Whatever you may say about the marketing firms that help large corporations sell us products, they generally tap into world-class artistic talent. They also make it their business to track breaking cultural trends aggressively in order to capitalize on them. How interesting, then, that a New York City design firm, Collins, has produced a gorgeous little book, The Triumph of the Commons: 55 Theses on the Future. I find it immensely attractive and artful, if conspicuously incomplete. I also find it fascinating that a respected NYC design firm would have a fairly sophisticated understanding of the commons (at least, digital commons).
But given the firm’s blue-chip clientele, which includes such corporate giants as Johnson & Johnson, Motorola, Sprite, Dove and Microsoft, one must wonder: Is this the beginning of the corporate cooptation of the commons? Or merely a sign that the corporate world is starting to realize that it must respond to people’s palpable yearning for the commons? Another question: How much daylight exists between a marketing/design firm and its corporate clients, which tend to be more interested in monetizing and enclosing the commons than in defending it?
Collins is clearly a firm that has a grip on the Zeitgeist. It describes itself as “a multi-disciplinary design firm specializing in igniting mass collaboration.” It adds, “The next generation of great brands will emphasize not mass communication but mass collaboration. That means transforming your brand into a platform where communities discover, make and share new value in cooperation with your company.” Very astute.
Collins sees this line of thinking as naturally leading to the commons. The Triumph of the Commons, which it self-published late last year, is an “exquisite corpse,” a method of creating art pioneered by the Surrealists that relies upon the sequential, collective assembly of images or words. As Wikipedia describes it, an exquisite corpse is made when “each collaborator adds to a composition in sequence, either by following a rule (e.g. “The adjective noun adverb verb adjective noun”) or by being allowed to see the end of what the previous person contributed.” Thus, one artist draws on one quadrant of a piece of paper, then folds it over – and another adds to the drawing without seeing what the first artist already drew. A third artist follows, and so on.
In this case, Collins writer Leland Marschmeyer prepared a list of “55 theses” on the commons, drawing upon the thinking of people like Creative Commons founder Lawrence Lessig, online communities expert Howard Rheingold and open source software developer Eric Raymond, among others. It was a conscious attempt to create a “mytho-poetic, philosophical language” about the commons, Marschmeyer told me. (The Theses have a heavy emphasis on Internet gurus and digital culture).
So, for example, Thesis 17: “Although it is the battleground that produces profit, it is the commons that produces wealth.” Thesis 18 continues: “Therefore, those who see the world as a commons see the world and the people in it as source; as that which gives forth. In giving forth, a source is profuse in its self-initiated production. One does not engage a source to harness it to one’s personal agenda, but to involve it in the genesis of one’s own future.”
Collins invited 55 different artists to illustrate each of the 55 theses as they saw fit by contributing a rectangular image. The images are variously collages, photographs, diagrams and drawings. Designer Matt Luckhurst assembled the text and images into a 4 x 5-1/2 inch book, which was submitted to a design competition hosted by the Northeastern University College of Arts, Media and Design. The exhibit, “We the Designers: Reframing Political Issues in the Obama Era,” asked artists to address the divisions within American society. The exhibit ran from late September through December 2011 at Northeastern, and then for a month at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
The Triumph of the Commons can be seen online at a simple website that displays all 55 theses and design illustrations. The book affects an epic, inspirational tone, and even has flashes of subversive wit. Thesis 30, for example, declares: “Inevitably, those who amass power will battle with those who give strength to others. It is because those who give strength cultivate surprise from others – which is something that those who amass power cannot allow.” Thesis 31 continues:
Eventually, those who give strength will overcome those who amass power. The presence of power requires the presence of the powerless. Therefore, power is a finite pursuit. Genuine strength, however, does not require the presence of weakness. In fact, strength in one begets strength in another, just as the knowledge in you begets the knowledge in me. Giving strength is an infinite pursuit in which power cannot keep pace. Rosencrantz in Hamlet: "Many wearing rapiers are afraid of goosequills."
And so on. Theses 30 and 31, however, are about as close as The Triumph of the Commons gets to talking about enclosures. There is no mention, explicitly or indirectly, of the voracious privatization and commodification of the human genome, public spaces, culture, nano-matter, indigenous lands in Africa and Asia, and other commons. And yet how can one intelligently talk about commons in the 21st Century without also talking about enclosures?
I called up Marschmeyer to probe the origins of the book and his understanding of the commons, and I was pleased to hear him enthuse about his desire to spur participation and collaboration among people, and to counteract the proliferating cultural images envisioning the end of the Earth and societal collapse. But I was a dismayed when Marschmeyer equated Apple’s App Store to a commons. His explanation: Apple had built “a participatory structure that the public could use.”
Well, yes – so far as it goes. Apple’s business model invites app developers to contribute to the App Store and share some modicum of revenue. But that is far from a self-organized commons controlled by commoners on their own terms. It’s a business model that seeks to leverage other people’s work and privatize the gains as equity and profits. Access and participation remain based on one's ability to pay.
And so I came away from The Triumph of the Commons with complicated feelings. How wonderful that even a NYC design firm catering to multinational corporations recognizes the value of the commons, however general, and seeks to honor it. But how worrisome that prior loyalties to the market paradigm could well trump any “triumph of the commons.” After all, Collins is in the business of selling its expertise on “brand strategy” and “experience design” to some very large corporations that slavishly respond to global capital markets. (I prefer to design my own experiences, thank you very much.) Marketing firms are in the business of manipulating feelings and images, and selling product. They only rarely wade into controversy or choose to fight for structural political change -- which is what it will take to save the commons in the 21st Century.
And yet, how reassuring that a sincere yearning for the commons is not confined to commoners, but springs forth as well from an artistic demimonde serving corporate marketers. My dream is for an even more robust outpouring of artistic tributes to the commons in the future – but next time, organized by commoners themselves.