history

Now that Google has digitized millions of books, the next logical step is to sift through those books for interesting patterns of thought.  Enter Google NGram Viewer, now in beta, which can identify how many times a specific word or phrase appears in millions of books over certain time periods.  The digitized books can be searched in a variety of languages – American English, British English, French, German, Hebrew Spanish Russian, Chinese.

This fascinating new tool enables one to identify certain crude trends about the ideas floating around in published books, which may be a proxy for what was on the minds of educated people.  The raw data begs for us to make educated guesses about why certain words spike -- or disapear -- during certain time periods.  (Thanks, Jim Boyce, for bringing this to my attention.)

So what happens when “commons” and “public goods” is put into Google’s magic database machine?  You get the following chart:

Every few months I find myself circling back to writings by Ivan Illich, the iconoclastic Catholic priest who decried the institutionalization of life and the great promise of “vernacular domains” as a source of regeneration.

I came back to Illich this time via a chapter about him in a book by Trent Schroyer, Beyond Western Economics:  Remembering Other Economic Cultures (Routledge, 2009).  The chapter is easily one of the most illuminating things I’ve read about Illich and his critiques of modernity.

The vernacular domain, as Illich calls it, is the realm of everyday life in which people create and negotiate their own sense of things – how they should educate themselves, how they should embrace their spirituality, how they should manage the resources they need and love.  Vernacular culture consists of those spaces that exist for self-determination in the broadest sense of the term.  As Schroyer puts it:

Coming to terms with the commons means a willingness to learn a new language and the alien worldview that it makes possible.  That is one of the great lessons that I have gleaned from reading histories of English commons and the enclosure movement. 

I realized this anew upon reading an essay by historian Peter Linebaugh, “Enclosures from the Bottom Up,” in the December 2010 issue of Radical History Review.  (Alas, the essay is locked behind a paywall, but fortunately, a website called “Envisioning a Post-Capitalist Order:  A Collaborative Project” -- which Radical History Review has a hand in – has posted a downloadable pdf version of the essay here.)   

Linebaugh -- the great scholar of the commons and author of The Magna Carta Manifesto (University of California Press, 2006) – has a way of conjuring up entire ways of knowing that have disappeared.  I was struck by two passages describing the folkways of commoners. The first links “body-snatching” with the commons, a conjunction that made me start.  It turns out that, amidst a civil rebellion in Otmoor, near Oxford, England, in the 1830s, a rallying cry of the commoners was “Damn the body snatchers!” 

The Founders as Mashup Mavens

For pragmatic activists fighting the good fight against expansive copyright laws, the focus is usually on the here-and-now — how the law prevents us from sharing our works online, how it criminalizes all sorts of everyday activities, how it sanctions monopolies that charge ridiculous prices and stifle competition.

But imagine for a moment if we could learn what the nation's Founders actually thought about the cultural commons as they went about crafting copyright and patent law. Imagine our surprise at learning that Benjamin Franklin was not just an iconic entrepreneur, but in fact America's "founding pirate" deeply committed to collaborative invention and the open sharing of knowledge. Consider the pleasure in discovering that Shakespeare and Shelley, Emerson and Thoreau, and Madison and Jefferson, are all grand figures in a little-known pageant of political culture. Each makes the case, from his writings or his life story, that creativity and culture properly belongs to the commons.

The Lazy Smear of "Piracy"

As Hollywood studios and record labels watch a whole new online "sharing economy" arise -- in which ordinary people create and share things online without having to buy "product" -- Big Media is coming to a dismaying realization: the people formerly known as the audience are morphing into a participatory network. And this new social form is beating the hell out of an already-tattered business model.

So what’s the best response? In classic W. fashion, Big Media is doubling-down. They’re betting that even more proprietary technology and locked-up content will do the trick — but this time, with bigger locks and more aggressive surveillance of customers’ private lives. The copyright lobbies convinced Congress to give it a number of new enforcement tools last month, including free enforcement of civil cases by the U.S. Justice Department.

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