Commoning as Adaptive Reuse in the Context of a Failing Civilization
"When I was a child I was particularly fascinated with books like Stuart Little, The Borrowers, classic fairy tales, The Secret of NIMH, The Rescuers, and the like. Stories of little creatures that had created secret, hidden, civilizations within the overlooked and forgotten interstitial spaces of our built habitat, repurposing the detritus of our own civilization. In cartoons mice are always repurposing our misplaced stuff into some model of casual suburban living on their scale. Thimbles become sinks and ottomans. Thread spools become various kinds of furniture. Xmas lights become track lighting. Vast communities carrying on their daily routine unseen in the spaces behind walls, under floors, in the forgotten sealed-up space created as we built up our own infrastructures. Often they would have their own independent infrastructures. They would create miniature railways from toys, use pigeons as an airline, scavenge wiring and electronics parts from our cast-off consumer junk and create their own telegraph, telephone, and radio networks, all operating independently and in parallel to our own.
Then, as I got older, I moved on to SciFi but found similar themes. There was Arthur C. Clarke's Rama; a vast, ancient, alien spacecraft housing a rotating space colony. Its creators, purpose, and destination unknown, its complex enigmatic systems and robots running on their own, Rama became the host of multiple species who simply boarded and setup shop within its vast space when it passed through their solar systems. They could live well by simply not drawing the attention of the Raman systems, exploiting the spaces the robots seemed to ignore, learning and exploiting their routine patterns of activity and behavior. Then there was Larry Niven's Ringworld. Another vast alien construction whose creator's original civilization collapsed, leaving it running on its own automated systems as they reverted to more primitive, fractured, societies and came to think of the ring as some natural or divine phenomenon.
As I began to study Post-Industrial futurism I encountered Ken Isaacs' and the Urban Nomads of the late '60s and '70s. This brief movement was based on the expectation of a new youth movement emerging amidst the slow collapse of the Industrial Age to repurpose the urban and industrial detritus to facilitate a mobile lifestyle. It's from this we got the 'upcycling' craze, Lofting, Cargotecture, and the High-Tech design movement based on the repurposing of industrial goods, hardware, and cast-offs in a domestic context. Back in that middle third of the century futurists seemed quite convinced of an imminent and dramatic collapse of corporate capitalism, its economics, and institutions as suggested by the civil unrest erupting at the time, though this prediction would prove premature. The dinosaurs had a few last tricks up their sleeves and the oft-predicted era of Total Automation was still a ways off.
Later, I encountered Alex Steffan's and Cory Doctorow's notion of Outquisition. They imagined a near future where the growth of intentional communities in the late 20th century had come to shelter, like cloisters, a counter-cultural civilization in the midst of the mainstream culture and that this had become quite self-sufficient in its cultivation of sustainable technologies ignored or suppressed by the dominant culture. And as that dominant culture began to incrementally fail from its inherent unsustainability, abandoning one community after another to states of crisis, evangelistic missionaries, of a sort, would emerge from these cloistered communities to intervene, introducing the locals to the suppressed technologies that could rescue them.
And so I've come to regard the emergent Post-Industrial culture as a kind of insurgent civilization emerging amidst the declining Industrial Age, filling the gaps in its progressively crumbling edifice with new systems and structures of its own, recycling and repurposing its detritus. New life emerging in the decaying hulk of a fallen tree. The objective of the Industrial Age was the creation of a kind of Santa Claus machine intended to provide all our needs in its particular fashion. The market. But it has become akin to some AI master computer that has succumbed to dementia as its circuitry has corroded and been repeatedly hacked. It has become pathological in behavior. A jealous god that seeks our total dependence upon it, eliminating alternatives to itself by the systematic division and enclosure of the commons, oblivious to its failing, unsustainable, self-destructive, logic. But there is, in fact a lot that it has overlooked or discarded because it didn't suit its limited paradigms and models. A lot of blind spots. A lot of interstitial spaces. A lot of 'sodai gomi'. And as it fails in expanding ways in its progressing decrepitude it produces even more to exploit. And it's in that where we might find the initial resources for the creation of a new commons and infrastructures deriving from it.
So I see the task of contemporary Commons development as the cultivation and engineering of an alternative, parallel, infrastructure building on these overlooked resources. Adaptive reuse as a way of life. We are like settlers in the ruins of a prior, alien, civilization whose sometimes still dangerous machinery carries on blindly, stupidly, pursuing programmed imperatives that no longer make sense or matter to us. We lack the power at present to tear it all down and rebuild. Historically, that approach is a bit rare anyway. But we can still exploit it. Settle in its forgotten spaces. Exploit its behaviors. Repurpose its structures. Scavenge its failing hardware. Defuse its hazards. Build on its decay and thus transform it into something new. Now that the frontiers are all gone here on Earth, now that the old machine has encircled everything, adaptive reuse is all we can do." (p2p-f mailing list, June 2016)