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.