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?