FLOSS, Commons, And The Space Between

Discussions on the Commons and on FLOSS (free/libre open source software) tend to assume that both concepts share a broad enough intersection of characteristics to regard them if not outright analogous so at least complementary and mutual supportive. As FLOSS and its sibling Open/Free Content are seen to embody certain aspects of the Commons, it is assumed or infered that they are, in a sense, Commons too and should be treated as such. As Commons don’t belong to an individual person but to everybody, as they are cared for by all and not by a single person alone, as they can’t be sold or purchased but only collectively used, and as it is the collective or collaborative usage that sustains and increases their value – this and more is thought to pass on to the FLOSS and Open/Free Content. This becomes more evident when the discussion on Commons, FLOSS, Open/Free Content is extended to embrace knowledge, information, data, privacy, walled gardens, etc. Knowledge is seen as the paradigm of an inmaterial Commons, something that doesn’t belong to anybody specific but to everyone, something that can’t be monopolized by a few but that everyone may use or contribute to. Accordingly, partitioning off some knowledge (mostly through copyright laws and trade agreements) to establish scarcity and earning money by selling access to the items so artificially run short, meets outright resistance. The renaissance of the Commons, it seems, not only reminds people of a collaborative side in human endeavours (seemingly extinct in the age of runaway capitalism). Moreover the rise of the Digital Commons seems to provide a chance to re-establish those collaborative and participatory ways of acting in the society at large. From the invisble something profoundly helpful seems to enter the visible.

FLOSS and Open/Free Content are seen as a kind of Commons, somewhat like Digital Commons. And with that comes the supposition that all other digital items like music, videos, texts, public data, statistics, applications, etc. (“digitals” for short) should be treated likewise as open/free content too. The pressure on news-sites, on artists, writers, video-producers, etc., to deliver their “content” without charge in order to be recieved at all, is enormous. On the other side, the cost of producing such “content” is either constantly ignored or belittled by those advocating a free and open “culture”. There is a tendency to expect every digital to be like a FLOSS or a Digital Commons. I rather doubt that there is something like Digital Commons, and I suspect a hasty identification of FLOSS with Commons to be at the root of this confusion. Let me elaborate on this.

The Commons (in the traditional sense, not in the derivative one applied to either knowledge or Digital Commons) is seen as something that does not belong to anyone specific (a group, associaton, or individual person) although it is unclear whether it belongs to nobody at all. Neither is its usage restricted to an individual or a group, instead the usage is “open” or “free” to everybody – even if that means that there might be some rules governing the access to the item in case interest is too strong. The Commons were originally farming areas, resources, commodities, water wells, ways, etc. The “free” or “open” usage of the commodity by all interested people in its vicinity is seen both as a well-ordered way to share some item as well as the proper way to safeguard or enhance the value of this item. Accordingly, the Commons show and beget four characteristics or values:

  1. As it is no-one’s property but belongs to everybody in the vicinity, everybody may use it. That means that without further ado nobody may be prevented to use it. (“open”)
  2. Because it belongs to nobody in particular its very being demands some sort of regulation for its being used justly by everyone involved (e.g., times of access). (“fair”)
  3. As all participants use the item and use it only for a certain amount of time, abrasion loss in value must be avoided. On the other side due to collective usage value may accrue over the long term while simultaneously reducing the curative burden for individual users. (“caring”)
  4. As many people in the vicinity of the item use it when it’s their turn, the total attention towards the item creates community between those attending it. (“nourishing”)

It is no coincidence that with Commons we usually associate farming areas, resources like water, air, biodiversity, public goods like parks, services, infrastructure. It is precisely the material qualities of such items at a specific time and place that makes them interesting for people to convene and to organize their distributed usage. It is their concrete character – over time and in a place – that allows the enduring attendance of the people in their vicinity to raise the Commons’ value.

When in the 1990s community gardens were planted all over derelict places in New York, fostering the growth of vegetables, the planting of trees, the enhancing of the quality of the communal lifes all around them, the huge benefits for the communities were seen on several levels. [1] It reduced overtly social problems like crime, addictions, drug trade, prostitution; the local economy bounced back; the monetary value of the nearby real estate grew. But above all it raised the self-esteem of the people in that they could organize the changes without interference from the outside or from authorities. Accordingly, not only did the communities prosper from the visible changes in the surroundings – possible only through the co-operation of the participants –, but also from the invible changes that came with the growing self-esteem. A place was not only a location for a garden, not only a meeting-point for weddings and comunal life, the place was the occasion for a change in self-esteem, change in perspectives towards the future, and a way for parents to show via example of their own lives to their children that living in a world as ours may have some beauties. You need a concrete place for the changes visible and not so visible to occur.

The FLOSS (be it software proper or in a broader sense all open/free content like texts, music, video, etc.) on the other hand is seen as a digital supplemented with a specifc license that allows for alteration, reuse, and redistribution. This licensing seemingly aims at the kind of collaboration that invites comparisons to the Commons. Obviously the four characteristics or values attached to a Commons do not apply one-to-one to those attached to FLOSS. But it seems to be the prevalent conviction that those differences are not only minor or negligible but simply due to the fact that a digital is neither place-, time- nor comunity-bound. The character of a digital – that it can be copied and distributed without loss across the entire globe – explains the otherwise tiny deviations. The deviations may be tiny, but the specific character of digitals makes it impossible for a FLOSS to be a Commons at all.

For a FLOSS to be somewhat similar to Commons it has to show the above-mentioned conditions (or “values”). With some variations we have: 

  1. With the CC-licensing a FLOSS can be freely (without charge) used, redistributed, changed, emended, corrected, etc. The license guarantees that everybody may have access to the item and use it (provided certain caveats).
  2. As the item is a digital more than one person can work with it at the same time, so there is no need to organize times of access. Additionaly applications are created that allows people to work simultaneously, collaboratively, and dispersed over the globe to work with the same item at the same time (very similar like several people worked one field at harvest). The only restraint on access is a legal one and that is covered with some licensing.
  3. The value-creation of a team of people dispersed over the globe is one of the main advantages of FLOSS. In fact without being a digital and being a FLOSS a globe-wide collaboration (and with that value-adding) wouldn’t be possible. The very character of the digital (not the FLOSS) of being one and the same at different places and times to different people is a precondition and requirement for value being created in the informational areas. [2]
  4. Similar to Commons there are communities around FLOSS, created via the colloborative work of a dispersed crowd of people. This is not only a professional relationship as between colleagues at the workplace. Friendship and the feeling of belonging, advanced by mutual respect and gratitude, are at the core of such endeavours and will be nourished by this kind of collaboration.

So there are striking parallels between a place-bound Commons and space-dispersed FLOSS. But this doesn’t mean that a Commons should or could be treated like a FLOSS or that a FLOSS is a Common. Treating such parallels as identities misleads about the differences between Commons and FLOSS and in consequence misleads one about the nature of Commons and the nature of FLOSS. 

Commons are things or commodities or possibilities attached to certain places or landscapes. It is their very being at a place that they can create or strengthen a community. A FLOSS may create a community, but the community is work- or function-related and doesn’t cover the other aspects that go with community life. Communities that create a FLOSS are ends-oriented, scrutinizing means according to their usability to achieve the end. The FLOSS creates (or allows) a community only inasmuch as the community is a more or less concrete embodiment of this goal. Accordingly such comunities are much less stable or short-lived than a neighborhood. In fact, the creation of a FLOSS needs the community of developers, it doesn’t automatically nourish it. Fluctuation in participation is common. A place, on the other hand, isn’t a goal. A Commons like a well isn’t an embodiment of a goal or a value. It is something that provides goals and values that enables comunities to strife.

The characteristics of FLOSS – that the digital is repeatable (without loss in quality), open to collaboration, free of charge and free for re-use – don’t make it a Commons. The Commons is something non-repeatable at a certain place at a certain time. Its material characteristics determine its local uniqueness which on the one hand confine the access to a certain populace, and on the other hand provides the opportunity for community building and individual happiness. The value of the Commons is determined by its being used by everyone in its vicinity (without need of being owned by some or all) and by the positive consequences it has on the community and the individuals who share it and care for it. This Janus-character of the Commons (its visible as well as invisible aspects), due to its material (instead of digital) embodiment, has no parallel in the FLOSS. It is precisely the repeatable character of the digital that allows it to be dispersed all over the globe and to invite collaboration. It requires community and may, to some extent, even foster such. But it doesn’t induce people to share it and care for it. The reason for this is that it is at many places at once, doesn’t wither or die when this or that person leaves the collaboration. It is not one thing due to some material characteristic but one thing due to its legal and digital characteristices. It doesn’t matter if one download of the digital gets lost as long as there are people who bring together the different advancements that happen all over the globe. The digital doesn’t bring people together at one place. Its being digital assembles people via duties in the workflow or process of collaboration of producing it. A digital cannot convene people at one place like a Commons does. Accordingly the commuities that arise around them are rather different from those around the Commons.  

FLOSS is a manner of producing and destributing digitals, it’s not a Commons. And a Commons is not a manner of producing something but a place that provides the opportunity to create something and nourishes people as well as communities. The relevance of, the confinement to a location and a neighborhood nearby dignifies the Commons as something supra-individual. Neither should it be confused with a production-style, nor its “contents” with being product-like. Commons are Commons exactly inasmuch they are not treated as products to be sold or given away. [3] FLOSS, even as a give-away, is a product. [4] Asking “content-creators” like artists to deliver for free in the name of the Commons simply uses the confusion of product with gift while trying to rationalize the confusion. The gift a Commons is (in its visible as its invisible aspects), is not a thing, it’s an opportunity, a chance, a prospect – but only when everybody is kept in mind, and not the sole individual. The lack of appropriate modells to pay artists and content-creators when it comes to the digitals is an indication that the confusion is throughout.

A place is something unique and non-repeatable, a digital is, well, unique and repeatable. [2] In this sense a digital resembles more a procedure or a recipe to produce something than a material object. Its semi-tangible qualities on the screen (and the speakers) makes it more like an experience than a place or an object. That the digital has a somewhat changing nature doesn’t make it (and the “space” around it) “virtual” either. A digital is real enough. But in the efforts to get to grips with what these digitals are we should be aware of the metaphors and comparisons we use. We shouldn’t hastily identify analogies, as they rather tend to hold a spell on us than clarify the nature of the thing in question. 

In the end the more important thing may be to recognize that Commons and FLOSS give rise to and sustain very different communities. Perhaps it is not that bad an idea to acknowledge that artists, writers, musicians, and all other people who create “content” that may find its way through the web thrive in caring comunities akin to those around the Commons, and wither in communities akin to those around the FLOSS. This gives us an idea what “benefit” in the realms of the digitals may mean – as we change the question from asking what benefits does this item bring to me individually to the different one of who has to carry the burden and the consequences of the introduction of this or that style of production, delivery, or item It is, in a sense, an old fashioned way to do ecology. [5]


[1] See David Bollier, “The Cornucopia of the Commons”, Yes-Magazine, Jun 30, 2001 http://ur1.ca/2ddm0 Thanks to @avilarenata for the link.
[2] Due to the somewhat unclear ontology of digitals I don’t use the type-token-distinction. In case of the digital every “token” would be indistinguishable from the “type” rendering the distinction pointless.
[3] On this David Bollier is right.
[4] It is here that David Bollier errs when he things he can treat FLOSS like a Commons.
[5] Jerry Mander, In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations, San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1992, pp. 42f., 49f.


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3 Responses to FLOSS, Commons, And The Space Between

  1. jeeltcraft says:

    IT seems to me that the main concept of this article (that in my opinion settles in the community growing thank to shared content and in the social/political impact of the content) gets somehow lost in a variety of listed concepts.. anyway I’m happy to find someone that cares about these concept like I have done while teaching about open content between 2008 and 2010.


    • simsa0 says:

      @ jeeltcraft –

      thanks for your comment.

      I am not sure if I understand you correctly. Is it FLOSS or Commones that you feel is getting lost in the text? In a sense I can understand if you mean it either way, as neither the concept of Commons nor that of FLOSS is adequately explained in its own right. The reason for this is partially that I start from what seems to me a defining difference between both concepts — that Commons are unique and placed-bound, whereas FLOSS is unique and independent of place. It is from this angle that I distinguish both Commons and FLOSS and spell out some consequences.

      The advantage of this approach seems to me that I can carve out some differences in the process (and reach some clarifications) without having to present or rely on full-fledged definitions right from the start. Commons and FLOSS are thus explained only so far, which keeps their further characteristics intact. But I have to admit that the text could use some improvemnets.


      • jeeltcraft says:

        I appreciate your efforts anyway, and will try to find the time to link your post and comment it more clearly in my blog in which I describe and use a connection between participating cultural practices and technologies. I’ll keep you informed ;)


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