The Dance of the Not Commons

Last October Doc Searls gave the Ostrom Memorial Lecture for the Ostrom Workshop at Indiana University. In his lecture he carries on what I believe to be an incredibly unfortunate tradition. I’ll call it, “the dance of the not commons.” It’s an incredibly simple dance. Step one (right foot): state that something (e.g., the internet, knowledge, OER) is a commons. Step two (left foot): immediately enumerate the many ways that the thing you just called a commons is totally, completely, orthogonally different from a commons. Here’s the core of the dance, with my color commentary in parentheses.

In economic terms, the Internet is a common pool resource; but non-rivalrous (he has to say this because common pool resources are by definition rivalrous) and non-excludable to such an extreme that to call it a pool or a resource is to insult what makes it common (not only does the internet fail the test of being a common pool resource, it does so to the most extreme degree imaginable)….

Not understanding the Internet can result in problems similar to ones we suffer by not understanding common pool resources such as the atmosphere, the oceans, and the Earth itself (how can we talk about the dangers of not understanding common pool resources when the argument begins by taking something that is clearly, blatantly, obviously not a common pool resource, and calling it one?).

But there is a difference between common pool resources in the natural world, and the uncommon commons we have with the Internet. See, while we all know that common-pool resources are in fact not limitless (because by definition they are excludable and rivalrous) —even when they seem that way—we don’t have the same knowledge of the Internet, because its nature as a limitless non-thing (because the internet is non-excludable and non-rivalrous) is non-obvious (apparently!).

Do you see how awkward the dance is? How impossible it is to do this dance without stepping all over yourself?

As originally conceived, commons formed around rivalrous, excludable, scarce resources – aka common pool resources. Much of the scholarship around commons focused on governance and other collaborative methods of insuring that the scarce common pool resources around which commons communities formed were not destroyed or depleted.

But then a terrible choice was made.

In the first decade of our new millenium, Elinor Ostrom and Charlotte Hess—already operating in our new digital age—extended the commons category to include knowledge, calling it a complex ecosystem that operates as a common: a shared resource subject to social dilemmas. They looked at ease of access to digital forms of knowledge and easy new ways to store, access and share knowledge as a common. They also looked at the nature of knowledge and its qualities of non-rivalry and non-excludability, which were both unlike what characterizes a natural commons, with its scarcities of rivalrous and excludable goods. A knowledge commons, they said, is characterized by abundance.

Why insist on using the same term – commons – when the nature of the underlying phenomenon, and the problems that its nature gives rise to, are so completely, fundamentally different? Yes, “natural commons” and “knowledge commons” as they’re defined above both deal with “a shared resource subject to social dilemmas.” But insisting on referring to the social issues surrounding resources that are non-excludable and non-rivalrous (which in every other circumstance we would call “public goods”, not common pool resources) – resources which are abundant instead of scarce – as being a “special kind of commons” is like insisting on referring to an automobile as a special kind of carriage – a horseless carriage. Yes, both are “conveyances that move people from one location to another.” But insisting on using the language of horse and carriage to describe an automobile creates all kinds of intellectual problems for those who insist on doing it. The choice to use the wrong language causes us to also use the wrong mental frameworks, which leads us to try to solve problems that don’t actually exist instead of the very real problems that do.

The problems the open education community faces with regard to OER are not the problems of common pool resources – problems of overuse and depletion that we solve through shared governance and accountability. There is no sense in which the open education community needs to form a governance committee that carefully limits public access to the textbooks produced by OpenStax in order to make sure there’s always enough OpenStax to go around. That’s just not a thing. OER are not a common pool resource and the community of creators and users that have formed around them are not a commons.

The problems we face with OER are the problems of public goods – issues related to under-production and free-riding. The world needs much more OER. But what individual or organization would spend the time and effort necessary to make OER when they will just be given away for free, and there will be no opportunity to recover the investment of time and effort? And why would anyone ever pay the creators or maintainers of OER, when you can legally use OER for free? (When’s the last time you personally donated to another person or organization to support their creation and maintenance of OER?)

If you think OER are a commons you are focused on solving the wrong problems – problems that don’t actually apply to OER. OER and the community of creators and users that have formed around them are a public, not a commons. We need to wake up and start solving the actual problems associated with OER – public goods problems – instead of wasting our energy doing the dance of the not commons.