17 October 2009

The Commons Meme Becomes More Common

One of the great knock-on benefits of Elinor Ostrom sharing the Nobel prize for Economics is that the concept of the commons is getting the best airing that it's ever had. Here's another useful meditation on the subject from someone who knows what he's talking about, since he's written a book on the subject:

Old fables die hard. That's surely been the history of the so-called "tragedy of the commons," one of the most durable myths of the past generation. In a famous 1968 essay, biologist Garrett Hardin alleged that it is nearly impossible for people to manage shared resources as a commons. Invariably someone will let his sheep over-graze a shared pasture, and the commons will collapse. Or so goes the fable.

In fact, as Professor Elinor Ostrom's pioneering scholarship over the past three decades has demonstrated, self-organized communities of "commoners" are quite capable of managing forests, fisheries and other finite resources without destroying them. On Monday, Ostrom won a Nobel Prize in Economics for explaining how real-life commons work, especially in managing natural resources.

As he notes:

Although Ostrom has not written extensively about the Internet and online commons, her work clearly speaks to the ways that people can self-organize themselves to take care of resources that they care about. The power of digital commons can be seen in the runaway success of Linux and other open-source software. It is evident, too, in the explosive growth of Wikipedia, Craigslist (classified ads), Flickr (photo-sharing), the Internet Archive (historical Web artifacts) and Public.Resource.org (government information). Each commons acts as a conscientious steward of its collective wealth.

And this is an acute observation:

A key reason that all these Internet commons flourish is because the commoners do not have to get permission from, or make payments to, a corporate middleman. They can build what they want directly, and manage their work as they wish. The cable and telephone companies that provide access to the Internet are not allowed to favor large corporate users with superior service while leaving the rest of us--including upstart competitors and non-market players--with slower, poorer-quality service.

In an earlier time, this principle was known as "common carriage"--the idea that everyone shall have roughly equivalent access and service, without discrimination. Today, in the Internet context, it is known as "net neutrality."

Neat: another reason we need to preserve Net neutrality is to preserve all the commons - past, present and future - it enables.

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