The Squirrels Are Watching

Commons and Wealth

Posted in Fact and Law by andrewfong on May 12, 2009

I spent lunch today at a talk by David Bollier focusing on how to govern (or manage // semantics) the digital commons. His premise, more or less, is:

  1. There now exists a digital commons not that different from the commons from way back when. Whereas villagers once benefited from a shared space for, say, sheep grazing, Internet users now benefit from shared code and media (among other things).
  2. Commons have to be maintained and protected (see “tragedy of the commons”). What Bollier was interested in was less the shared space and more the norms and relationships that allowed users of the commons to protect it and not abuse it.
  3. After giving numerous examples of how people did so for the regular commons, how do we do so for the digital commons?

Just goes to show that few things are new — we’re just changing the scale and tweaking the metaphors is all.

His set up suggests the answer to his question. The way you protect the digital commons is to build the digital equivalent of the commonwealth. Actually, his book’s subtitle suggests that too: “How the Commoners Built a Digital Republic of Their Own“. And all the qualms you might have about real commonwealths basically the same ones you have about the digital ones.

Some things touched upon:

  • The concentration of power within commonwealths (hegemons)
  • Defending the commonwealth from outsiders
  • The tension between openness and security
  • The imposition of Western frameworks upon non-Western societies

All very familiar to the Harvard government concentrator.

Funny thing though — for all of the emphasis that this was a “political question”, there were very few politicians (or political scientists) in the room. Make up was primarily lawyers, entrepreneurs, bloggers, and software people. And while that’s a pretty diverse group of people, I got the impression they all share a libertarian anti-establishment egalitarian vibe. // I mean egalitarian in the libertarian sense of the word, obviously.

So when you bring up, say, hegemons and the concentration of power, the response was defensive. “Free open-source communities are democratic.” “This is a problem we need to solve.”

To someone with an international relations background, I think the response would be more ambivalent. Hegemons, for all their abuses, are sometimes seen as guarantors of free trade regimes and relative peace and stability. The accumulation of power allows solutions. The restrictions of some freedoms allows the growth of others. And so on.

There are definitely examples of this in the software / Internet world. Would computer penetration have been nearly so high without the propietary Windows operating system? What would the web be like without Google’s current dominance? Would MP3 players have really taken off had Apple committed to openess on the iPod? Those are tricky counterfactuals.

Yet the motivating idea behind the closest thing to a dominant ideology among “netizens” is “free as in freedom” . The very notion of power and control is antithetical to many of these people — so the answer to the above questions is: Yes, society would be better off if Linux replaced Windows, Google was not so powerful, and Apple never used DRM of any sort.

I’m not really sure where I stand of all of this yet, but I will note this: America was founded on very much a similar notion — the promise of a libertarian, egalitarian, free society that stood in constrast to the bloated, corrupt tyranny of Great Britain whose most notable achievement was being somewhat better than the French.

Who would have though that 230-something years later, America could itself be regarded by some as a bloated, corrupt “evil empire” whose notable achievement was being somewhat better than the Soviets?

// Disclaimer: I like America.

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