My Remarks at Paratactic Commons Conference, Istanbul

Below, my prepared remarks at the Paratactic Commons conference, the Amber ’12 Art and Technology Fest, hosted by Istanbul Technical University and Winchester School of Arts, in Istanbul on November 10, 2012.  Title:  "The Commons Rising:  How Digital Innovation is Transforming Politics and Culture."

It’s too bad that the commons is so neglected today – often dismissed as a “tragedy” or failed system of management – because the truth is that the commons holds great promise for transforming our political culture in many positive ways.  So I am pleased that see Istanbul Technical University and Winchester School of Arts tackle this important subject. 

Surely one of the most robust and expanding type of commons these days is the digital commons – that is, communities of social practice that come together on open platforms such as the Internet to manage shared bodies of information and creativity.  The most familiar examples are open source software, Wikipedia, open access publishing and certain types of social networking, but there are many other exciting species of digital commons.

At this point, digital commons constitute a vast new sector of culture and economic production.  What makes them so distinctly different from the familiar forms of market production in the 20th Century are their self-directed, self-organized, distributed dynamics.  Digital commons give users new sorts of direct freedoms that are not available in markets where corporations strive to control everything that happens.  On open networks, that’s simply not possible.

As a result, bottom-up forms of social cooperation and collaboration are becoming powerful, quasi-sovereign forces in societies around the world.  Commoners are developing new sorts of social practices, community relationships and personal identities – and in the process, challenging many existing institutions, and especially to intellectual property law and conventional business models.

In my remarks today, I wish to explore how digital commons are pioneering a new political culture and new types of governance institutions.  This new order is far more hospitable to democratic change, social justice and responsive institutions than our official structures of government, law and policy.  Indeed, in the future, conventional political institutions – the corporation, the nation-state, global markets – will need to change radically because digital commons will start to do their jobs more efficiently and effectively.  They already are.  Inevitably, there will be struggles for power.  They will center around whether the commons – and people’s rights of self expression, social association, transparency and stewardship of resources – will be allowed to prevail – or whether remote, centralized institutions will assert their coercive powers and squash any emancipation via commons.  

Let’s start by debunking the myth of the “tragedy of the commons” that biologist Garrett Hardin said they were in his famous 1968 essay.  Hardin argued that the over-exploitation and ruin of a resource is more or less inevitable when the resource is shared.[1]  This idea went on to become a standard conclusion of conventional economics even though it does not accurately describe a commons.  But let’s be clear:  digital commons are highly generative – and anything but the “tragedy of the commons.”

Digital commons are highly generative because they are the opposite of finite natural resource commons.  Instead of their resources getting used up, digital resources can be copied and shared at virtually no incremental cost.  And so they can grow in value as more people participate in them, provided there are minimal management and usage rules.  The more, the merrier, is the rule.

The power of open networks inverts the usual claims about property rights – that exclusivity enhances value.  On the Internet, it’s precisely the opposite.  Or as copyright scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan once declared, “The only thing worse than being sampled on the Internet, with apologies to Oscar Wilde, “is not being sampled on the Internet.” 

The term commons has long been associated with the “enclosure movement” in English history, the period from the 15th through 19th centuries in which the landed gentry conspired with Parliament to privatize forests and pastures that commoners collectively relied upon for subsistence.[2]  The rediscovery of the commons as something more positive and constructive began in 1990 when political scientist Elinor Ostrom, in her pioneering work, Governing the Commons, demonstrated that the commons is an eminently viable and even ingenious social system for managing shared resources.[3]  Ostrom, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2009 for her studies of common-pool resources and cooperation, amassed persuasive historical evidence to rebut the “tragedy” thesis that has dominated economic thought.  She showed how communities can in fact sustainably manage fisheries, irrigation waters, wildlife and other depletable natural resources without over-exploiting them and causing a “tragedy.” 

Hardin’s error was in conflating an open-access regime, in which anyone can over-use a collective resource without impediment or sanction.  That is very different from a commons, which is a defined social community that enforces certain rules, maintains a certain transparency of decisionmaking and punishes free riders.  Hardin was describing a no-man’s land.  But the commons is a deliberate and orderly form of resource governance.

It’s important to understand digital commons as embodying a very different worldview and ontology.  In a commons it’s all about relations, not transactions.  The primary concern is how we interact with each other, and not necessarily protecting private property rights.  It helps to remember that a commons consists of a resource plus a distinct community plus its values, norms and social practices. 

We are accustomed to speaking about a song or an image as if they were essentially fixed and physical – as if culture were naturally a market commodity and can be treated as objects, or “intellectual property.”  Copyright holders often liken their ownership to the possession of a car or a tract of land.  But if there is anything that the Internet has shown, it is that information and creativity is much more than “intellectual property.”  Creativity and information flows and goes where it is needed.  That’s how it becomes valuable.  By contrast, possessing “intellectual property” and withholding it from social life can profoundly limit its ability to become valuable.

Copyright owners can’t seem to understand this.  They are too intent on making money from their property rights.  And so they have sought to extend their market control via copyrights, trademarks and patents, at the expense of the public and future creators.[4]  Copyright industries relentlessly seek longer terms for copyright protection and thus a smaller public domain.  They seek reductions in fair use rights in order to limit our right to share.  They seek curbs on the first-sale doctrine that currently allows the resale of books and CDs.  They seek encryption and various “techno-locks” to prevent people from re-using and sharing their legitimately purchased content. 

But this isn’t going to work over the long term.  Remember:  the only thing worse than being sampled on the Internet is not being sampled.  The strange, counterintuitive truth is that exclusive possession of a song, film, visual image or text may actually diminish its value by making it inaccessible, unfamiliar, unseen and unimproved. 

This is a key lesson being taught by new models of collaborative creativity on the Internet.  Things like free and open source software, Wikipedia, remix music, video mashups, social networking and many other online phenomena.  A variety of new genres of creativity are generating enormous stores of new value by opening themselves up to mass participation and collaboration – and to incremental improvement and remixing.  The corporate world likes to think that they are chiefly responsible for this emerging sector of value-creation, but in fact their biggest role in simply to provide a hosting platform.  The real work is being done by a social commons of creators.

I call this the Great Value Shift – the idea that open platforms are catalyzing an explosion of user-driven creativity.  The truth is that digital commons are a very powerful engine of innovation.  Neither markets nor the state can generate value in the ways that digital commons can – which is why both market and state understandably feel threatened.

The classic economic narrative launched by 18th Century philosopher Adam Smith holds that human beings are rational, self-interested creatures who invariably maximize their material, utilitarian interests.  This is alleged to be the engine that drives economic life.  But life on the Internet is proving this premise to be problematic or at least highly partial.  Professor Benkler argues that on the Internet, “behaviors that were once on the periphery – social motivations, cooperation, friendship, decency – move to the very core of economic life.”[5]  Money and markets do not necessarily animate creative activity and wealth-creation.   He calls this commons-based peer production.

As I describe in my book, Viral Spiral:  How the Commoners Built a Digital Republic of Their Own, there are many, many species of digital commons, so let me start with three of the most famous and basic:  free software and open source software; Creative Commons licenses that enable sharing; and Wikipedia and its many offshoots and imitators. 

The ability to access and share software code without restriction is only possible because software hacker Richard Stallman developed a legal mechanism in the late 1980s known as the General Public License, or GPL.  Without the GPL, it’s safe to say that the amateur hacker world that we know today would never have materialized or grown.  The GPL is a legal license based on copyright ownership that lets a programmer legally guarantee that his or her work will remain in the commons, and not be appropriated by any private party.  The license does this by authorizing anyone to use the software code for free, without permission, so long as any derivative works are also made available under the same terms.  This license encourages people to contribute to a shared pool of code because they know that no one will be able to take the code private and withhold it from the community.  The GPL means that none of us will be taken for suckers – and that the commons can persist and thrive.

Because of the GPL and related licenses that authorize sharing and prevent the private appropriation of code, thousands upon thousands of open source software programs have been created and expanded, providing an indispensable infrastructure for the Internet and a vital counterweight to software monopolies. 

Creative Commons licenses are another essential bit of commons infrastructure that has enabled sharing and collaboration on unprecedented scales.  The Creative Commons suite of standardized licenses let copyright owners signal to the public that their works are freely available for anyone to use, without permission or payment.  The licenses represent a significant legal innovation because they enable authors to forgo the strict privatization of creativity under copyright law, which automatically treats any scribble or musical riff as private property upon creation. 

This legal innovation has given rise to countless online communities whose members are committed to sharing their works with each other.  Vast communities of remix musicians, video mashup artists, book authors and filmmakers use the CC licenses.[6]  Academics and scientists are among the most frequent users of CC licenses as part of a growing open-access publishing movement that seeks to take back control of academic research from commercial publishers.  In an attempt to confront soaring subscription prices and new restrictions on access to journal articles, academic disciplines and universities have launched more than 8,500 open access journals whose articles are freely available for copying in perpetuity. 

Again, the value-generation capacities of the commons are competing with conventional markets – and winning!

We can see this, as well, with Wikipedia.  Although this user-generated and -curated encyclopedia is the most famous wiki in existence – with more than 17 million user-written articles in 270 languages – there are dozens of offshoots that rely on the same software and similar social dynamics.  Wikispecies is a collective that is compiling an inventory of the world’s species.  Wikiquote is a site for amassing notable quotations.  Wikitravel is a growing collection of user-written travel guides to hundreds of locations around the world.  OpenWetWare is a wiki for biological researchers.  There is even a Conservapedia, an online encyclopedia of conservative political thought, and Intellipedia, an online resource for the U.S. Government’s intelligence agencies.

Digital communities are so robust and powerful because they can undercut the enormous overhead costs associated with conventional markets, and they can leverage social cooperation in ways that neither the market nor state can.  Markets require multiple layers of expensive overhead in the form of bureaucracy and lawyers, talent recruitment and talent promotion, branding and marketing, complicated financing, and much else.  Now imagine how a social community of trust and cooperation working on a light-weight software infrastructure can just do lots of similar work for free or at very low cost.  The commons essentially out-competes by out-cooperating.

Here’s Professor Yochai Benkler again:  He writes:  “What we are seeing now is the emergence of more effective collective action practices that are decentralized but do not rely on either the price system or a managerial structure for coordination.”  Benkler’s term for this phenomenon is “commons-based peer production.”  By that, he means systems that are collaborative and nonproprietary, and based on “sharing resources and outputs among widely distributed, loosely connected individuals who cooperate with each other.”[7]    

Consider, for example, the Blender Institute, an Amsterdam nonprofit that produces computer-generated animated films.  This is a still from one of their films, Big Buck Bunny.  The Blender Institute productions are as technically sophisticated and creative as anything put out by Pixar, but its projects draw upon a global corps of talent who have utter creative freedom.  Digital versions of the films are released under open source licenses and can be downloaded for free.  The enterprise makes money by selling official DVDs, complete with outtakes and the open-source code for the films.

Or consider the Open Prosthetics Project, which invites anyone to contribute to the design of a prosthetic limb or the specification of limbs that ought to be designed even if they don’t know how to do it.  This has generated such unexpected innovations as limbs specifically designed for rock-climbers and an arm designed for fishing.

Or consider the Crisis Commons, a global network of “barcamp” and “hackathon” events that bring together volunteer techies who specialize in crisis-response innovatation.  So, for example, after the Haiti earthquake in 2009, thousands of volunteers stepped up to deal with the humanitarian crisis there by building Web-based translation tools, people finders and maps showing routes to empty hospital beds.  A group called Occupy Sandy arose in response to the recent hurricane in the US to provide network-coordinated humanitarian aid to people left homeless by the storm – doing things that the Red Cross couldn’t or wouldn’t do.

One of the leading gurus on this bottom-up style of network innovation is Professor Eric von Hippel of M.I.T., the author of a book called Democratizing Innovation.  Von Hippel has spent much of his career documenting how consumers – and communities of users – are among the most powerful sources of innovation.  It’s wasn’t some corporate R&D department that came up with the idea of center-pivot irrigation sprinklers used in the West, or Gatorade, the mountain bike, desktop publishing, email, and the sports bra.  Those innovations were all dreamed up by ordinary, individual users.

Von Hippel estimates that 77 percent of the innovations in scientific instruments originates from users.  Sports enthusiasts like windsurfers, cyclists and fly fishermen are the ones who tinker with their equipment and come up with new product ideas.  Ice climbers came up with the idea of putting a leash on their ice-picks so that they could hang on them while climbing frozen waterfalls.  The commoners, in short, are co-producers and co-innovators.

There is now a burgeoning movement to bring open source principles to the physical world.  Community networks like Open Source Ecology and the Open Source Hardware and Design Alliance are working to develop replicable, shareable equipment for modern off-the-grid “resilient communities.”  Open Source Ecology writes:

By our analysis, most of the technologies needed for a sustainable and pleasant standard of living could be reduced to the cost of scrap metal + labor. There is immense potential for social transformation once this technology is fully developed for building interconnected self-sufficient communities….

One of the more interesting prototypes is the LifeTrac, a low-cost, multipurpose open source tractor that is intended to be modular, inexpensive and easy to build and maintain — in other words, not complex, expensive and proprietary.  There are several projects attempting to build open-source automobiles.

While many commons-based initiatives are local, they are starting to inter-connect and cross-fertilize each other via the Internet.  This is how many local, physically based commons may go viral.  There are a whole range of what I call “eco-digital commons,” in which Internet technologies are being used to help monitor and manage the environment. 

For example, “participatory sensing” projects.  These are Internet communities that invite citizens to use cell phone cameras, motion sensors, GPS and other electronic systems to gather and aggregate large amounts of environmental data.  People make their own local counts of birds and butterflies, for example, or monitor water quality or document the spread of invasive species.  This is an example of how digital commons can improve government.  There are many others, such as the Peer to Patent wiki that invites people to submit prior art to call into question patent applications, and the Smithsonian Commons, which has used crowd-sourcing to help identify people in very old photos of historical interest.

In a time when global markets are steam-rolling over our communities, the commons offers a way to meet economic and social needs.  The commons lets us reassert a sense of place and re-embed markets in social community.  We can see this in the Slow Food movement and Community Supported Agriculture, for example.  Or consider the City of Linz, Austria, which has initiated a plan to make its entire urban region an open information commons.  The city already provides free wifi hotspots, email accounts for every citizen and web hosting for noncommercial content.  Now it wants the region to embrace open source software, Creative Commons licenses, open data platforms, OpenStreetMap and open educational resources.  City officials believe that the regional information commons will stimulate digital innovators to produce locally useful information tools while encouraging greater civic engagement and more robust economic development.

The new online commons are so interesting because they do not pose a mere  rhetorical or moral challenge to late-capitalist discourse and copyright law; they represent a functional challenge.  That can accomplish specific tasks with greater speed, creativity and social satisfaction.  They are frequently more efficient, innovative and robust than conventional markets that attempt to stifle creative participation.  It has been estimated, for example, that open-source software annually destroys $60 billion in revenues for businesses that would otherwise sell proprietary software.  If the value of open source products and services were calculated at commercial prices, it would have revenues greater than the combined income of Microsoft, Oracle and Computer Associates.[8]

Not surprisingly, open platforms on the Internet are forcing a shift not only in business strategy and organizational behavior, but in the very definition of wealth.  On the Internet, wealth is not just financial wealth, nor is it necessarily privately held.  Wealth generated through open platforms is often socially created value that is shared, evolving and non-monetized.  It hovers in the air, so to speak, accessible to everyone.  Socially created value has always existed, of course, but it hasn’t always been culturally legible or consequential. 

A key reason that digital commons are so innovative is that they are able to draw upon social behaviors that the mainstream economy rejects as trivial or irrelevant.  In typical markets, you’re supposed to be a hard-bitten, competitive rationalist seeking to maximize your material self-interest.  In Internet commons, what is valued is friendship and cooperation.  It’s all about social reciprocity and trust.  People who are affirmatively helpful to the community will rise to the top – because that way, everyone is better off.  But here’s what’s critical – a commons must be able to preserve its ability to protect and maintain itself as a coherent, self-healing community of shared interests.  It must be able to develop and enforce its own governance rules.

The payoffs are considerable, however, because digital commons can tackle projects that markets consider too marginal or risky.  Precisely because a commons is not organized to maximize private profit, its members are more willing to experiment and innovate.  New ideas can emerge from the periphery with barely any financial support.  Value is not created through the power of money alone, but through individual self-selection for tasks, passionate engagement, serendipitous discovery, idiosyncratic experimentation and peer-based recognition of achievement.   

I started my talk saying that digital commons will create a new political order.  I think commons have already taken huge steps in this regard by creating a distinct social and economic realm.  Commoners have created a digital republic of their own, independent of the official political and corporate order.  They are creating a parallel universe of production and consumption that governs itself outside of the marketplace and under the direct control of commoners themselves.

This is the Commons Sector – and I would argue that it constitutes a fledgling new type of democratic polity.  A few years ago, in a brilliant essay, Internet scholar David R. Johnson declared that online commons represent a new kind of social/biological metabolism for creating “law.”[9]  By that, he meant that commons have their own internal systems for managing their affairs and for interacting with their environment.  They can repair themselves and define their own persistent identity.  They have a sovereignty of moral purpose and action that “competes” with functions historically performed by markets and government. 

 In this sense, the Commons Sector represents a great leap forward in citizenship – a revival of civil society in the digital age.  The Commons Sector may not have the formal legitimacy of nation-states nor police and military powers.  But it certainly has the moral authority, cultural authenticity and legal-technical framework for maintaining itself over time.  And it can already perform (or out-perform!) many functions that historically only markets and governments could carry out.  I consider it a new kind of social organism that combines production, consumption and governance.

The thousands upon thousands of online commons now emerging around the globe is less of an ideological or political entity in any conventional sense than a new vehicle for combining production, consumption and governance.  It is an emerging socio-political worldview.  It is a cultural sensibility that challenges existing notions of national identity, institutional hierarchy and corporate ownership. 

The most serious issue that the digital commons faces in the near term is how to negotiate a modus vivendi with its leading “competitors” – the market and the state.  The market and the state, tragically, have become a decadent, self-interested duopoly committed to fostering privatization and commoditization of everything – from land and water to the human genome and nano-matter.  The resulting market enclosures amount to a radical dispossession and disenfranchisement of commoners – and an anti-democratic, anti-social provocation that cannot continue indefinitely.

The beauty of digital commons is their ability to turn the tables on the market/state by controlling their own alternative vehicles of value-creation.  The next step is a drive for real political power.  We can already see how open networks have empowered such bottom-up protests as the Arab Spring, the Indignados in Spain, and the Occupy movement.  It’s not entirely clear how such commons movements will assert their political power in lasting ways, and find persistent institutional form.  But there is no question that self-organized governance by digital commoners will begin to supplant centralized, bureaucratic government if only because the latter is so structurally incapable of dealing with fast-moving complexity at multiple scales. 

That’s why the next big turn of the wheel will see commoners using their newly built provisioning systems to reinvent governance and markets.  The commons offers us many practical models not just for reinventing provisioning and markets, but for building new types of participatory democratic structures.  These structures tend to be far more transparent, responsive and effective than conventional democratic structures, which have become deeply corrupted and dysfunctional.  To help showcase many of these examples, I recently co-edited a new anthology of 73 essays, The Wealth of the Commons:  A World Beyond Market and State (Levellers Press), which describes some of the rich possibilities presented by the commons in diverse international contexts.

Although the future of the commons is very much a work-in-progress, I see it as one of the few areas of life about which I am exceedingly hopeful.  Why?  Because it’s already taking off.  When theory needs to catch up with practice, you know that something powerful is going on.




[1]   Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” 162 Science, December 13, 1968, pp. 1243-48.

[2]  Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1973), especially chapter 10; and W.E. Tate, The English Village Community and the Enclosure Movement (London:  Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1967).

[3]   Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons:  The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (New York:  Cambridge University Prses, 1990).

[4]  See, e.g., Lawrence Lessig, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace (New York, NY:  Basic Books, 1999), and David Bollier, Brand Name Bullies:  The Quest to Own and Control Culture (New York, NY:  John Wiley and Sons, 2005).

[5]  Benkler at the iCommons Summit, Dubronik, Croatia, June 15, 2007.

[6]  David Bollier, Viral Spiral:  How the Commoners Built a Digital Republic of Their Own (New York:  New Press, 2009), chapter 5.

[7]  Benkler, Yochai, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom (New Haven, Conn.:  Yale University Press, 2006), p. 60. 

[8]  Standish Group, “Trends in Open Source” [report], as reported by Matthew Broersma, “Proprietary Vendors lose  30 bn to open source,”, April 22 2008, at

[9]  David R. Johnson, “The Life of the Law Online,” First Monday, vol. 11, no. 2, Feburary 2006, at