Digital commons and ‘false consciousness’ – 27/03/2019

During the session of the 27th march, 2019, we focused on Digital Commons and a conversation which took place on Organization journal:

  1. Ossewaarde, M., & Reijers, W. (2017). The illusion of the digital commons: ‘False consciousness’ in online alternative economies. Organization, 24(5), 609–628. (Available  here)
  2. Kostakis, V. (2018). In defense of digital commoning. Organization, 25(6), 812–818. (Available here)
  3. Reijers, W., & Ossewaarde, M. (2018). Digital commoning and its challenges. Organization, 25(6), 819–824. (Available here)

The main article (paper 1) built on the concept of false consciousness and its connection to digital commons by analyzing three different ‘platforms for hospitality’: AirBnB, Couchsurfing, and BeWelcome. By comparing the trajectories of these platforms and their relation (or lack of) to the digital commons the authors argue that the very idea of digital commons might be misleading if it is expected to create subjectivities that are able to resist neoliberal capitalism and to create alternatives. Paper 2, by Kostakis, criticizes the main assumption that pools together platforms for short-term rentals under the label of platforms for hospitality and digital commons. In fact, he argues that the very choice of diverse platforms, which re-distribute the availability of physical spaces under conditions that are more similar to short-term rental markets rather than the one of real gift economy, cannot be equated with digital commons. In their final response (paper 3), the first authors respond by defending the choice of platforms and their association with digital commons (by way of example, even Wikipedia rests on the materiality of a series of physical infrastructures whose political economy with regards to the commons differ from the perceived one of Wikipedia as ‘pure’ digital commons).

During the meeting we discussed at length on how the first authors used the concept of false consciousness and their provocative use of three very different platforms under the label of digital commons. In particular, the way in which the authors applied false consciousness appeared opaque to us. Was it the same kind of false consciousness linked to Marx’s concept of alienation?  What exactly did trigger and sustain false consciousness (e.g. the platform design, the marketing strategy and narrative promoted by platform owners, the ‘naivety’ of commoners…)?

Furthermore, at times their use of the three examples seemed a bit instrumental in supporting their main argument. While they did acknowledge in the end that AirBnB is not a digital commons (nor a commons), they do not focus their analysis much on BeWelcome, which is the platform resembling the most a commons; and as Kostakis also criticizes, they fail to acknowledge that in contrast to the negative implications which AirBnB brought upon several major cities, several concrete actions at institutional and platform levels really took place which can hardly be pooled under the idea of false consciousness.

Finally, we discussed at length the definition of digital commons and what it means to be one. By bringing up examples from our own countries, we confronted different experiences (e.g. Mitwohnzentralen) and how they evolved from being non-digitally mediated to being supported by digital media, and whether or not a real boundary between digital/non-digital really exists.

We agreed that it would be useful for us to go through the exercise of collecting and mapping out definitions of digital commons. This will be the topic of one of our future meetings, where we will start co-creating such a mapping.

Let us know if you would be interested to join, even remotely!

Urban commons and commoning – 27/02/2019

We had the pleasure to co-host, together with Dr Peter Parker and other colleagues from the Department of Urban Studies at Malmö University, Dr Mara Ferreri from the Institute of Government and Public Policy (IGOP) at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. The session successfully took place online, bringing together participants in three different locations.



The readings chosen for the session were two texts by Mara, which we discussed in the following order:

  1. Ferreri, M. 2016. ‘Where’s the trick?’: Practices of commoning across a reclaimed shop front. In: Kirwan, S., Dawney, L. & Brigstocke, J. Space, Power and the Commons. The struggle for alternative futures. Routledge. (available here)
  2. Ferreri, M. 2017. Els comuns com un verb, Nous Horitzons, 215, pp. 40 – 46. (Commons as a verb – English translation from Catalan) (available here

In Ferreri (2016), Mara describes practices of commoning encountered in an ‘freeshop’ / open meeting and exchange space set up by the Off Market Collective in a squatted retail space in North London. Through this example, she highlights the possibility for “commoning a squatted space beyond the boundaries of intentional squatting and activist communities”. The Off Market Collective is seen as an urban commons, with both potential and limitations. The open ‘shop’  allowed for experimentation around the sharing of resources, time and space inside a surrounding landscape of commodified consumption. The existence of different groups at stake, such as the core initiators, the volunteers who later joined, and the visitors who were often coming from a vulnerable social position, challenged the radical openness of the space and brought forward tensions between the more radical initial drive for the space and the need to acknowledge and make space for those less engaged, and how to sustain relationship between these actors.

In Ferreri (2017), the commons are explored not as things (resources), but as a verb: commoning (see also Linebaugh, 2008). Based on the reading, we discussed the aspect of language as related to the commons was discussed (common goods) as well as the notion of commons versus that of public. Activities of commoning can be performed on private land, creating a layer (or more) of use by the commons, where as other layers might remain in use by the private owner. However, we should also be cautious in our terminology: maybe personal rather than private? Personal space still implies individuality but allows for other types of configurations. Can we think about rights of use through different configurations of collectivity? Indeed, one of the core argument that emerged from this part of the discussion is that we (scholars and practitioners alike) might be in need of a commoning of language – to talk about the commons – much more than we realize. This became particularly evident when we raised some comparisons among the different ways of institutioning land property and land use rights in some European countries on one hand, and to conceive and talk about them in different European languages (e.g. English, Swedish, German terminologies for shared land).

When it comes to the relationship to the public sector, the commons in the Off Market case was stemming from a more adversarial stance towards the state, whereas there are other examples (e.g. Cleaning day in Finland), where collaboration with the state is sought, even in the reclaim of public space for the commons. In connection to this part of the discussion we also raised the challenging point of mediating between the collective dimension of commons and the individual ones. On the one hand, looking at the collective subjectivities acting as political actors in the struggle to reclaim spaces, rights, sustainable ways of living, is a crucial aspect, particularly when the need to mediate and interact at institutional levels emerge. On the other hand, we shall not lose sight of the diversity of individual subjects who engage with commoning coming from different backgrounds, with different needs and expectations with regards to the commons  themselves.

To this regard a relevant remark was made to highlight the fact that while in the area of urban commons studies the focus on collective subjectivities and their relationships with institutions is particularly marked, the broader discourse on the commons also includes specific perspectives that privilege issues such as the relational dimension of commoning, their physical realm of possibilities, the mental dispositions of actors involved, as well as their social contexts.

A few useful references were mentioned during the discussion about the diversity of commoning practices in the urban context:

Huron, A. (2018). Carving Out the Commons: Tenant Organizing and Housing Cooperatives in Washington. University of Minnesota Press.

Starecheski, A. (2016). Ours to Lose: When Squatters Became Homeowners in New York City. University of Chicago Press.

 

Cited references

Linebaugh, P. (2008) The Magna Carta Manifesto: liberties and commons for all. Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press.

Hess and the new commons – 5/12/2018

Short report from our second session on 5.12.2018. We discussed the following reading:

Hess, Charlotte. 2008. ‘Mapping the New Commons’. SSRN Scholarly Paper ID 1356835. Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network. Available here.

Joanna started by saying that Charlotte Hess was invited at the Infrastructuring the Commons seminar that took place in 2013 at the Aalto University in Finland. There, Hess talked at length about her collaboration with the Ostroms and also brought forward some aspects of mapping the commons. The video of her talk is available here, and her slides here.

Giacomo gave a brief summary of the paper, stressing that Ostrom’s article is a literature mapping study. The article, with its massive references list, reflects Hess’ background in library sciences. Hess explains, that along the years, she had noticed a lot of literature referring the the commons, but they not necessarily aligned with Ostrom’s focus on Common-pool resources, nor an economic perspective. Hess argues that there was a need to refer to these commons that are not the traditional ones (like forests, irrigation systems, fisheries… so all that Ostrom has studied) as the “new” commons. She maps these new commons, based on the articles she has encountered and which refer to them, taking the resource they refer to as the basis for the proposed categorisation (into what she refers to as “sectors”).

Together with Yvonne, Maria, and Vasiliki, we discussed at length both Hess’ mapping and naming of the “new commons”. Many of us felt uneasy with both.  Hess acknowledges the arbitrariness of her categorisation, but does not really explain the rationale behind her decisions. An exercise in trying out other ways to categorise the new commons by trying to extract from the body of literature, other units that the one of resource. Some might be for example taken from Hess’ list of observations reported on p-39, e.g. sustainability, equity, collaboration etc.

The name “new commons” was also confusing as, despite being used to differentiate from the traditional understanding of the commons (à la Ostrom), Hess still uses economic terms, such as resources. Other perspectives might be interesting to examine, which would use different political tools and methodologies. Vasiliki suggested the autonomous marxist perspective. How to talk about the commons outside the main path of capitalism?

We also mused whether the materiality of the resource makes a difference in the protection and management of the commons. Yvonne brought forward the Open Source Software case. Here the overuse of the software is not the issue, but rather its abandonment is.

We ended up with Maria bringing up the issue of profit: how does it enter in conversation with the commons? Is commodification and the deceit brought by it to good ideas (e.g. from commons-like couchsurfing to AirBnb as a big business) a new tragedy of the commons?

Ostrom’s and Henry George’s “Commons” – 7/11/2018

Short report from our first session on 7.11.2018. In this first session we discussed the following two readings:

1) Ostrom, Elinor. “Reformulating the Commons.” Swiss Political Science Review 6, no. 1 (March 1, 2000): 29–52. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.1662-6370.2000.tb00285.x.

2) Obeng‐Odoom Franklin. “The Meaning, Prospects, and Future of the Commons: Revisiting the Legacies of Elinor Ostrom and Henry George.” American Journal of Economics and Sociology 75, no. 2 (March 10, 2016): 372–414. https://doi.org/10.1111/ajes.12144.


Giacomo started by presenting the Ostrom article, highligthing that her model comes from economic theory: what are conditions for collective action to influence the sustainability of shared resources? Her theory of commons-pool resources rejects older models that emphasise the role of external authorities in govenring the commons. The article presents in a very concise manner some of Ostrom’s main ideas and vocabulary, which she has elaborated more at length in her book Governing the Commons, and which she brings forwards through a wealth of examples: Common-Pool Resources (CPR) and their successful management through self-organized governance by “appropriators”; proposed design principles for robust and self-governed CPRs; the remaining challenges of size and heterogeneity.

Our discussion of this article brought in the proposition of putting in relationship to one another the notion of the commons and that of publics (as in Dewey’s undertanding). We also wondered when is something a commons and when is it a CPR? Is there a difference? Cooperatives for example pool resources in order to buy equipment…

We also briefly discussed the role of the state or government with regards to the commons: should it always be kept out?

Joanna started her presentation of Obeng-Odoom’s articlewith a disclaimer that she had to do a quick research of contemporary economic theories in order to understand Obeng-Odoom’s positioning. He argues that, although Ostrom’s work appeals to proponents of heterodox economics, Ostrom was not speaking to them. The main challenge with Ostrom work’s, according to him, is that is has no concept of justice. He then introduces economist and social reformer Henry George’s work as an alternative to Ostrom’s on the topic of the Commons, because George’s work in deeply rooted in issues of social justice, and George, unlike academic Ostrom, was also an activist.

We discussed that Obeng-Odoom’s rejection of Ostrom’s on the grounds that he brought forward (no interest in social justice) was strange, even unfair, especially that Ostrom had never claimed to be addressing these issues. The article reads at times like a pro-George pamphlet. It was nonetheless interesting and useful to be introduced to George’s work on the commons and his propositions that the land and natural resources do not belong to any single living of legal entity, and rent on it should be paid to the public (his idea of the single tax).