Reclaiming the Commons
August 4, 2002 9:49 PM   Subscribe

Reclaiming the Commons "One of the great questions of contemporary American political economy is, who shall control the commons? "The commons" refers to that vast range of resources that the American people collectively own, but which are rapidly being enclosed: privatized, traded in the market, and abused." This is a fairly long, but incredibly well researched article about the "silent theft of our shared assets and civic inheritance".
posted by dejah420 (23 comments total)
From the article:
"• gift economies, or social networks based on gift exchange, which create economic and social values within academia, Internet communities, and geographic localities....

In many cases, these resources have no officially recognized value, let alone the legal definition and protection enjoyed by private property. But commoners realize all too well that community structures and social relationships are vitally important in creating wealth, not to mention a humane society. "
And thus, we find ourselves with MetaFilter, and the blogging community, by which commerial (ie. privately owned) journalism is confused and even threatened.
posted by kayjay at 10:58 PM on August 4, 2002

For an electronic/creative take on the commons metaphor, check out Creative Commons. Stanford lawyer/professor Lawrence Lessig is involved.

Here's a newbie question: I feel I should have searched first to see if this has been discussed yet. ... OK, answered my own question. Search turns up comments mentioning CC in 2254 and 2298 yielding a doy moment for me as I realize that the braindaddy of this site is involved in CC, so naturally you've heard of it, right?

p.s.: why is that "spread the dot" thing at the bottom of this page? what does that have to do with mefi?
posted by xian at 11:40 PM on August 4, 2002


Xian: Here. That thread got a little ugly, but it should answer your question. If you know the history of NetSol/Verisign and the feelings that most independent communities /content producers have for them, you can probably appreciate the alacrity with which everyone has started spreading the dot!
posted by justlooking at 11:49 PM on August 4, 2002

Actually, kay jay, by which journalism is fed and stripmines for filler is closer to the truth. Nice one, deja420. it's a gourmet deli of food for thought. Read this, this and the sidebar for the blue dot, xian.
posted by y2karl at 11:50 PM on August 4, 2002

> Stanford lawyer/professor Lawrence Lessig is involved.

So is a certain cutie:
posted by sylloge at 2:22 AM on August 5, 2002

In his summary of the 'tragedy of the commons', Herschel Elliot writes:

any viable ethics must satisfy these related requirements:

(1) An acceptable system of ethics is contingent on its ability to preserve the ecosystems which sustain it.

(2) Biological necessity has a veto over the behavior which any set of moral beliefs can allow or require.

(3) Biological success is a necessary (though not a sufficient) condition for any acceptable ethical theory. In summary, no ethics can be grounded in biological impossibility; no ethics can be incoherent in that it requires ethical behavior that ends all further ethical behavior.
Clearly any ethics which tries to do so is mistaken; it is wrong.

Hardin's focus at the time of writing "tragedy" in 1968 was overpopulation...can you think of other 'common resources' that can be collectively spoiled by ignorance, indifference, or greed? The potential for tragedy remains, even if the terminology may have changed.
posted by fred1st at 2:33 AM on August 5, 2002

why is that "spread the dot" thing at the bottom of this page?

Probably because most stories on Slashdot end up on MetaFilter after a few days, like this one ;-)

To get the stories out of the way, here we go:

The Google Art Creator

See 4D space with 3D glasses

The Death of Pinball

Autonomous race cars

Vigilante hacking touted as virus cure

Hacking has become easier

MS changes security codes on xBox, forces nVidia to dispose of old chips

IBM's deep view

There we go, a day's worth of Slashdot stories for you.
posted by wackybrit at 4:03 AM on August 5, 2002

*cough* NADER *cough*
posted by Hall at 4:34 AM on August 5, 2002

fred1st: did you read the original linked article? bollier gives a brief synopsis of hardin's 'tragedy of the commons' piece and its current application in public policy circles and then writes:
This pessimism persists, in part, because the commons is frequently confused with an open-access regime—a free-for-all in which a resource is essentially open to everyone without restriction. An open-access regime lacks an identifiable authority and recognized property rights; the common resources are taken for sale on markets. In contrast, a real commons has a "social infrastructure" of cultural institutions, rules, and traditions, and the resources are restricted to personal (non-market) uses by members of the community. Without that infrastructure, the only operative social value is private profit for the most aggressive appropriators. Hardin's essay might more appropriately have been titled "The Tragedy of Open Access."

Absent from this "tragedy of the commons" argument—and related concerns about free riders—is an acknowledgment that trust, reciprocity, a history of shared commitment, and a robust community can overcome many of the alleged failures of the commons—and sometimes they do. While "tragic" failures of the commons and free-riding on public commodities certainly do occur, they do not represent the final word, or even an accurate generalization, about the capacity of individuals to pursue common goals. (emphasis mine)
i bookmarked this to use in future arguments when people cry 'tragedy'.
posted by mlang at 5:48 AM on August 5, 2002 [1 favorite]

when people cry 'tragedy'.

Tragedy! When the feeling's gone and you can't go on.
posted by wackybrit at 5:54 AM on August 5, 2002

I'm not normally a memeber of the "Corporations Are Evil" contingent, but here I must say that the shrinking of the Commons is a direct consequence of allowing corporations to be treated as "natural persons" under US law. Corporations own the vast majority of the patents and copyrights in this country (and probably many others as well). They use these vast patent and copyright portfolios as a weapon against competitors.

My hope is that the various new media forms (weblogs, personal video, Flash "thingies", cartoons, etc.) will break the stranglehold that corporations have on our artistic culture. Unfortunately, it seems that not only are corporations against the Commons, but so are the courts. Increasingly, individuals and small companies are being threatened under the aegis of the DMCA, one of the most noxious laws ever passed in this country.

I hope that individual people begin to take back the Commons. It will take some civil disobediance, which means that some folks will have to put their jobs -- and maybe their personal freedom -- on the line. If no one is willing (or able) to do that, then we might as well give up on music, art, and other culture entirely.

For all our sakes, I hope the Creative Commons takes off.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled program.
posted by mrmanley at 6:01 AM on August 5, 2002


You should have included the lyrics. (Scroll down the page to "Tragedy".)

This has been a public-service announcement.
posted by mrmanley at 6:03 AM on August 5, 2002

Ah, but I was singing the lyrics to Tragedy by 'Steps' and not the Beegees. ;-)
posted by wackybrit at 6:08 AM on August 5, 2002

In related news, the Mall of America is celebrating its tenth anniversary.
posted by gimonca at 6:30 AM on August 5, 2002

People can barely be bothered to vote. A commons....right.

under the spreading chestnut tree
i sold you and you sold me:
posted by larry_darrell at 6:45 AM on August 5, 2002

Just wanted to add links to Dan Bricklin's Cornucopia of the Commons, and Clay Shirky's In Praise of Freeloaders: two articles helpful in realising why the Tragedy of the Commons need not apply to distributed resources.

It strikes me that, while content creators do need renumeration for their work, anything paid above this renumeration should reflect the price of copying and distribution. On the internet, using a distributed system, those costs are virtually zero. Laws like the DMCA exist purely to fatten those parasites which monopolise distribution in order to fix prices.

As has been stated elsewhere (countlessly), a small fee per download to renumerate the artist and pay for the costs of developing the distribution software should be more than fair. If it proves impossible to stop people using Gnutella, etc (and it will), then a reasonable charge should be made to ISPs to cover the renumeration of artists. If some people want to pay an extra subscription fee on top of that, for use of a better quality cataloguing service, this is entirely reasonable and I'd personally be willing to do so.
posted by walrus at 8:34 AM on August 5, 2002

nitpick: remuneration (cause it's about "munny" => "money")

"renumeration" would be about being renumbered or something.
posted by beth at 11:42 AM on August 5, 2002

One thing that people seem never to mention regarding the tragedy of the commons is that you can blame the FACT that the resource in question is a commons for their overconsumption. When resources are privately owned, they will almost always be efficiently priced and used (supply and demand creating equilibirum) and a generally economically efficient result achieved.

Consider the classic thought exercise in the TotC: the public grazing area which is destroyed by the various private sheepherds, each acting rationally for himself, but irrationally collectively.

If the town auctions off the commons to the highest bidder, and the winner bidder then leasing grazing rights to the various shepherds, there will be a quick balance of price and supply of grass, based on and varying upon the the demand for wool and lamb compared to the demand for cotton and beef, and the costs of operating the fields, and grazing alternatives, etc. The town then spends the auction proceeds in a manner which benefits all town people, not just shepherds.

Consider, as a second case, MetaFilter versus Usenet.

Becuase MetaFilter is privately owned and controlled, it can manage and allocate resources among users efficiently, along a number of variables (pleasure and other value users get, Mathowie's time and cash costs to operate the site, fame and well-being that Mathowie derives from operating the site, etc). Although in a sense it is "common" because there are no mandatory charges, in point of fact it is an economy where readers and posters contribute free attention and labor, receive a small amount of free attention, and generate a "profitable" surplus of attention and other benefits to Mathowie.

The Usenet, on the other hand, is much more like a true commons -- no effective private control, a broad public- and quasi-public support (institutions and bandwidth providers, etc.), and, of course, a signal to noise ratio of 1 interesting post to 99 flamers and spammers.
posted by MattD at 12:21 PM on August 5, 2002

[gratuitous self link warning]

For quite some time I've been falling in love with the idea of a new commons growing out of "The Web". When I got started with it around 1994 it looked like millions of tiny producers would be able to provide free versions of things that corporation were charging inflated prices for.

Over the years I've seen many incredible and free resources develop. Metafilter is a good example. Just two more examples - Gimp is a free version of Photoshop, Blender is a free version of 3D Studio.

But few people use these. Why? Gimp costs $600 less than Photoshop, but few people even know about it. Blender may not be a powerful as 3D studio, but for the hobbyist it's more than adequate, and costs $5000 less.

My fear is that the Commons will fail to be used to it's full potential (and will remain anemic because of that) because people just don't understand how much valuable content is out there. In addition, people don't understand how valuable their own small contributions to the Commons might be.

I was motivated by these concerns to remove the copyright from my site and explicitly place everything I produced in the public domain. This includes stories, recipes, designs and thousands of photos. I make plenty of money as a programmer, I don't need to pull in a few dollars here and then from my hobbies. And frankly I'm tired of stressing over maintaining copyright. By giving the content away I've gotten much more satisfaction from it.

So if you like this image feel free to use it. For anything. If you see anything else you like there, go ahead and take that as well.

It's free. Take. Use it. You don't even have to ask.

But consider placing creations you have no intension of ever making money from in the Commons as well.

[/gratuitous self link warning]
posted by y6y6y6 at 12:36 PM on August 5, 2002

The The Cornucopia of the Commons page has this comment:

It was pointed out to me that Prof. Hardin later said he should have named his essay "The Tragedy of the Unmanaged Commons". In 1994 he published a paper with that title.

-Dan Bricklin, April 23, 200

But no link to that other essay. Does anybody know of an on-line, freely available copy?
posted by Ayn Marx at 2:14 PM on August 5, 2002

Keep talking. I don't want to get blamed for killing this conversation ;-)
posted by wackybrit at 4:41 PM on August 5, 2002

[wacky on the baccy there, hmm? hmm?]

BTW, cheers jon [y6y6y6] - that makes great wallpaper!
posted by dash_slot- at 5:06 PM on August 5, 2002


Thanks beth ... i always do that.
posted by walrus at 5:32 PM on August 5, 2002

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