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Thoughts on the Commons

By Dave Allen September 1 2013

David Bollier on Ivan Illich and the contemporary Commons Movement

The attraction of the commons, then, may be that it promises the emergence of a non-cynical form of post-modern politics – Dougald Hine

Recently I came across this: The Quiet Realization of Ivan Illich’s Ideas in the Contemporary Commons Movement by David Bollier, a speech he gave at a conference, “After the Crisis: The Thought of Ivan Illich today,” in Oakland, California, at the Oakland School for the Arts. It seems like it was a fascinating few days, and I’m writing about this here because the whole idea of the commons is critical to mankind in many ways, and is critical to creators of all stripes that they understand all of its implications.

From David Bollier:

For the past three days I’ve been attending a fantastic conference, “After the Crisis: The Thought of Ivan Illich today,” in Oakland, California, at the Oakland School for the Arts. Illich was an iconoclastic social critic, Jesuit priest, radical Christian, historian, scientist and public intellectual who was especially famous in the 1970s and 1980s for his searing critiques of the oppressive nature of institutions and service professions. His writings also explored the nature of the nonmarket economy, or “vernacular domains,” as he put it, which are the source of so much of our humanity and, indeed, the source of commoning.

We have not had a social critic of Illich’s originality and caliber in some time. He was classically trained yet traversed disciplinary boundaries with ease and rigor. He was disdainful of conventional political categories and ideology because his critique came from a much deeper place, beyond left or right. He was passionate, humanistic and contemptuous of the harms caused by modernity and economics to the life of the spirit, especially as seen from within the Catholic tradition.

My experience with the idea of the commons has been limited, and if I’m honest I can point to only three instances – Gooseholme Park in my hometown of Kendal in England, and referred to locally when I was growing up there, as a commons, or public space. Another instance is the Creative Commons, an organization that offers free, easy-to-use copyright licenses that provide a simple, standardized way to give the public permission to share and use one’s creative work. And of course there is Lewis Hyde’s masterpiece: Common as Air: Revolution, Art and Ownership, where Hyde references Silence Is A Commons, an essay by Ivan Illich, where Illich tells of …being taken as a baby to the island of Brac on the Dalmation coast to receive his grandfather’s blessing. This was a place where daily life had altered little for five hundred years: “The very same olive-wood rafters still supported the roof of my grandfather’s house. Water was gathered from the same stone slabs on the roof. The wine was pressed in the same vats, the fish caught from the same boats.

All of that was about to change. “On the same boat on which I arrived in 1926, the first loudspeaker was landed on the island… Silence now ceased to be in the commons; it became a resource for which loudspeakers compete.”

It’s worth noting that Illich’s essay had a subtitle; Computers are doing to communication what fences did to pastures and cars did to streets. Once again, I’ll leave that for another post.

And so, you might say, I’ve had a bit of a history with the commons, and also as a copyright holder myself I have an interest in the commons. And just because I am a copyright holder, I must say that I am not interested in the narrow debates of cultural and creative ownership in the age of the Internet. As Hyde rightly points out in his book, not all creative work is “intellectual property.” Hyde took solace in the fact that some of America’s founding fathers – John Adams, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson – who held that knowledge was assumed to be a commonwealth, not a private preserve. And he includes an argument from Heraclitus to open the book’s first page:

The Argument: Even as market triumphalists work
to extend the range of private property
a movement has arisen to protect
the many things best held in common

Most people act as if they had a private understanding
but in fact the Logos is common to all

Something to ponder.

 

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