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!