digital commons

Our knowledge about what makes digital commons work is terribly under-theorized.  Yes, there are famous works by Lawrence Lessig and Yochai Benkler, and there are lots of projects and websites that are based on commoning such as like Wikipedia, free software, Arduino, open access journals, among countless others.  But can we identify core principles for organizing digital commons?  Can we use that knowledge to engineer the evolution of new commons?  Identifying such principles just might let us move beyond “openness” as the ultimate goal of online life, to a more sustainable goal, the self-governed commons.

It has been a pleasure to discover that some computer scientists are actively exploring how Elinor Ostrom’s principles for successful commons might be applied to the design of software.  Consider this intriguing essay title: "Axiomatization of Socio-Economic Principles for Self-Organizing Institutions: Concepts, Experiments and Challenges,“ which appeared in the ACM Transactions on Autonomous and Adaptive Systems, in December 2012.  

The piece is by British electrical and electronic engineer Jeremy Pitt and two co-authors, Julia Schaumeier and Alexander Artikis. The abstract is here.  Unfortunately, the full article is behind a paywall, consigning it to a narrow readership.  I shall quote from the abstract here because it hints at the general thinking of tech experts who realize that the social and the technical must be artfully blended:

We address the problem of engineering self-organising electronic institutions for resource allocation in open, embedded and resource-constrained systems.  In such systems, there is decentralised control, competition for resources and an expectation of both intentional and unintentional errors.  The ‘optimal’ distribution of resources is then less important than the sustainability of the distribution mechanism, in terms of endurance and fairness, based on collective decision-making and tolerance of unintentional errors.  In these circumstances, we propose to model resource allocation as a common-pool resource management problem, and develop a formal characterization of Elinor Ostrom’s socio-economic principles for enduring institutions. 

When I was in Berlin, Matthias Spielkamp of, interviewed me about the commons, especially the fate of various digital commons such as free software and the future of the Internet itself. is a German website that covers digital and intellectual property issues.  The video of that interview is now online – a short version (6:56) and a long version (24:37). 

Our conversation started with “What is the commons?” and moved on to such questions as “Free software often is a niche product.  Has it been a success?”.... “Can there be a regulation for the benefit of the commons?”.... and “Has governing the Internet become a public issue….or is it limited to specialized circles?” among other questions. 



For years I have been the rapporteur for the Aspen Institute’s Information Technology Roundtable conference, which every year brings together about 25 technologists, venture capitalists, policy wonks, management gurus, and others to discuss topics of breaking concern.  The most recent topic was the “power curve” distributions that tend to result on open network platforms.

This is extensively discussed in my just-released report on the conference, Power-Curve Society:  The Future of Innovation, Opportunity and Social Equity in the Emerging Networked Economy.  The report notes how a globally networked economy allows greater ease of transactions but also requires fewer workers at lower pay, which tends to aggravate wealth and income inequality.  As I write in the introduction to the report:

Although the new technologies are clearly driving economic growth and higher productivity, the distribution of these benefits is skewed in worrisome ways. Wealth and income distribution no longer resemble a familiar “bell curve” in which the bulk of the wealth accrue to a large middle class. Instead, the networked economy seems to be producing a “power-curve” distribution, sometimes known as a “winner-take-all” economy. A relative few players tend to excel and reap disproportionate benefits while the great mass of the population scrambles for lower-paid, lower-skilled jobs, if they can be found at all. Economic and social insecurity is widespread.

The report also looks at Big Data and the coming personal data revolution beneath it that seeks to put individuals, and not companies or governments, at the forefront. Companies in the power-curve economy rely heavily on big databases of personal information to improve their marketing, product design, and corporate strategies. The unanswered question is whether the multiplying reservoirs of personal data will be used to benefit individuals as consumers and citizens, or whether large Internet companies will control and monetize Big Data for their private gain.

Josh Wallaert, writing at the Places Journal (at the Design Observer Group) – “the online journal of architecture, landscape and urbanism,” has a wonderful post about nominally public spaces on the Internet.  The post, called “State of the Commons,” notes:

….Flickr has become a ghost town in recent years, conservatively managed by its corporate parent Yahoo, which has ceded ground to photo-sharing alternatives like Facebook (and its subsidiary Instagram), Google Plus (and Picasa and Panoramio), and Twitter services (TwitPic and Yfrog).  An increasing share of the Internet’s visual resources are now locked away in private cabinets, untagged and unsearchable, shared with a public no wider than the photographer’s personal sphere. Google’s Picasa and Panoramio support creative commons licenses, but finding the settings is not easy. And Facebook, the most social place to share photos, is the least public. Hundreds of millions of people who have photographed culturally significant events, people, buildings and landscapes, and who would happily give their work to the commons if they were prompted, are locked into sites that don’t even provide the option. The Internet (and the mobile appverse) is becoming a chain of walled gardens that trap even the most civic-minded person behind the hedges, with no view of the outside world…..Canton Public Library, 1903, Canton, Ohio; entry in the Wiki Loves Monuments USA contest. [Photo by Bgottsab], from

For better and worse, public-making in the early 21st-century has been consigned to private actors: to activists, urban interventionists, community organizations and — here’s the really strange thing — online corporations. The body politic has retreated to nominally public spaces controlled by Google, Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr, which now constitute a vital but imperfect substitute for the town square. Jonathan Massey and Brett Snyder draw an analogy between these online spaces and the privately-owned public space of Zuccotti Park, the nerve center for Occupy Wall Street, and indeed online tools have been used effectively to support direct actions and participatory democracies around the world.  Still, the closest most Americans get to the messy social activity of cooperative farm planning is the exchange of digital carrots in Farmville.

For anyone scratching their head about how to understand the deeper social and economic dynamics of online networks, a terrific new report has been released by Michel Bauwens called Synthetic Overview of the Collaborative Economy.  Michel, who directs the Foundation for Peer to Peer Alternatives and works with me at the Commons Strategies Group, is a leading thinker and curator of developments in the emerging P2P economy. 

The report was prepared for Orange Labs, a division of the French telecom company, as a comprehensive survey and analysis of new forms of collaborative production on the Internet.  The report is a massive 346 pages (downloadable as a pdf file under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license) and contains 543 footnotes.  But it is entirely clear and accessible to non-techies.  Unlike so many popular books on this subject that are either larded with colorful hyperbole and overly long anecdotes, or arcane technical detail, the Bauwens report cuts to the chase, giving tightly focuses analyses of the key principles of online cooperation.  The report is meaty, informative, comprehensive and well-documented.

Two paragraphs from the Introduction give a nice overview:

Two main agents of transformation guide this work. One is the emergence of community dynamics as an essential ingredient of doing business. It is no longer a matter of autonomous and separated corporations marketing to essentially isolated consumers, it is now a matter of deeply inter-networked economic actors involved in vocal and productive communities. The second is that the combined effect of digital reproduction and the increasingly 'socialized' production of value, makes the individual and corporate privatization of 'intellectual' property if not untenable, then certainly more difficult , and in all likelihood, ultimately unproductive. Hence the combined development of community-oriented and 'open' business models, which rely on more 'social' forms of intellectual property.

In this work, we therefore look at community dynamics that are mobilized by traditional actors (open innovation, crowdsourcing), and new models where the community's value creation is at its core (the free software, shared design and open hardware models). We then look at monetization in the absence of private IP. Linked to these developments are the emergence of distributed physical infrastructures, where the evolution of the networked computer is mirrored in the development of networked production and even financing. Indeed the mutualization of knowledge goes hand in hand with the mutualization of physical infrastructures, such as collaborative consumption and peer to peer marketplaces, used to mobilize idle resources and assets more effectively.

On October 11, I gave a talk at the "Economies of the Commons 3 Conference:  Sustainable Futures for Digital Archives."  My remarks were entitled, "The Great Value Shift:  From Stocks to Flows, from Property Rights to Commons."  The text is below.  A video of my talk (29:36 minutes) can be watched here.

This panel is supposed to focus on new forms of value creation in the “audiovisual commons.”  I am not an archivist and I’m not even a techie.  But I have studied the commons quite a bit.  Today I’d like to suggest how the idea of the commons can help us think more clearly how to manage sustainable digital archives in the future.  The commons helps us in a number of ways.  It gives us fresh philosophical premises, ethical principles, valuable legal models, and a worldview that can help us understand value in some new ways. 

A big part of our challenge is simply shedding the comfortable prejudices with which we have been brought up.  Let’s face it, we are creatures of the 20th century and its overweening faith in free markets, private property, technology as the path to “progress.”  It’s not easy to escape this mentality.  Or as John Maynard Keynes put it when trying to introduce his own new ideas to economics:  “The ideas which are here expressed so laboriously are extremely simple and should be obvious.  The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify…into every corner of our minds.”

The ideas behind the commons are actually quite simple and obvious.  It’s about access, sharing, fairness, collaboration and long-term sustainability.  It’s about protecting and expanding a resource.  But living in a culture that celebrates markets, large institutions and copyright has instilled some deep prejudices in us about how the world can and must work.  The language of the commons can help us re-think these assumptions by giving us a new vocabulary and perspective.  And if we’re ingenious enough, it may help us reinvent many contemporary systems of production and distribution as commons.

To traditionalists, the idea of self-organized governance may seem visionary at best and wacky at worst.  To the rest of us who are witnessing the slow-motion collapse of large, rigid institutions, the appeal of bottom-up, participatory systems of governance is obvious.  We need governance institutions that are trustworthy, effective and socially legitimate – descriptions that are not readily applied to many forms of government and policymaking. 

For huge segments of the population, it’s an open secret that the social contract is now a rigged game.  That's what the Arab Spring, the Indignados in Spain, the Internet protests against the proposed PIPA/SOPA laws, and the Occupy protests were all about.  While government suffers from lots of unfair criticism, governments are in fact plagued by political gridlock, legal complexity, bureaucratic limitations, the “pay to play” ethic, and the sheer expense of lobbying and litigating to advance one’s interests. No wonder so many people are disillusioned by the promise of "democracy."

The questions for our time are, Can we develop new institutions that work better and recover some measure of social trust and political legitimacy?  Can we forge a new social contract?  If government is unlikely to change much, can we move to new forms of governance?

As I see it, the chief challenge is not just to diagnose what’s wrong, but to build working alternatives and new grand narratives to help re-orient our thinking.  Given the ubiquity of digital technologies and especially the Internet, I think some of the most attractive answers are going to come from digital spaces.  The networked world keenly understands the value of open, participatory networks and the more efficient, socially legitimate outcomes it can produce. 

My friend and colleague John Clippinger, a leading tech thinker and entrepreneur, and I recently wrote a short paper suggesting that some sort of re-alignment in governance is inevitable:

As more of life and commerce is mediated by digital technologies and Internet platforms, the tensions between legacy institutions (centralized, hierarchical, control-based) and emergent social practices on open networks (distributed, participatory, emergent) are intensifying. For years, such tensions have been deliberately ignored or finessed – but that approach may no longer be possible. The structural deficiencies of existing online systems are spurring the search for better, more practical approaches to governance, law and policymaking in an age of open networks…..

The Great Lakes Commons Map

A week or two ago, I blogged about the rise of new sorts of eco-digital commons that blend virtual spaces with environmental management.  It's a bit of serendipity to learn this week about the a fascinating new online tool, the Great Lakes Commons Map.  The map is an interactive platform that solicits contributions and conversation by people who love the Great Lakes.  The idea is to turn a resource that is often seen as belonging to no one into one that is actively stewarded by everyone.  How?  By inviting everyone to post their own videos, text, photos and comments about specific portions of the Great Lakes.  Over time, it is hoped that the site will help build a new shared “mental map” and shared space for people to talk about the Great Lakes as an integrated bioregion -- and to take action to defend it.

The map was created by Paul Baines, an environmental educator, and Darren Puscas of reWORKit (“web production for unions and social change”).  Here is Haines' video introduction to the map.  Haines hopes that the website will help people annotate their conservation projects, cleanups, ecological education and restoration initiatives, activist efforts, walking tours, historical markings, and other Great Lakes projects on a single site, and thereby illustrate how and why the Lakes are a commons.  Anyone can post their own personal stories, reports of threats to the Lakes' ecological health, alerts that seek to organize and educate, notices about upcoming events, etc. 

Haines eventually hopes to make it possible to post and share video and audio on the site; use SMS and Twitter feeds for reporting and campaigning; host workshops and training on community mapping; and translate the website into other languages. 

What’s especially beautiful about the site is its use of Ushahidi, an open source, interactive geospatial platform for the crowdsourcing of information in crisis situations.  The platform has been used to enable the geospatial visualization human trafficking, for example.  Haines adapted it to serve as a way to crowdsource information, images, video and more that can create a new shared cultural space for saving the Great Lakes.

The New Eco-digital Commons

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.

How does Marxism relate to the commons and peer production? My friend Michel Bauwens, founder of the Foundation for P2P Alternatives, offers a penetrating, big-picture analysis in an interview with Jean Lievens (originally posted on TANIT, Toward a New International Tendency, but also at Social Network Unionism). 

It's now clear that postmodernism is a dead-end if only because it was more of a cultural stance than a serious analysis of economic production and social relations. Meanwhile, “class warfare” is making a resurgence, yet few people really aspire to rehabilitate communism or socialism; the historical models are simply not credible. So what are the realistic alternatives to capitalism and its known pathologies? And what role will the commons and peer production play in challenging capitalism?

Bauwens explains how peer production is moving well beyond the virtual world to include physical manufacturing, and how a certain class of business enterprises – “netarchical capital” – is positioning itself to exploit the powers of digital networks and collaboration.

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