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Whose Commons is it, anyway?

The beginning of Lewis Hyde’s “Common As Air” ,  threw me for quite a loop. I did not expect to see the all too familiar and rote trotting out of the “state of nature”/social contract theory philosophers: John Locke, and Thomas Hobbes. Maybe that exposes my naivete, but the idea of commons seems quite at odds with the practised ideology of these philosophers. John Locke once wrote that “every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself”. James Madison, fourth president of the United States, (Locke’s “wild woods and uncultivated waste” that represented an embarrassment of riches ripe for the taking) championed the three-fifths compromise while invoking the biblical codeword ‘dominion’ to justify the Louisiana Purchase.

Hyde continues with this troubling mirroring of imperialist/settler-colonial language on page 24. He writes,

Invocations of the commons can carry with them a promise that more than air can be like air, always there for the inhaling lung: infinite bandwidth, unlimited acorns and deer, all of literature instantly available on the computer screen, unfenced prairies stretching to an unowned ocean, ‘that great and still remaining common of land’ (Locke). There are psychological, spiritual, and mythic elements to ‘the commons’ and it is worth marking at the outset so as to be alert to how they might refract our thinking about other, more concrete commons.

Hyde may only draw these parallels in order to invoke the bevy of riches currently available and yet to be made available because of the internet. Still, connecting unlimited bandwidth with John Locke’s image of America as a cornucopia of unbridled sustenance links the potential of digital spaces to the old Manifest Destiny doctrine. These are some of the cautionary tales that need to remain at the forefront of creating commons.

In this way, the text leads me to wonder: in Hyde’s somewhat glossed over history of property commons, who benefits and who remains locked out of the commons system? How can we build systems that resist “the free market”? What role can educational cyber commons play in capitalist societies? We’ve been exploring these questions for a while now, but I think they are worthwhile to keep in mind as we shift our thinking towards our ITP projects.

2 thoughts on “Whose Commons is it, anyway?

  1. Sara Vogel

    I too, was startled by the Manifest Destiny language as it was used by Locke and Hobbes to describe the commons, and then how that rhetoric has been used in invoking the digital commons. To answer your provocation, if the commons are construed with that kind of language, we will always elide power dynamics. Of course, we know Manifest Destiny as applied to the land helped justify imperialism and colonialism, exploitation of Native Americans and African slaves.

    Of course, land is not bandwidth, but if we cast digital commons through a Manifest Destiny lens, what we might get are spaces like those that Nakamura described (way back in the readings for the first week), where in the pursuit of free discourse, we actually silence voices. Or we might get some of the awful sub-Reddit and Yik Yak fora. I also think about Berenson’s article from last week, and how Pfizer might repackage and sell someone’s “free culture” story of mental illness to sell more pharmaceuticals, because “it’s all there for the taking.”

    But I think Hyde mentions Locke and Hobbes’ (and perhaps Lessig’s) view of the commons as a counterpoint to his main argument which historicizes the idea of the commons, demonstrating that in fact, they traditionally weren’t these “virgin” places to be exploited, but were rather “a kind of property in which more than one person has rights.” They were carefully managed through social compacts, where some people had some rights to do certain things at specific times. The most revelatory idea in Hyde’s piece for me was the farcical nature of the “Tragedy of the Commons” argument. The commons was traditionally not a site of absolute exploitation by all commoners. Later, when England shifted to industrial capitalism, the Commons was sold through parliamentary enclosure and split up into its constituent parts (the use value, the land itself, the commoner), thus enabling land ownership and exploitation. Tragedy of the Commons could happen within a capitalist framework, but would not have occurred as such in the pre-industrial age when the commons was regulated by the community.

    If we construct digital commons in the model of the traditional meaning of the term (while still keeping in mind how these things can quickly sour when we get greedy and power hungry), perhaps, there is potential to hear more voices and to create more democratically run commons. I make a connection here to the collaboration article (co-written, of course, by about a dozen scholars), which outlined forms of weak and strong collaboration, and criteria to consider to evaluate the collaborations of various digital communities. The strongest forms of collaboration mentioned in the article were all “commons” to the extent that not one entity owned the absolute rights to the knowledge, there were strong ethics and norms around interaction and the use of information, and in the case of one of the examples, ratio requirements around uploading as much material as one downloads.

    I wonder if those kinds of arrangements are enough to stave off some of the damaging Manifest Destiny rhetoric which seems to enchant people when they think about “unlimited bandwidth.”

    1. Makeba Lavan Post author

      Thanks Sara! I’m glad it wasn’t just me. And yes, I did wonder if that was Hyde’s point or if he was just setting it up as a “what not to do” type of scenario.

      Anyway, I think your collaborative examples are awesome. I guess with any system created by flawed and prejudiced being, there will alwats be a bit of an imbalance. Hyde does seem to say, at the end of the chapter, that awareness of these issues can go a long way towards mutually beneficial commons.

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