On the notion of The Commons

In 1968, Garrett Hardin published a seminal treatise on resources and scarcity, The Tragedy of the Commons. In that treatise, whose title is often quoted, Hardin explains that communal areas such as public grazing lands are depleted by self-interested individuals, overgrazing the limited resource and destroying the public good.

Hardin uses a Hegelian notion of positive liberty. As Friedrich Engels said, “Freedom is the recognition of necessity“: there is a moral necessity that government regulates public goods, restricting individual liberty for the sake of individual freedom.

However, as far as culture is concerned, the “tragedy” does not, in fact, exist. Culture is not a finite resource. Greater participation in shared culture enriches that culture; it does not deplete it. Freedom in this digital age includes the ability to have unrestricted access to public goods, which in turn produces more public goods.

Laurence Lessig (among other things, founder of the Creative Commons) has explained this phenomenon at a TED conference on the strangling of creativity by protective intellectual property laws. Lessig frames the problem as a war between the read-only culture induced by copyright laws and an emerging read-write culture wherein creativity is democratized by access to and re-use of prior artistic works (see the video above).

Emulation — the art of imitation — dampens the effect of competition; but in the digital era, what was once a finite resource — public art ensconced within the walls of institutions — becomes an infinite source of material for creative freedom. This opens an entirely new avenue for culture to flourish, as the public repository of artistic works enables greater individual liberty to create new works.

How is emulation in art possible? When works are available with no known copyright restriction so that new derivative works may be created. How is emulation in knowledge possible? By releasing knowledge to as broad an audience as possible, such that new information can be added and compiled to existing libraries. Use, re-use, re-iteration, creation.

The Flickr Commons is truly a commons for the digital era, opening access to public art and increasing public content, both creatively and intellectually. In the opening keynote of the National Digital Forum 2008 Conference, George Oates talked about “Human Traffic, General Public,” noting how “designing for the community can help public institutions create digital value, by creating an engaged, conversational and generous community.”

Oates says of the success of Flickr as a social media site that people don’t like being told what to do but people do like to feel that they belong. On Flickr, you can choose your own adventure and there is a shared community, where one can interactively collaborate with others. Flickr is designed for users to browse and search photographs, has an engaged community and a robust infrastructure for hosting billions of photos, and is international.

The stated mission of Flickr’s Commons is to increase access to public holdings, share information about them, and interact with the institutions and the Internet. It is, indeed, the perfect new commons — a transformation of a limited resource under pressure from the population into an unlimited resource not stressed by a multitude of creative or intellectual access.

Flickr’s Commons is appropriately named. The more institutions that join The Commons, the greater the position for this single point of entry to multiple academic, governmental, or institutional archives — not unlike WorldCat for library holdings: one-stop shopping for archived digitized media.

Who benefits? Academics, hobbyists, and artists as individuals. But the institutions themselves also benefit through a feedback loop where knowledge and art are accessible to a wide audience that recursively adds their own knowledge back into the fold. Combined, both the public and the individual benefit from The Commons, with no loss or deterioration to either — no freedom has to be sacrificed by one for the other.

Share your thoughts on this unique resource in the comments. Then go through The Commons — and increase the public good.