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Knowledge as a Commons: From Theory to Practice

Editor: Charlotte Hess, Elinor Ostrom
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007
Review Published: October 2009

 REVIEW 1: Colette Wanless-Sobel
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Elinor Ostrom and Charlotte Hess

The New Ontology

What is the nature of knowledge and learning in the 21st century? Likewise, what is the nature of teaching and publishing, and what is the role of libraries? The media tells us we now live in a digital world, of course, but what does this mean? According to the collection of chapters in Understanding Knowledge as Commons: From Theory to Practice, there has been a radical ontological shift and, accordingly, the nature of teaching, learning, knowledge production, knowledge storage, and publishing are completely altered. The Internet and Web 2.0 utilities, as transformative catalysts, have rewritten the rules for what knowledge is and what knowledge does, and how people engage in intellectual production. Understanding Knowledge as Commons familiarizes readers with this paradigm shift in knowledge production and ownership society. Furthermore, the book offers readers a distinctive understanding of the new infrastructures for knowledge production, the collection and storage of knowledge, and publishing. Essentially, the book delineates the evolution of the library and academia in the 21st century and demarcates the knowledge "commons" or public resource provided by the Internet.

Understanding Knowledge as Commons explores new ways of learning, creating knowledge, and living as an individual in the 21st century, using real and speculative scenarios that address the positive (and negative) potentiality inherent in new technologies, especially in terms of academia, publishing, and libraries, which are forecast to radically transform. The observation of these transformations comprise the chapters of the book, which are divided into three sections and provide a monumental and coherent account of the economic, social, personal, and cultural changes that are occurring in libraries, academia, technology, and publishing, all of which are major stakeholders in the knowledge commons. Understanding Knowledge as Commons also analyzes the interplay between digital communication and power relationships in the technological context that characterizes the network society, while also discussing resistance from academia, from large media outlets, who are fighting to extend their power through legislation, especially through radical modifications of the copyright law to prolong its length and expand its scope, and from corporations.

Retooling for the Digital Age

Section I is Studying the Knowledge Commons. This section's chapters focus on the changing relationships of knowledge production: the global economy, the network enterprise, and the changing patterns of intellectual labor. One chapter, "A Framework for Analyzing the Knowledge Commons," uses a systems' analysis approach to delineate variables of the knowledge commons and analyze interrelationships, revealing how the feedback loops are organized that produce behavior and behavior changes. The chapters in this section draw on behavioral economics, complexity theory, and the socio-political principles of commons scholarship pioneered by Elinor Ostrom who is also one of the book's editors and contributing authors.

The new network enterprise is a phenomenon comprising not only shifting internal hierarchies but also changing patterns of competition and cooperation across institutions. Additionally, the sheer quantity of information now permeating our environment is astounding, creating supercomplexity that requires a transition from an epistemological and hierarchical emphasis of knowledge production to an ontological and interconnectedness emphasis. But more importantly, networked digital information is also qualitatively different than print information. It has the potential to be created, managed, read, critiqued, and organized very differently than information on paper and to take forms that we have not yet even imagined. Indeed, the knowledge commons nurtures and sanctions idiosyncratic experimentation and creativity that is often too risky and costly for other knowledge production venues to undertake.

In this networked knowledge production culture, the online archive or repository emerges as a critical player in academic publishing of the future. The digital age has brought digital archives into the front lines of scholarly communication. Why? The reason is because these archives can be more current than journals, and because their reach to academic peers is exponentially greater. In the beginning, when open access knowledge production first started, open access digital archives complemented traditional journals; presently, they are surpassing them.

Open access means knowledge storage will be radically changed; however, libraries are by no means forecast as extinct in the networked 21st century. Libraries, like academia, evolve into network or connection-forming organizations, brokering digital relationships, providing opportunities for research, and continuing to serve as a critical and neutral place of discovery and advancement of knowledge.

Intellectual and Cultural Environmentalism

Section II is Protecting the Knowledge Commons, and this section's chapters explore whether the Internet is evolving into a controlled environment and restricted resource when it comes to knowledge access. Using the analogy of the pastoral agricultural commons, the authors warn that enclosure did not just physically transfer the control of pastoral grasslands from the peasants to the lord; enclosure marked a radical change in the attitudes of society towards the environment of non-market production. Enclosure of the commons inaugurated, in the words of Ivan Illich, a new ecological order, whereby what was once free "sustenance" becomes privatized or a market commodity.

How is enclosure currently operating on the Internet commons? Even though people have access to information and the Internet, more and more valuable and credible information is being withdrawn, privatized, lost, licensed, or restricted by government, such as the Children's Internet Protection Act and the Patriot Act. Corporations seek control, too. Big business media, for example, sensing their hay day is over and that the means of production are in users' hands, are fighting to extend their power through legislation, especially through radical modifications of the copyright law to prolong its length and expand its scope. Enclosure to the digital commons also comes from digital corporations, who threaten access to information by way of big aggregators, which filter and tailor information. Aggregators such as YouTube, iTunes, Amazon, or Google suggest that if old-time big media are on the way out, new high-tech big media are ready to replace them and are just as limiting.

Section II of Understanding the Knowledge Commons also addresses the question whether the Internet, digital publishing, and digital cultural creation should be free from intellectual property rights. The Internet is a contested terrain, facing big legal challenges from the claims of intellectual property law and the deep pockets of big business. Ideally, the authors claim, the Internet needs to evolve and be an open environment, a knowledge commons. Realistically, however, there will be Internet range wars, restrictions to the commons, and monetization.

Terra Nova: Open Access, Online Repositories, Digital Publishing and Beyond

In section III, Building New Knowledge Commons, the authors argue that electronic management is a social and political issue; it is not limited to stakeholders in the Ivory Tower, media corporations, or big publishing houses. This section essentially focuses on the political science of the knowledge commons. Questions the authors address include: What kinds of personal practices, social relations, legal and political norms, and lasting institutions will emerge from the network paradigm? What kinds of practices, relations, rules, and institutions do we want to emerge in these settings? What are the best management solutions to commons problems?

The Internet already offers 21st century alternatives to being, working, and knowledge production. The General Public License (GNU / GPL v3), the Creative Commons licenses (copyleft), and the fair use doctrine in copyright law are all legal tools that help assure that creative contributions to the commons will remain there and be re-usable by others in the future. Non-market production, led by free, open source software production, such as the Linux operating system and the Apache web server, increasingly challenge the idea that production must be based on capital. Non-market production also offers a model of non-alienated production, which challenges wage labor, although the authors are aware free labor, such as work entailed with many open access journals, may have its limitations.

Scholars and librarians are working together to create a knowledge commons in response to enclosure and market dysfunctions in scholarly communication. One example is innovative publishing via self-publishing and open access publishing, which allows institutions an active rather than passive role in terms of publishers and enables them to explore and evolve the digital medium.

Section III also explores the expansion of open source into other domains and the cultural, social, and political implications of this expansion. The authors provide readers with an understanding of how open source collaboration works and how it can be extended into other areas of collective action policy areas, such as the effects of free textbooks on education policy or the politics of "One Laptop Per Child."

This comprehensive and intellectually rich book should be of interest to academics, librarians, administrators, and technologists.

Colette Wanless-Sobel:
Colette Wanless-Sobel, who holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Minnesota, designs and teaches online courses for Minnesota State Colleges and Universities. Areas of academic expertise and publishing are American intellectual history, gender studies, and online education, including gaming. An article on avatars in the Encyclopedia of Distance and Online Learning (2009) is her most recent publication. Currently, she is designing an online course in urban ethnography, using Grand Theft Auto, San Andrea.  <colette.wanlesssobel@gmail.com>

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