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Internet as commons. Comments about the end of “the tragedy of the commons” in Edge

In a very interesting set of twitts, Sharper shows some doubts about the notion of the internet as commons. The discussion started from a post that I wronte on Edge suggesting the retirement of “the tragedy of the commons”. In that post I wrote about the internet as a commons. And Sharper doesn’t agree.

Sharper: “Read w/interest your piece re: Tragedy of the Commons. However, the Internet isn’t a Commons, every piece/connection is owned.”
Me: “But the internet protocol is commons, isn’t it?”
Sharper: “I think I see what you’re getting at, but internet border links also use QOS and route based on business rules.”

Difficult to talk about these things on Twitter? Maybe. But it is much more difficult for me to write in English…

Me: “my point – internet protocol and standards are commons; companies and states expoit it; sometimes overexploit; that’s not inevitable as the “tragedy” theory implies…”
Sharper: “Standards aren’t a scarce resource/commons. Everyone can use a protocol standard without affecting others use. Can you define what you mean by a commons? Internet standards don’t seem to fit any definition I’m aware of”

Sharper has a point in writing that a language in not a commons (while I think it can be thought that way, but I’m not sure).

Anyway Sharper went ahead criticizing the very idea that there can be a knowledge commons.

Sharper: “In terms of software and ideas. Those are non-exclusive goods. They can be shared freely, but aren’t a “commons””

I think that knowledge commons do exist; they are different from traditional commons; that they can be overexploited; but that is not inevitable.

There is an interesting contribution by Charlotte Hess and Elinor Ostrom published by Mitpress in which the authors write about the internet as commons. I’m pretty sure that Ostrom and Hess understand the notion of commons. And they write the growing new space of the knowledge commons: “Whether labeled the “digital,” “electronic,” “information,” “virtual,” “communication,” “intellectual,” “Internet,” or “technological” commons, all these concepts address the new shared territory of global distributed information.”

See: Understanding Knowledge as a Commons, edited by Charlotte Hess and Elinor Ostrom
A Framework for Analyzing the Knowledge Commons : a chapter from Understanding Knowledge as a Commons: from Theory to Practice.


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  • Dear Dr. De Biase,
    I’d like to express my point on this very interesting matter. I’ve only read Hardin’s paper and not Ostrom’s, thus my understanding of her thesis may be limited. Nevertheless, I’m temped to state that both theses are just two sides of the coin that is humanity. Hardin’s discussions are — regrettably — still very much valid, and their validity can be realized by anybody by observing the rate at which mankind is happily marching towards self destruction. Ostrom’s thesis is probably also correct: as Darwin himself stated when talking about the Power of Sympathy; as time and again shown by Kropotkin in his many works on the matter; and as brilliantly summarized by Bowles in his interesting books, humanity can make it — provided that we timely learn how to develop a collective intelligence and how to defuse the self-destructive trap of the commons. The tragedy though it’s still there: it’s the paradox of the stupid collective behaviors of an intelligent individual “system.”

Luca De Biase

Knowledge and happiness economy Media and information ecology


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