860-0030-00L  Digital Sustainability

SemesterAutumn Semester 2018
LecturersM. M. Dapp, D. Helbing
Periodicityyearly recurring course
Language of instructionGerman
CommentNumber of participants limited to 45.

This LE is a replacement for LE 851-0591-00 Digital Sustainability in the Knowledge Society. Students who had been enrolled in LE 851-0591-00 are not allowed to enroll for 860-0030-00L and collect credit points.

Particulary suitable for students of D-INFK, D-ITET, D-MATL, D-MAVT, D-MTECT, D-USYS


AbstractHow do various interest groups influence the methods of production, distribution, and use of digital resources? Current models focusing on strong intellectual property rights are contrasted with open models like, e.g. Open Source/Content/Access. The course discusses consequences from different models and introduces »digital sustainability« as an alternative vision for society.
ObjectiveAt the heart of the discourse is the handling of digital goods and intellectual property in society. Digitization and the Internet allow handling knowledge in a way, which directly contrasts with the traditional understanding of "intellectual property" and the industries based on it. Starting from economic and legal basics, we compare proprietary and open/"free" models. Sustainable development as a concept is transferred to digital goods, taking into account the particular nature of digital stuff.
After the lecture, you should (hopefully) be able to
- characterize the nature of digital goods vs. physical goods
- critique the basic concepts of copyright and patent rights
- explain the basic principles of blockchains as the most recent open design
- explain the political/legal and economic differences between proprietary and open approaches to the production and use of digital goods
- using an example, explain the meaning of digital sustainability and argue why it is relevant for a knowledge society
- transfer the ideas of the free/open source software model to other digital goods (e.g., open content, open access)
ContentTechnical reality: Within minutes you can make perfect copies of high-value digital goods of knowledge or culture (as text, audio, video, image or software) and distribute them around the globe -- for free. «Digitization plus Internet» allows for the first time in humankind's history the (theoretically) free access and global exchange of knowledge at minimal cost. A tremendous opportunity for societal development, in north and south. «Cool, so what's the problem?»
The problem is, that this reality poses a fundamental threat to today's business model of the knowledge and culture industries (starting from the music label and Hollywood, via publishers, up to software vendors). Powerful commercial interests are at stake as «knowledge» (the fourth factor of production) will become ever more important in the 21st century. Accordingly, «piracy» and «file-sharing» are attacked with all means. At the core lies the question about the design of property in digital assets. For that, we apply a concept of «intellectual property», which is several hundred years old and does not address digtal reality in an adequate manner, sometimes leading to absurd situations. Its original goal seems to get forgotten: to help society develop by spreading knowledge as much as possible.
Using the PC becomes the new cultural technique of the 21st century. In contrast to «reading, writing and arithmetics», this new cultural technique cannot exist in isolation, but depends on a hard- and software infrastructure. This dependency extends to the provider of the infrastructure, who can define technical rules, which can take away or restrict the user's freedom. Even advanced users may have difficulties in recognizing these, often hidden, restrictions and in evaluating their societal relevance. But exactly these invisible consequences we need to understand and investigate, because they decide about access, distribution and usage of digital knowledge.
Comparable to the environmentalist movement of the 60s and 70s, a growing political movement for «Free Software» exists today, with «GNU/Linux» as its most popular symbol. The movement fights against treating software code as private property but as a central cultural good available to all without private interests. Based on the success of the Free Software movement, new initiatives extend the concepts to other domains (e.g. scientific knowledge, music)...
As a «teaser» to the lecture, you are invited to read the essay «ETH Zurich - A Pioneer in Digital Sustainability!». It can be downloaded from www.essays2030.ethz.ch.
Lecture notesSlides and other material (both usually in English) will be made available on a weekly basis as the lecture proceeds.
LiteratureContent of the following books is covered (PDFs freely available online):
1 Volker Grassmuck, Freie Software - Zwischen Privat- und Gemeineigentum, Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung, 2. Aufl. Bonn 2004.
2 François Lévêque & Yann Ménière, The Economics of Patents and Copyright, Berkeley Electronic Press, 2004.
3 Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks, Yale University Press. New Haven 2006.

Other recommended books are:
1 (general) Chris DiBona et al., Open Sources Voices from the Open Source Revolution, O'Reilly, 1999.
2 (pol. sc.) Steven Weber, The Success of Open Source, Harvard UP, 2004.
3 (law) James Boyle, Shamans, Software, & Spleens - Law and The Construction of the Information Society, Harvard UP, 1996.
4 (law) Lawrence Lessig, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, Basic Books, New York 1999.
Prerequisites / NoticeFor administrative and didactic reasons (high level of interaction and credit group assignments on current hot topics), the number of participants is limited to 45.
Of course, any interested person is invited to attend the lecture without doing the group assignment.