inefficient, and requires massive efforts, publicity, management. loads of paper.

8. re: #4 … without replacing government, is there a parallel system that could be set up, that could do some of these tasks… with a model like #2.

9. YES! again, looking at the government’s role, the internet & open projects can be very good at:
a) raising funds
b) deciding on budget allocation
c) monitoring progress of projects.

10. Probably not so good at:
b) planning policy
c) planning programs to implement policy
e) implementing programs

(these all take more energy, time, on the ground effort … which is possible, but is not the real power of a distributed system).

PROPOSAL

An open-style charity “foundation,” that works as follows:
-Members pay $20/yr each ($50? $100?)
-This money goes into a fund
-You can donate more money, but no one is given more power because of how much money they have donated (but maybe some sort of moderation karma points, as with slashdot)
-projects “apply” for funding (eg atwater digital media), by posting project description, budget, plan
-Members can:
-ask questions
-make suggestions
-rank projects

-On an ongoing basis (maybe every 3 months?) the foundation does an open budgeting process, where members decide on allocating: short-term, and long-term funding to projects that have ranked well.
-Projects will be required to update progress and info on an ongoing basis, solicit input, etc, and further funding can be decided based on that.
-(an aside: When projects run into trouble, the Members that supported the project should be aware, and can possibly offer more concrete help)

In this way a totally parallel system (to government & usual charity foundations) could be established to fund projects with a community of givers that:
a) funds itself, through membership
b) decides on where the money goes in an open process
c) monitors & provides feedback (and possibly more concrete support) on an ongoing basis
d) is transparent & efficient

NOTE: This principle should be applied also to an new open internet media production house too, to find a way to fund film-makers, musicians, etc, based on an open co-op system…film, music projects funded based on the interest of the Open Production House Co-Op members.

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LibriVox is a successful experiment in how to build an open community-driven, non-software project (based on ideals and methods of the free software and open source movements) . TextoSolvo is a new weblog to talk about how we got there and why we seem to have been successful so far.

In a little over a year, the LibriVox community has recorded several thousand of hours of public domain literature, with voices of a thousand or-so volunteers world-wide. Our site is translated into eight (soon to be nine) languages, and we have audio in twenty-one different languages . We have an ambitious target to record all books in the public domain. And while we’re only about one one hundredth of the way through the Gutenberg catalog, well we’ll keep trucking.

While the project itself is wonderful (that is, a public domain audio library), there is a whole mass of administration, software development, and management that allows the LibriVox to function. This back-story is largely unseen by the public, and even by the volunteers in the project, but it is a huge undertaking: the management of these thousands of audio files is something of an administrative nightmare, but we have built a project that handles this mass of digital information very well. All on a budget of $0 (thanks in large part to free audio hosting/bandwidth at the Internet Archive and ibiblio.org)

The infrastructure has been built by about twenty people, who know each other only through the LibriVox project, and contributed their time and expertise (coding, project management, system development, web and UI design, information science, diplomacy, etc etc) simply because they wanted to. To me that is the really fascinating thing: how did the LibriVox platform get built, and built so well? How can we keep it going into the future?

And can we help others do something similar?

TextoSolvo* (inspiration for the name is discussed below) is meant to be a platform to discuss:

  • How-To Build an Open Project (for non software-geeks), The LibriVox Experience.
  • Thoughts on the Open Movement (creative commons, free software, open source, civic access) and why it is important for the world
  • A brief history of LibriVox

I am planning over the next year or so to post weekly here (some will be recycled from stuff I have written elsewhere). The long-term goal is to build a book’s worth of (I hope) useful information, not just for LibriVox aficionados, but for anyone interested in the open movement, and building open, community-based projects. I don’t have any specific plans for the “final” product, but I’d like to see it in print somehow, and of course an audio version will be made available!

Again I would like to encourage anyone from LibriVox (or anywhere for that matter) to contribute through comments, and I’ll probably be asking for some longer contributions too, if anyone is interested.

*TextoSolvo, from the “About Page”:


TextoSolvo is a bit of morphed Latin. The definitions (from William Whittaker’s Words program), are:

text.o (V) weave; plait (together); construct with elaborate care.
text.o (N) woven fabric, cloth; framework, web; atomic structure; ratio atoms/void.
solv.o (V) loosen, release, unbind, untie, free; open; set sail; scatter; pay off/back.

I like texto*solvo because it works in two ways, the idea of buidling and weaving together (texto) in a loose and free network (solvo). This is what LibriVox looks like to me: a tightly-woven community, building something elaborate and important, in a loose, free network, scattered all over the world. I haven’t gotten my head around that last bit of the texto definition: “ratio atoms/void”; but I think there is something important there too.

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Musings on open collaborative projects, (mostly non-software) with a focus on idealism and not money-making. The starting point is the LibriVox.org project. Mostly written by Hugh McGuire, but guest writers may join in as well. [more ...]

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