Wanted: a brave newspaper, for an experiment in which readers become stakeholders ( updated, 25.5.2019 ). The keiretsu-cooperative is a kind of platform cooperative — an idea getting closer to takeoff 

 

+Newspaper readers on a poultry farm near Kirchzell, ROY EALES postgutenberg@gmail.com

Like these two on an egg farm in Germany last November, there will be keen newspaper-readers — in some medium — for a few more years, yet. The question for the future is, can we organise a better way of owning and running newspapers and media sites — one better suited to a democracy than conventional corporate ownership? Photograph: Roy Eales

The purpose of this entry on post-Gutenberg is to reverse the unexplained disappearance from search engines of the headline and link for the site’s very first post, which launched p-G on 5 September 2011. 

Not for the first time, someone appears to have gone to special trouble to make it impossible to find a p-G post in Google or Bing by typing its title into a search box. Adding the site’s name as an additional search term only yields indirect routes to it. Because Google, certainly, does not explain its methods, it is impossible to identify the culprit — inadvertent technical errors or active tampering by human algorithm-tweakers. Human tamperers can hide behind algorithms, which leave no fingerprints.

Riding the most recent wave of interest in ‘platform cooperatives,’ which began in 2016, this month’s print edition of Wired spotlights online workers’ cooperatives — through which operators in the gig (freelance) economy can jointly own and control a website from which they market their services and get paid. This is a radical improvement on working through platforms owned by, say, a classic employment agency for housecleaners — or a cleaning service — cutting fat commissions out of workers’ incomes in exchange for setting up and running the website, and acting as an intermediary.

The writer of the Wired piece, Clive Thompson, pinpoints the solution to the most aggravating obstacle to launching a platform cooperative — which is, getting it organised and ready-to-roll and, in that helpful cliché from physics, achieving critical mass. This did not present a problem for Up & Go, the successful platform cooperative for housecleaners that he singles out for special mention, because ‘the workers were already organised.’

For precisely that reason, post-Gutenberg’s original proposal of a keirestu-cooperative — a collaborative internet platform for newspapers and other media — did away with the idea of starting from scratch. It recommended beginning with an existing newspaper, with its established core of readers and commenters. As a post revisiting this subject last year explained:

These are the principal components of a ‘keiretsu-cooperative,’ or economic structure for the future — a keiretsu being a sort of Japanese industrial club made up of companies pursuing similar or complementary aims:

• A newspaper publisher might create a meta-site with one or more book publishers with which its audience overlaps — and these partners could share this site’s capital improvement and running costs.

• Reader-commenters visiting the site would not be paid for individual comments. Instead, they would buy subscriptions that would also be small financial stakes in the keiretsu publishers’ meta-site.

Here — except for its old introduction — is the original text of the first entry on post-Gutenberg that, at present, cannot easily be found through an internet search:

Newspaper and other print media sites to which I have returned several times a day – or week, depending on what has been happening in my life – have had two things in common:

  • Unusually sharp and entertaining comments sections in site segments dedicated to topics that interest me.
  • A group of stimulating, well-informed debaters among the regular commenters, who often enter into extended wrangles – sometimes, not just with each other, but with the writer of an article.

Unfortunately, commenters tend to come and go unpredictably, then vanish altogether. And I have to start looking for a new equivalent of an online coffee shop.

But what if commenters were given some incentive to keep commenting on a particular site – for years at a time? Two years ago, thinking about what would make contributing posts irresistible to me, my conclusion was: money, and the feeling that I was helping to build a semi-permanent family of debaters. Without some form of payment – or the possibility of being paid in the future – posting frequently on newspaper sites becomes suspiciously like wasting time. I have found it hard to justify time spent commenting, even though joining online discussions has deepened and enlivened my understanding of all sorts of topics.

ß

In January of last year, I outlined a scheme that a newspaper could run as an experiment in sharing ownership of a part of its site with reader-commenters. In a future entry in this blog, I will describe the reactions of particular publishing organisations to which I sent a link for my proposal. There were, broadly, five reasons for their reluctance to try it out:

  • ‘Too new’ – the scheme diverges too far from their ideas about the future evolution of media.
  • Protectionism. The mistaken belief that the scheme would entail paying commenters at the same rates as professional writers and journalists. That is not what the proposal says at all. The idea is that the arrangement would work very broadly in the way insurance does: people contributing more or less equal sums into a pool of money from which disbursements would be made in accordance with merit and need.
  • Semantics. Interpreting the scheme as ‘socialism’. There is no precise counterpart for the proposed arrangement – certainly not in publishing, as far as I know. But to convey the idea of shared ownership I used the word ‘cooperative’—which unfortunately spells ‘hippie’ utopianism or bankrupt socialist idealism to many people. It says something else entirely to me. For nearly 20 years, I have been a member of a rural electricity cooperative founded 75 years ago by a group of farmers – after the local power company refused to put them on its network. This organisation runs so beautifully that my electricity bills have always been a small fraction of sums I have paid for the identical usage patterns in other places.
  • Fear of losing power. Most publishers of the print era cannot give up the idea of journalists and editors performing on a stage for readers – the audience down in the pit, which is where they would like them to stay. They cannot accept that technology has made it realistic for readers to want – indeed, expect – to share the stage with them, even if only in walk-on parts, in most cases, at the start.
  • Pessimism. Publishers cannot conceive of making a bigger pie – that is, expanding revenue, and even earning profits, with luck – through sharing ownership with reader-commenters. They can only imagine being forced to accept smaller slices of an unchanged or shrunken pie.

ß

Here is a summary of what a test of a jointly owned site would involve for publishers and reader-commenters at the beginning:

As this is a scheme for helping print media to adapt for the arrival of the 5th Estate, a publisher would have to initiate the experiment, inviting readers to become part of it.

The publisher would set a price for a subscription-cum-stake in the jointly owned site called, say, the Forum. Just one stake per reader. Site visitors who do not buy a subscription-stake would not be shut out from reading articles and discussions but could not, of course, share in any future profits.

The publisher would develop the software tools and infrastructure for the experiment – to collect and record subscription-stakes; run elections and referendums; develop apps, links to social networking sites, and so on – and, if the test site makes a profit from subscriptions and advertising, distribute it to stakeholders.

Both the publisher and readers would nominate a few reader-stakeholders for membership of the Forum’s (say,) eleven-member management board. All reader-stakeholders would elect six of these as their representatives. The other five board members would be appointees of the publisher from within its own executive and editorial ranks.

As noted above, the arrangement would work in roughly the way insurance does. Reader-stakeholders would pay more or less equal sums into a pool of cash. Payments from that pool would be made according to certain criteria. How would classes of subscription-stakes be established? Who would set the criteria? These – and all other rules for the site’s operation – would be proposed by the management board and then voted into existence by subscriber-stakeholders.

So setting rule-making in motion would be the first task of the management board, and the first job for reader-stakeholders after that would be choosing from among alternative rules proposed to them.

A publisher would not have to finance the experiment alone. A newspaper could, for instance, share the costs and administrative burden with a book publisher. Their partnership would resemble a Japanese keiretsu – or arrangement between companies with common or interlocked business interests.

The rationale for this scheme for shared ownership is set out in more detail here.

Any takers? Careful suggestions for refining and improving the experiment would be indescribably welcome, and will be given proper credit in a future post on this site.

Correspondence to postgutenberg@gmail.com, please.

for 21. 4. 2019

Jackrabbit tracks 1 postgutenberg@gmail.com

Easter 2019 (3) postgutenberg@gmail.comWhere the outdoors matters more than indoors, and in the right habitat, today’s master of ceremonies is an elusive animal that last put in an appearance on this site three years ago — with an incontestable claim to being the true Easter leporid (sorry, fluffy bunnies, you know you did your best). Sightings of the typically solitary, nocturnal, hare — or certainly of the branch of the clan known as Lepus californicus or black-tailed jackrabbits — tend to be most common at this time of year. It is peak breeding season. Dazed by romance and romancing, these beasts can forget how essential extreme caution is to their survival.  

But the photographs here were taken two months ago, during an attempt to keep up with one — a doomed, quixotic chase, because although they run awkwardly, as clumsily as kangaroos waltzing, jackrabbits can travel at forty miles or sixty-four kilometres an hour. 

The paw prints stopped at a bush and not a rabbit hole (below) because jackrabbits do not burrow. They make nests and hide in shallow depressions in thickets, under the most dense shrubs they can find.

As disappointing as it was not to meet the paw print-maker in this series for the briefest encounter, the reminder of their skill at evasion was welcome. As one nature writer has put it — rather tactlessly, from a jackrabbit’s point of view — they exist to transform leaves into food for the coyotes and hawks that prey on them.

That’s not a welcome thought for anyone who cares about Osterhase-borne baskets of festive eggs, so let’s delete it immediately.

HAPPY    EASTER

Jackrabbit tracks 2 postgutenberg@gmail.com

Jackrabbit tracks 3 postgutenberg@gmail.com

Jackrabbit and human tracks postgutenberg.com

For comparison: jackrabbit and human tracks

 

In Jeff Bezos’s nasty fight with a tabloid, a hint of how transparency in e-commerce is guiding the design of online courts in the litigation revolution

 

' decorative grille, Frank Lloyd Wright, Marin superior court postgutenberg@gmail.com

Sumptuous court buildings can seem like tributes to the inequality that litigation exacerbates. Photograph: at the entrance to the Marin superior court in California, a decorative grille designed by Frank Lloyd Wright

Dear Jeff Bezos,

For a few days earlier this month, you were an internet hero for scuppering the National Enquirer’s attempt to bully and humiliate you with legalistic tactics.  You challenged its overseers to go ahead and carry out their threat to publish embarrassing private photographs of you if you did not sign a statement attesting to a thought that never crossed your mind — that this tabloid was not playing politics when it ran its exposé in January about your extra-marital affair. You published lawyers’ email messages setting out this demand in your blog post on Medium in which you called it extortion. 

Rather than sign any such document, you said, ‘I prefer to stand up, roll this log over, and see what crawls out.’

Bravo! Sadly, dismal partisan politics and questions about possible links between this fight and the White House and Saudi Arabia dominated public discussion of your ordeal. No one in the commentariat seemed to notice that you’d struck a mighty blow for justice and the common man and woman. You have more than enough money to have not merely caved in to the tabloid’s demands and paid it off in deepest secrecy, but to have quietly bought it and its staff and shut it down, as an alternative. Instead, you trained a blazing spotlight on the thuggish tactics used routinely by lawyers working for rich clients in disputes typically marked by a striking imbalance of power.

What the eminent legal scholar Hazel Genn has observed about the pattern in Britain is equally true of the U.S.. Lawyers and litigation exacerbate inequality. She has said:

Parties are not both volunteers in litigation. One side may be forced into the process against its will. … [I]n the vast majority of […] cases the initiator is a business or institution rather than an individual. With the exception of personal injury proceedings, individuals’ experience of court proceedings is as a defendant rather than a claimant.

For anyone who discovers this truth from experience, the imposing architecture of court buildings — whether classical or modern, hideous or beautiful — makes them look less like temples to justice than casinos blatantly rigged in favour of money and power.

Outside the legal system, only those unfortunates dragged into it understand that the extortionate thrust of the emails you received is as much part of the ordinary lawyer’s toolkit as scalpels are in a surgeon’s. A former federal prosecutor told Wired that the Enquirer ‘could argue that it was merely trying in good faith to resolve a dispute with Bezos — not attempting to blackmail or extort him.’ Why? Because, as that prosecutor continued, ‘”the law regarding the distinction between extortion and settling a legal case is very unsettled — it’s not well defined.”’

Never were truer words spoken — strangely enough, about a battle that has not yet become a legal case. Answering a question on Quora.com about why people are afraid of the legal profession, a 21-year veteran of it started with a jokey pseudo-confession about dabbling in voodoo and the occult. But by his fourth paragraph, he was merely laying out (or boasting about) some of the ugliest facts about actual or potential harm of which he and too many of his colleagues are capable:

Lawyers have to fight for their clients. Most people see the calm exterior and the coldly calculating demeanor and and don’t understand [… that …] what they really see is a trained assassin, someone hired to throw you out of your house, someone who knows how to freeze your bank accounts, garnish your wages,  [and that when a lawyer] puts his or her claws in and starts to rend and tear your psyche from stem to stern, that’s when the full power of a lawyer is on display.

All that has been true for centuries, in jurisdictions all over the world — but the reason why even well-read members of the public know so little about any of it is that most of it happens far out of public view. 

That you have blown a great big hole through this secretive white collar thuggery is not all that surprising. It is strange but undeniable that although you and your fellow tech titans have fairly been accused of deviousness in surreptitiously siphoning private and personal data about us when we use your web sites and products —  as in, most recently, eavesdropping by your Alexa and Google’s Nest that might or might not have been inadvertent — transparency is one of the shining virtues of e-commerce. It is as important as convenience in explaining how online shops have been so successful at leading consumers away from bricks-and-mortar retailing.

The influence of e-commerce is leaping a long way past its boundaries. The online auctioneer eBay, of all things, has been a guiding light for the design of Britain’s online court. For years, thanks to what Ms Genn (or formally, Dame Hazel Genn) has called a ‘reform-minded senior judiciary, supported by a major government investment in technology,’ Richard Susskind — the IT adviser to the Lord Chief Justice for the last 20 years — has held up as a model for redesigning courts for the internet age, ‘the 60 million disagreements between traders solved by eBay’s online argument settling system.’ 

Michael Briggs (formally, Lord Briggs) — a judge who has been crucial to the shaping of Britain’s online court — has said that it will not be as ‘robotic’ as eBay’s processes. But eBay-like transparency will be of its essence — the idea that justice must not only be delivered but seen to be done. As Ms Genn has explained, that means in part, ‘transparency in procedures, conspicuous impartiality and consistency, explanation of rules and decisions, and the promotion of procedures that give parties a voice in the proceedings.’ All those are well-known features of eBay’s modus operandi.

Closer to home for you, radical transparency is of course a hallmark of Amazon’s transformation of — for instance — book-buying. Anyone can browse on your site and instead of looking at just a print volume sitting on a shelf with a price sticker, can, in less than a minute, complete comparison-shopping for the e-book version with hardback and paperback alternatives and, with a few more minutes to spare, scan dozens of offers of second-hand books with descriptions of their physical condition from sellers who can be merely a short drive or a continent away.

For shopping unrelated to books, on the pages on your site for innumerable other products, your virtual store persistently reminds shoppers  of ‘more buying choices’ — lower prices from other sellers — and clearly demarcates listings that are advertisements or ‘sponsored’ displays.

We take all this for granted, now.

In his 2013 book, Tomorrow’s Lawyers, Richard Susskind describes ‘early incarnations’ of ‘an electronic legal marketplace’ that ‘include online reputation systems, which allow clients to share their views, online, on the performance and levels of service of their lawyers […], price comparison systems, which put the respective prices and rates of legal advisers and law firms on simple websites; and online legal auctions, not unlike eBay in concept, but best suited to legal work packages that are routine and repetitive.’ 

These windows into the mechanisms and methods of legal systems of the future are only part of the openness that will make it increasingly difficult for change-resistant lawyers to practise their dark arts.

Some American law reformers dismayed about their country’s slowness to join this revolution believe that technology companies could get involved to speed up the long-overdue benign disruption that their system is widely acknowledged to need.

Could there be a role for Amazon and you, here — performed, perhaps, through a special, new, not-for-profit legal services division?

Just a thought for you — about a chance, at the level of U.S. law and the courts, to roll over that log you mentioned, and make sure it is never repositioned to cover up foul, flagrantly unfair behaviour indulged in as a matter of course. 

Looking forward with keenest interest to seeing where your brush with darkness leads you next,

pG

Rich America is still the bizarre laggard in the — anti-inequality — litigation revolution. Should this be on 2020 presidential campaign posters? 

 

+entrance marin superior court vertical 300 postgutenberg@gmail.com

At the entrance to the Marin superior court and county offices in California: shelving designed by the complex’s architect, Frank Lloyd Wright

Surely it’s time for an American presidential candidate from either party to run on bringing U.S. law and the courts into the 21st century? Start a campaign for yoking digital technology to putting justice within the reach of the poor and comparatively powerless? 

That there has been no such initiative, no parallel in law for the fight about reforming the medical system, is especially remarkable in a country in which two lawyer-presidents of the last twenty years — Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — have had high-powered lawyer wives. In other words, for sixteen years, four legal specialists in a position to notice and do something chose to ignore a notoriously flawed legal system. At least two prominent candidates for the 2020 election have the right credentials. Both Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris are lawyers, one of them a law professor and the other a former attorney general of California — but will they care about doing the right thing?

According to a 2010 summary by two executives of the World Justice Project   — founded in 2006 ‘as a presidential initiative of the American Bar Association’:

[ In civil justice ] … a significant gap exists between rich and poor individuals in terms of both actual use of and satisfaction with the civil courts system. For example, only 40 percent of low-income respondents who used the court system in the past three years reported that the process was fair, compared to 71 percent of wealthy respondents. This 31 percent gap between poor and rich litigants in the United States is the widest among all developed countries sampled. In France this gap is only 5 percent; in South Korea, 4 percent; and in Spain, it is nonexistent.

In the WJP’s 2017-2018 Rule of Law Index — measuring ‘the extent to which countries adhere to the rule of law in practice’ — America ranked 19th, just below France and above South Korea, and several ranks beneath Estonia, Hong Kong and Singapore.

Speaking in London last month at the first international forum on online courts — the most hopeful technological innovation for anyone who cares about inequality in legal systems worldwide — Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, could only point to a single U.S. state, Utah, for an example of an online dispute resolution programme in America. The lack of support at the summit of the U.S. judiciary for the digitalisation of justice must have something to do with this. 

In Britain, where an online court for all branches of law is set to go live next year, the country’s most powerful judges are directing the transformation. When the legal scholar Hazel Genn delivered the prestigious Birkenhead lecture in 2017, she began by underlining their commitment to change. She noted that the year before, ’the Lord Chancellor, Lord Chief Justice, and Senior President of Tribunals published a joint statement signalling a “once in a lifetime” £1 billion transformation of the justice system.’

Who could advise a U.S. presidential candidate on an equivalent transformation across the Atlantic? Three years ago, almost to the day, post-Gutenberg drew attention to the ideas of Renee Newman Knake, a legal expert and professor who was at the time the co-director, with Daniel Martin Katz, of the ReInvent Law Laboratory at Michigan State University. Possibly her most radical suggestion was that corporate America could initiate the technological disruption and revolutionisation of the legal system. She mentioned Google and Walmart as companies that ‘have the capacity to make significant financial outlays into innovative legal mechanisms for providing legal services …’.

For a while, the ReInvent Law Laboratory seemed set to do exactly what its name promised. It got attention and won awards. An article in the journal of the American Bar Association trained a spotlight on its founders.  Sadly, Google’s search results for this would-be revolutionary cell run out in listings with 2014 dates. Professors Katz and Knake have moved to positions at other universities and seem to have gone silent on the topic of transforming U.S. law. The page about the Laboratory’s mission — which is dated 2013 and written mostly in the past tense — suggests that its focus has narrowed to protecting lawyers’ incomes: ‘Overall legal spend is increasing, but traditional lawyers are getting a smaller piece of the pie. We want to help prepare our students to invent and work in growing areas of the legal market.’

This is a considerable change in tone and substance from Professor Knake’s rallying cry in 2016, which is worth re-quoting:

A nation that holds itself out as a beacon of justice and an exemplar of the rule of law to the rest of the world denies meaningful access to the law on a daily basis to the majority of its population. Lawyers are out of reach for most individuals unless they enjoy extreme affluence or subsist at poverty levels. 

Although her more than justified outrage would make a fine speech for a presidential candidate next year, there is no sign of any candidate taking up her cause. The first pages of Google’s search results for the terms ‘law reform as a presidential campaign issue’ yield only links about election or campaign finance or drug law reform — so far.