The Internet is (not) a commons

I’ve been engaged in that periodic negotiation with the sheer complexity of the internet – choosing a smartphone plan.  Fortunately, I could make it marginally easier as I didn’t want to change the actual phone, just work out which of the galaxy of possible plans I wanted.

It is at this point that the rhetoric of the internet boosters is stripped away, and you look at just how much it costs.  Of course you don’t need to own a prestige handset, you don’t need superfast broadband or a fruit endorsed laptop.  A Linux powered tablet will get you on line for less than a £100 and you can sit in the pub for the price of a coffee and hook up to their internet. (Recently I did the latter bit as my home broadband was down and it was a pretty good office experience).  But even so is a cost, not like say water, food, land, forests, and yes I hear these things cost as well.

But here we get to the more slippery aspects of a ‘club’ versus a ‘commons’ (see this for detailed argument). As a starter let us say that the internet is a club, one where entry is pretty cheap, getting thrown out difficult and only some very loose rules but it is not a commons.   As I’ve noted I need a physical access to the internet via equipment both mine and that of the network of the internet.  I don’t know how those devices work, I can’t adjust them much further than the pictures on the screens or cover them with a different layer of plastic.  I certainly don’t understand how the underlying technologies work, let alone talk in a knowledgeable way about them or take part in their management.  Rather I rely on people to do those things on my behalf.

Once within the vast and loose ‘club internet’, I then take part in series of other clubs – Facebook, Twitter, WordPress etc., all with their own rules and regs, which are generally much tighter than those of the internet. Most of these are free, or rather they are free as long as I’m happy to be bombarded with advertising.   This is some way from a commons.

And yet I’m reminded by reading about urban commons that it isn’t quite that simple.   Very few ideal types actually exist in reality.  For example, the very acme of free market capitalism, the banks that operate on Wall Street and the City of London, are happy to accept state aid, even nationalisation when the hazards are too high.  Capitalism rests on quite a few things that when you peer closely look like socialism.   In the state driven versions of the Communism in the twentieth century the party bosses looked more like the plutocrats of the West than workers.

Actually existing anything is usually compromised, hybridized and muddied in order to get it to work.  So if we look at many existing commons they illustrate aspects of a club. In Europe some areas of commons have actually been in the control of the same families for hundreds of years and family membership is a pretty exclusive club.  What interests me more than the precise definition is the direction of travel.  Is the internet becoming a commoditised playground or is it going to allow for a re-juvenination of our civic lives and democracies? Is it going to allow those without access to education that chance, and those behind the great firewalls to start to work out another system of government?  Will it become a space which augments our humanity or simply a 24/7 365 shopping mall?


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