When thinking about the commons, most people make a sharp division in their minds between natural resource commons (for water, air, land, forests, wildlife, etc.) and digital commons (free software, Wikipedia, Creative Commons-licensed content, social networking, etc.) It is assumed that these two universes are entirely separate and distinct, and have little to do with each other. But in fact, these two realms are starting to blur – and we should be more mindful of this convergence and the synergies that it is producing.
The reflexive division between digital and natural resource commons is understandable. One type of commons deals with rivalrous, finite resources that can be physically depleted, while the other manages non-rivalrous resources – information, creative works, research – that can’t really be “used up” because it is virtually costless to reproduce them digitally. Most natural resources can be over-exploited if there are too many users, so the challenge is how to manage access and usage. By contrast, the biggest challenge facing digital commoners is how to curate information and community participation in intelligent, respectful ways.
But the “obvious” logic of this mental map is deceptive – because a new constellation of what I call “eco-digital commons” is using networking technologies to better manage natural resources. The digital and natural worlds are starting to “co-mingle” in very interesting and constructive ways, suggesting that the more salient differences between the two resources are perhaps less consequential than we had thought. Indeed, there are many powerful new capabilities that arise.
An example is a new iPhone and Android app designed to help stop invasive species. It was developed by my friend Charlie Schweik, a UMass professor, in cooperation with the UMass Extension service, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Conservation, the University of Georgia and other partners. Invasive species are non-native plants, animals, fish, insects, fungi and other organisms that are often quite harmful to an ecosystem.