David Bollier on a Policy for the Commons

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David Bollier: I say it’s time to explore how government can play a more active role in nurturing the commons sector and the type of value that it creates.

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From an essay adapted from remarks that David Bollier gave on April 12, 2008, at a conference, Economies of the Commons: Strategies for Sustainable Access and Creative Reuse of Images and Sounds Online sponsored by the De Balie Centre for Culture and Politics, in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

URL = http://bollier.org/commons-new-sector-value-creation-0

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Only excerpts from the part in which he specifically addresses commons-related policies.

David Bollier proposes a fourfold strategy to support value-creation through the Commons:

"One of the key themes of this conference is how to develop sustainable strategies to support the emerging bodies of public knowledge. I believe our first responsibility is to recognize the commons sector as a new and significant sector of value-creation in its own right. It is a different sector than the market or government.

If you can acknowledge this fact, then it follows that we should take affirmative steps to preserve the commons and the special types of value that it produces. Let me conclude by suggesting four general strategies.

1. Protect the integrity of the commons. A first principle is that the value created by the commons shall remain within the commons. Or at least, it should not be monetized or appropriated without the consent of the commoners. It has been shown that the commons can be protected through various legal innovations, technological strategies, and social norms.

The GPL, the Creative Commons licenses and the fair use doctrine in copyright law are all legal tools (of varying effectiveness) that help assure that creative contributions to the commons will stay there and be re-usable by others in the future. As Larry Lessig has shown in his book, Code and other writings, technological design can also help assure open access and use. The original TCP/IP protocols for the Internet are an example, as are open technical standards like Open Document Format and open APIs. Finally, social norms and sanctions are immensely powerful tools for protecting the commons. People respect the rules of a community in part because they have a role in making the rules.


2. Devise new models for understanding value. As I suggested earlier, the standard economic narrative is too autistic, too socially oblivious, to explain how value is created in the networked environment. If we are going to get beyond the crude calculus that money = value, we need to develop a richer set of criteria for evaluating how social communities create value. Perhaps there’s a new formula to be devised that considers the number of participants, the degree and kind of engagement they have with their peers, and the pace of their interactivity.

But we need to remember that socially created value is not just about productivity and economic output. It is about people hanging out together, enjoying themselves and being generous towards each other. It’s about “human co-presence.” From this perspective, it is something of a metaphysical question to ask how an online commons create value. What is “value,” anyway? That’s a profound question that could lead us to some more humane goals for our economy.

The paradox of a community as the locus of value-creation is that, while it can be highly effective in performing certain tasks, individual performance can be difficult to isolate and measure. Tangible results can also be difficult to measure. The real value of the commons stems from the web of relationships and the unpredictable synergies that result. In a loosely controlled context, it is hard to trace cause-and-effect. The loosely controlled context is precisely what enables certain types of value to emerge in the first place—such as individual self-selection for tasks, passionate engagement, serendipitous discovery, experimental creativity and peer-based recognition of achievement.

From a traditional business perspective, the commons may seem “inefficient.” But its real power stems from being able to amass dispersed and specialized consumer preferences, and then to use this knowledge as the basis for innovation in new business models. In today’s networked environment, that is a major competitive advantage.

Which leads me to my next suggested strategy for protecting the commons….


3. Invent new hybrids that blend the market economy with the commons. The commons and the market need not be adversaries. Nor are they entirely separate spheres. Indeed, I see them as interdependent and synergistic. The problem is that many market players have too much power and are therefore able to enclose the commons, destroying its special value-creating capacities.

Yet it is difficult to balance the very different logic and social dynamics of markets and commons. Conventional market relationships tend to be impersonal, short-term and transactional—while our relationships in a commons are more personal, long-term and enduring. The moral economy of many commons is a gift economy. People freely cooperate and share without keeping strict score of who owes what. To seek a private gain at the expense of the community, or to keep rigorous accounts of credits and debts, destroys the generosity of spirit that animates such commons.

A related tension involves control and trust. Conventional companies like to exercise extreme control over employees and customers, in part because investors want reliable, predictable results. The paradox is that attempts to assert extreme control in a networked environment undermines trust and performance. So if a business wants to reap advantages from open platforms and the commons, it needs to understand that it should strive to cultivate trust, and not dictate behavior.

Notwithstanding these tensions, there are some intriguing commons-based business models out there. MIT professor Eric von Hippel documents many of them in his book Democratizing Innovation. He explains how the most passionate users of sports equipment—in extreme skiing, extreme bicycling, hang-gliding, and more—often generate the most exciting new ideas in sports equipment. Companies that have trusting, engaged relationships with their biggest users enjoy honest, real-time feedback, and thus have the capacity to innovate more rapidly.

Many companies are inventing new business models based on open networks or defined communities of interest. I don’t have time to name or discuss many, but let me just mention a few. There are many familiar open-source business models, such as those pioneered by IBM and Red Hat, which revolve around providing services to users of open-source software. But there are others that use the power of the Internet to publicize books, film and music, in order to sell to people. For example, Magnatune, an online music label lets customers listen to any music for free, and lets them choose how much to pay for an album, starting at $5, with all revenues split 50-50 with the artists. In Brazil, TramaVirtual is a popular platform in Brazil for new music that has acquired such social cachet that it is able to license its trademark to corporate marketers.

If we were to reverse the many enclosures of the commons—so that corporations could not violate the integrity of online communities but could nonetheless build value-added business models “around” them—then we would see a more consumer-responsive and competitive marketplace. If companies were to immerse themselves in the collective intelligence of their customers—in an ongoing, evolving and socially benign way—they will become fierce innovators and competitors. It’s hard to beat a company that is in a “forever beta” mode.

Finally, my fourth suggested strategy for protecting the commons:


4. Government should actively support the commons, just as it supports the market. Government does all sorts of things to help markets function well. It builds infrastructure, pays for courts, provides legal protections, promotes trade, and gives out subsidies, among other benefits. Why shouldn’t government provide similar support to help the commons work well? If the commons can produce value efficiently, in a socially constructive manner, and with benefits to future generations of creators, it certainly deserves as much government support as markets.

Most ideological debates tend to focus on the relative merits of the state versus markets. I consider that a false choice. The commons is a kind of intermediate form of governance and collective provisioning that has its own advantages over large government bureaucracies and impersonal, sometimes-predatory markets. The commons is a voluntary, self-organized social economy that provides important services and goods. It builds social capital. It promotes civic participation. And it often commands greater personal loyalty and moral legitimacy than either governments or markets.

I say it’s time to explore how government can play a more active role in nurturing the commons sector and the type of value that it creates. I can imagine government agencies putting public information and archives online; new laws to recognize the collective interests of a Web community or legal rights in collective content. Government could provide seed money for commons, much as it provides development assistance and R&D support to business. Government could also make sure that its trade and economic policies assure a more humane and eco-friendly balance between markets and commons.

Yet, if it is to be effective, any government involvement in supporting the commons must also maintain a sufficient distance and respect for the commons sector that it does not dominate and control it – and thereby destroy the special value that the commons sector produces.

While some people will see rich business opportunities in recognizing the commons as a new sector of value-creation—and others will see new tools for government—I think the biggest payoffs may be personal, cultural and social. The commons represents an arena in which human beings can organize themselves in more socially engaged and caring ways. As a matter of political philosophy, Yochai Benkler and Helen Nissenbaum have sketched some of the ways in which commons-based peer production contributes to certain virtues—autonomy, independence, liberation; creativity, productivity and industry; benevolence, charity, generosity and altruism; sociability, camaraderie, friendship, cooperation and civic virtue.

If Benkler and Nissenbaum are correct, then naming the commons as a sector of value-creation is only the first step in a much larger and interesting process. There are some rich veins of wealth to be discovered—and invented—in this arena known as the commons. But we have much to learn. If we are going to reap the benefits of this sector of value-creation, we must fortify the existing commons tools that have taken us this far, and invent many new mechanisms of technology, law, economic theory, social practice and cultural understanding." (http://onthecommons.org/content.php?id=1813)

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