David Bollier's blog

NATO Misconstrues the Commons

So now NATO is interested in the commons!  Or at least, it’s interested in what it thinks is the commons.  In September, a group of NATO brass, security analysts and other policy elites held a conference called “Protecting the Global Commons.”  Attendees were mostly unknown to us commoners, but they are described as “senior representatives from the EU institutions and NATO, with national government officials, industry, the international and specialised media, think-tanks, academia and NGOs.” 

The event, hosted by a Brussels-based think tank called Security & Defence Agenda, had its own ideas about what the commons is.  Let’s just say the sponsors apparently don’t regard the commons as a self-organized system designed by commoners themselves to serve their needs. 

No.  To NATO decisionmakers, the “global commons” consists of those empty spaces and resources that lie beyond the direct and exclusive control of nation-states, yet which are necessary to fruitful intercourse among nation-states.  So, for example:  space, the oceans and the Internet.

Authenticity and the Commons

One of the abiding dramas that we moderns are fated to endure is the nagging sense that something more real, more authentic is happening elsewhere, that we do not really inhabit our own skin and have sovereign experiences.  Why is this?  Former magazine editor and essayist Richard Todd explore this vague, uneasy phenomenon in a series of beautifully written, amusing and often profound chapters in his book, The Thing Itself:  On the Search for Authenticity (Riverhead Books, 2008).  I've been reading it lately and finding much nourishment.

Todd writes:  "This book began with a simple feeling, the sense that my life and much of the life around me was not ‘real.’” What does it mean to be “real,” and why do we care about it so much?  The twenty-one essays are sparkling, humane meditations on “authenticity” and the false and simulated.  Why do we prize an object that has a documented historical provenance over an identical facsimile?  Why are the the hyper-real, personal lives of celebrities so compelling to so many people even though the details are so palpably artificial?  Why is irony often as revealing and truthful as professions of unvarnished “sincerity”?

There's a reason why the financial dealings of the Federal Reserve are so arcane.  It helps in ripping off the American people.  Don Dzombak of The Motley Fool has posted a very funny homemade video in the style of South Park that explains in a simple dialogue how the American people get ripped off when buying U.S. Treasury bonds. 

Two barely animated cartoon characters resembling stuffed bears are standing in a field talking in robotic, tech-modulated voices about the Federal Reserve Board's asinine policies.  I'll pick up the dialogue midstream:

The "Cap and Share" Video

British activists have produced a clever video in support of a global warming strategy that they call "Cap and Share."  It's essentially the same as the "cap and dividend" proposal -- aka "Sky Trust" -- that commons activist Peter Barnes has been pushing for years in the U.S.  (See his books Who Owns the Sky? and Capitalism 3.0 for more.) 

The UK campaign is led by Feasta, an Irish-based think-tank. (As the group explains, "Feasta's full name is the the Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability, and the word "feasta" (pronounced ‘fasta’) is an Irish Gaelic word meaning "in the future".)

I like the focus on sharing rather than dividends, although in their essential structure, both proposals are the same.  Feasta puts it nicely:  "Cap the carbon, Share the income."  Below, a still from the video, which stages an encounter between a stuffy British intelligence officer and "Agent 008."

The Empire Strikes Back

John Naughton, writing in The Guardian (UK), is one of the few observers to see the WikiLeaks case for what it is:  “the first really sustained confrontation between the established order and the culture of the internet.  There have been skirmishes before, but this is the real thing.”

It’s difficult to make predictions about a story that is still unfolding, but the U.S. Government’s response to the WikiLeaks disclosures make two things quite clear:  1) that the world’s oldest democracy is not really committed to open debate, citizen accountability and due process; and 2) nation-states, in quiet collusion with key corporations, share an interest in curbing the open Internet in order to limit its disruptive impact on their power.

While the U.S. lectures China about the virtues of an open Internet, what happens when that very ideal is applied to the U.S. Government?  The disclosures expose stunning deceit, mendacity, incompetence and corruption, and the U.S. Government goes into attack mode against WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange. 

Corporatizing Chicago's Subway Stations

Novelist David Foster Wallace once fantasized that naming rights to years would eventually be auctioned off, leading to a future year being widely known as Y.A.D.U., for The Year of Adult Depends Undergarment. Chicago just took a step in that direction by letting Apple Computers spend $4 million to renovate a subway stop, the North/Clybourn station on the city’s near north side, in return for exclusive advertising rights throughout the station. It is clearly a case of testing the waters for selling naming rights and exclusive marketing to other subway stations in the Chicago Transit Authority system. In this case, Apple has a store nearby, and the company evidently thought that it could “do well by doing good” by spending so much money for such a high-visibility advertising shrine (er, make that a “productive public/private partnership”).

Mark Twain's Final Copyright Crusade

Mark Twain’s autobiography is the surprise hit of the publishing world this fall:  “totally the Dad book of the year” exults one bookseller.  The University of California Press, which planned a print run of 7,500, has now printed 275,000 copies, each of which sells for $35 a pop. 

But inquiring minds want to know:  If Twain finished writing his autobiography more than 100 years ago, why is the work still copyrighted?  Didn’t it enter the public domain years ago?  The National Law Journal provides some illuminating answers in a recent article.  Reporter Shari Qualters writes that the last major revision of U.S. copyright law, in 1976, stipulated that copyrights for works created but not published before January 1, 1978, expired on

The debate over the commons used to focus on how to protect shared resources from private predators.  Now, increasingly, the focus is shifting to how the commons and market forces can constructively work together while preserving the integrity of the commons.  That is to say, the focus is on how to preserve the social relationships and free flows of information that constitute the commons while permitting some sort of monetization and/or developing external revenue sources. 

I consider this whole conversation is a significant “developmental stage” in the evolution of the commons:  how to develop a sustainable balance between commons and markets?  This sort of talk was much in evidence at the Free Culture Forum in Barcelona in late October; at the International Commons Conference in Berlin on November 1-2; and most notably at the “Economies of the Commons” conference hosted by the De Balie Center in Amsterdam on November 11-13.  The tagline for the latter conference put it well:  “Paying the cost of making things free.”

New Video Introducing the Commons

A new video introducing the idea of the commons had a rushed premiere at the end of the International Commons Conference, but has now been released on the Web in four languages.  Here's an invitation to pass it along and make it go viral.

"The Commons" was produced by Christoph Knopp from Das Programm in Germany and the talented Berlin artist Burkhard Piller.  There are also versions in Spanish, German and Italian, with a French one on the way.  The animated line-drawings are wonderfully understated yet expressive.  In five short minutes, the neophyte can get an amusing introduction to the commons and the many areas in which it applies -- nature, culture, community and beyond. 

When the Commoners Converged on Berlin

The conversations that I encountered at the International Commons Conference in Berlin, Germany, three weeks ago are still reverberating through my mind.  I’m not sure if any of us really knew what a group of 180 self-styled commoners from 34 countries would look like.  But just experiencing the transnational tableau of commoners – each with different voices and passions, but united by a commitment to the idea of the commons – was energizing and inspiring. 

The conference was sponsored by the Heinrich Böll Foundation in cooperation with the Commons Strategy Group (of which I am a part) after months of planning, primarily by Silke Helfrich.  The event had an ambitious focus – “Constructing a Commons-Based Policy Platform” – that, in retrospect, was not entirely achieved.  There were just too many commoners meeting each other for the first time, each coming from different intellectual and cultural traditions, with no lingua franca or shared agenda yet.  We are still learning who were are, how we think and our aspirations for the commons.  (It was quite obvious, however, how we feel.)

The conference's most significant achievement may have been the in-person convergence of so many committed commoners -- and the many new relationships and collaborations that have been spawned.  And even if the framing of the conference was ambitious, it was precisely what we need to be talking about. 

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