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Posted
July 15, 2008

Care To Try to Define the Commons?

Blogging from the 12th Biennial Conference of the International Association for the Study of the Commons in Cheltenham, England.

How would you draw the commons? Is it two circles — one for public and one for private sectors — with an overlapping part in the middle for commons? Is it a third circle separate from the other two? Maybe circles simply won’t do. I’ve seen other shapes used. I’ve seen rainbows; pastoral landscapes; abstract grafitti-like scrawling; even mobiles suspending paper sculptures and text. The point is that that there is a delicious paradox here. I “got” the commons instantly the first time I was introduced to the concept. I mean, really…who owns the sky? Duh! We do! We wouldn’t allow Southern Company to waltz into our kitchens to dump their scraps and leave, so why would we allow them to do the same to our sky?

But try to define a commons and the simplicity vanishes. That’s what’s going on here in Cheltenham scholars are defining commons, trying to understand relationships vis a vis their management, and attempting to integrate custom, history, politics and other factors into their understandings.

Amadou Diop is the first person I met at the IASC conference. Originally from Senegal, he lives in Atlanta, GA and works with the National Wildlife Federation.

While the scholars debate, the commons is gaining currency in intellectual and social movement circles. It’s not that the commons weren’t always with us. It’s that more people are “seeing” commons in their lives and offering their perspectives. Indeed, the commons has become so popular that I had to choose between two major conferences this month. Shortly after this conference ends, there begins the iCommons conference in Sapporo Japan.

iCommons focuses on knowledge and culture and embraces, nay, bear hugs, technology and media. Despite my kinship with media-making, free-software loving, music-freak geek commoners, I chose the more academic conference, where I’m often the sole computer user in the room. Why?

First, because I want to bolster my understanding of commons by listening to people who have devoted their academic careers to its study. Every discipline is represented here at this decidedly interdisciplinary conference, and many have written books or papers that I’ve read. They’ve even launched an online journal. Second, I want to meet people from many countries and indigenous communities and solicit their partnership in What We Got. I hope they’ll join What We Got’s engagement campaign by attending our summits, using our transmedia tools to tell their own stories of commons, and becoming hosts of special commons screenings of What We Got prior to our theatrical and television run. In short, I came to meet the people I hope to work with in the near future and to learn something, too. This is a perfect crowd, hailing from over 70 countries.

I attended my first session. New Commons, led by Charlotte Hesse. Okay, so may I just say it? In commons circles, Charlotte is a star, as bright as her colleague, Elinor Ostrom. OMG! I wonder if they will autograph my copy of their book Understanding Knowledge as a Commons?. I should also mention the Digital Library of the Commons, another fine Charlotte Hess and friends production.

Anyway, session one:

I walked in to the room (a little late) and she was just asking the group whether a mall was a commons. Many are called commons and thought of as commons, but try protesting the war in one and find out how long it takes for a private owner to remove you. An old idea re-emerged for me: ask people to photograph all of the things in their communities that are called commons and share them online. If I walked down the street from my studio at home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin I’d discover that a patch of green is called Burns Commons and a little further up the road is a doctor’s office building: the Prospect Medical Commons. What a nice culture jam it would be to encourage flash mobs to claim so-called commons as true commons.

Charlotte introduced a man named Burney Fisher. He put a picture up on the screen of a tree fallen on a house and asked some questions. Street trees might be a commons, but who is responsible when they fall on your house? Turns out that there are a myriad of legal structures to deal with the tree and the house, marring any hope for an easy understanding of the street trees as a commons. I thought “what about wikipedia?” Is it a commons even though there are rules governing how entries are managed? What about the collection of historical films at the Smithsonian. James Smithson’s bequest the institution to the American people, so should we be outraged when Viacom’s Showtime network inks a first-look deal for use of the archives thereby preventing other uses? I don’t know; turns out the legality of the bequest is murky. The difficulty of defining and administering commons emerged and showed no signs of clearing anytime soon.

At one point Charlotte invited the participants to define a commons. She allowed the effort to build around her. Must it be threatened? Is it a shared resource? Can a sudden change like a flood that brings people together to sandbag and save homes be considered a temporary commons? Charlotte deftly, steadily, politely entertained every idea but refused to assign a strict definition.

She did point to common (ha, ha) confusions: namely, that commons are free or sacred or inherited or always good or shared by everyone or open access or destined for ruin. Elements may be true of some, but she worries that people try to simplify the definitions to accommodate all commons at the expense of the specific characteristics of distinct commons. She gave an example of Larry Lessig asserting that information must be free to be a commons, but will that work for an apartment building? She asked how commons can always be good if some commons are worse off when managed as commons. For instance, scale matters. In Mozambique a local community lost its forest because the entire nation understands all forests as common property and mishandled it. Her body language expressed a little uncertainty when she considered aloud whether flickr or youtube might be commons. I wonder why? Maybe because Yahoo and Google own them — they act like commons but, as Larry Lessig likes to say, they are really examples of digital sharecropping. She pointed to, alas, one of many definitions, from my good friend David Bollier and colleagues at onthecommons.org, the authors of much of what is on this site. See the homepage of this site where it defines commons as “gifts of nature and society; the wealth we inherit or create together and must pass on, undiminished or enhanced, to our children; a sector of the economy that complements the corporate sector”. She cited “any sets of resources that a community recognizes as being accessible to any member of that community”, and there are others. None seemed to capture the commons fully and clearly.

I harken back to the old Buffalo Springfield song, For What It’s Worth.

There’s something happening here.
What it is ‘ain’t exactly clear.

No wonder I long for that flush moment of exquisite joy when the commons first hit me as self-evident and useful, before the many complications bubbled up. Oh, bless blissful ignorance!

Nonetheless, it is fabulous to see 500 people at a conference struggling with the real issues of devising research, policy and legal regimes to manage and protect commons. As they say, the devil is most surely in the details, and these folks are wrestling with the devil. I realize what my contribution is. It’s helping to make the invisible commons visible. As Burney pointed out in his presentation about urban deforestation (a crisis as dire at that of tropical forests), street trees are nothing new; seeing them as commons is. That’s my job. Use media to help people see commons everywhere. I’ll happily glean from the discussion, but leave the real work of defining to the experts.