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The Crowd and the Commons - 12 May

on Thu, 05/24/2012 - 22:22

Throughout most of human history, people have lived in deep relation to the meaning expressed in the public life of their societies.

The spirit of the people is demonstrated in our common institutions, through which we define our identity.

We are what we are in virtue of participating in the larger life of society. How do we reconcile the individual and society?

All evolution is done collectively. It is not about individualism, it is about the group dynamic of individuals acting collectively, but voluntarily.

Whatever the collective action is trying to sustain, it cannot be sustained when the individual is not invested in the outcome.

In the present economic system, the market creates value by enclosing a common area, whether material (land, natural/mineral resources) or immaterial (culture, ideas, digital space).

Through enclosure, the division of labor between producers and consumers creates a top-down, hierarchical structure in the flow of private and public goods.

This is said to increase economic efficiency, productivity and quality, while lowering the costs of goods and services.

But current business models based on the division of labor are becoming less and less useful.

Evolutionary forms of technology and culture are altering the nature of resource exchange systems, creating new ways of interacting and coordinating social and economic life.

Our created environment, including technology, is an extension of our personality.

This allows us to carry our creative abilities into a non-human dimension that is beyond our personalities.

But humans are losing their ability to function in a sustainable way, particularly as our technology and science advances.

For technology to be sustainable, it must represent some dimension of our Being.

Information systems seem to represent a spontaneous, self-organizing model that transcends barriers and connects people together. This is thought to open the space for Being to arise.

Many people believe that the flow networks -- generated and linked by computers -- have the capacity to create a self-organizing and non-hierarchical social order that can balance and manage itself without centralized control.

Many social activists and theorists say that expanding or optimizing this relationality will rebalance the consolidated wealth and power of the modern technological infrastructure.

But diversity is simply a reaction to centralization and not necessarily an expression of Being.

The temptation to view information technology an interdependent system that leads to human freedom minimizes the role of the machines that serve this system, the corporations which house the hardware for communication networks and information flows, the financial incentive structures that allow corporations and banks to accumulate capital and consolidate wealth, and the power of the decision-making behind these networks.

The diversity and interconnectivity of information systems may seem to express the values of democracy, equity and justice.

But todayʼs flow networks are enmeshed in the very infrastructure and hardware which commodify individuals into products, uphold the division of labor between producers and consumers and widen social inequality.

For example, people who use social technology casually to share personal information are also providing advertisers and businesses with technical information to target their interests as consumers.

Organizers using social technology to plan political mobilizations do so by benefiting the corporate earnings of Twitter and Facebook.

The mass production of hardware for social technology, which increases the power of social networks, is also increasing the layoff of workers through computerization.

So how do we realize the promise of technology in allowing the space for Being?

By looking at evolution in a new way.

Our biology, psychology and economics still conceive of human beings as struggling to emerge from the darkness of matter into the light.

That is only part of the story.

Consider that evolution is a result of the conflict between different wavelengths of light.

In this sense, the old light must always give way to the new light.

And over time, the social rules and institutions which were created to capture the old light eventually dissolve as new ones are created.

This evolutionary impulse ties material and cultural evolution together in a way that our present epistemology has not fully recognized.

We know that cultural values are rapidly changing through the technological and communication revolution, but of course our rational minds explain this change as being driven primarily by the increased dispersion of broadband and the rapid decrease in the price of both memory and processing power.

We are in the midst of a transition from hierarchical governance and institutional forms to ones which are based upon decentralization and peer-to-peer interaction.

Innovative models and tools are emerging that now enable us to organize and coordinate our activity in new ways, transforming the nature of community and social institutions.

The norms and rules which are being developed to oversee collective resources sustainably involve peer-to-peer management and open source models.

Such innovative systems often include free software, open hardware groups, open media and educational models, open collaborative research in commerce and science, and horizontal decision-making by social activists.

Thanks to this growing evolutionary impulse toward peer-to-peer systems, a new production and governance logic of learning-by-doing has become possible.

As resource users become directly involved in the process of production, their local ideas, learning, imagination, deliberation and self-corrective action are embodied directly in their collaborative activities.

This expands the distribution of the means of production and decision-making far more widely than through top-down systems.

When consumers become co-producers of the goods and services they receive and organize, their mutual activity transcends privatization, centralization and the idea that institutional change can come only through a  traditional command structure or social hierarchy.

With the proliferation of innovative platforms and models that are more and more collaborative, communities are engaging around projects in a deeper and more powerful way.

For example, in the Linux operating system and in Wikipedia, a huge, heterogenous and geographically dispersed constituency is coordinating activity in a highly functional and unique way.

These are non-hierarchical models which don’t depend on centralized quality control but the collective goodwill of the crowd.

What’s unique is that the greater good is achieved by individuals working collectively on a voluntary basis, out of conscious choice, not out of fear spurred by a central authority.

This capacity to tap the intelligence and power of the masses has been called crowdsourcing.

The ability to source and access financial capital in new ways is also part of this evolutionary process of increased connectivity.

Based on collaborative models that were designed to engage large numbers of people, peerfunding has become a new means of raising financial capital.

Peerfunding is a low-cost method of using the internet, social media and micropayment techniques to elicit donations from communities possessing a high degree of interest and trust in participating.

Peerfunding enables people to network and pool network and resources for a specific purpose through disintermediation - eliminating the ‘middle man’ from the process of exchange.

Peerfunding bypasses banks and extend loans directly to businesses and individuals, cutting out the complex infrastructure and branch networks that underpin more traditional lenders

It provides the opportunity to raise capital for risky projects that traditional finance and institutional channels won’t touch.

Peerfunding is thus becoming a prototype for a new division of labor between producers and consumers.

By involving resource users in the process of producing their own resources, new forms of value, cooperation and trusteeship are emerging.

When resource users become co-producers, their motivations, knowledge and skills become part of the production praxis, leading to new ways of coordinating social and economic life and the development of innovative property management structures.

All of this is demonstrating that the commons are not just resources, but the set of relationships they create, including the communities that use them, and the cultural and social practices and property regimes that manage them.

Common goods that are managed directly and locally are thus a realm of governance and production which exists beyond the division of labor.

This new social dynamic — arising from the shared values and meanings of people’s life-experiences in the organization and production of their commons — allows the traditional economic framework of property ownership (utility, self-interest, profit) to be eclipsed by a new model of trusteeship (sustainability, quality of life and well-being).

As catalysts for the integration of producers and consumers, social innovators and change agents could target their funding toward the creation of commons trusts.

A commons trust is a legal entity responsible for protecting a shared asset that is inherited from past generations, or is presently being created, on behalf of current and future generations.

These trusts are political accountability structures through which citizens can make direct decisions on each commons, holding and managing this resource for future and existing generations and species.

The increased participation and political choices offered to citizens through these trusts transforms economic, social and political decision-making and production at all levels of commons (local, state, interstate, regional, and global).

Peerfunding can thus lead to the growth of new democratic commons institutions.

Yet this organizational principle — that resource users must become the producers of their own resources — isn’t really new. It’s the ancient but much-neglected foundation of self-organizing communities, consensus decision-making and the common responsibility of people to protect and sustain their valuable common goods.

The commons must be created and sustained for the benefit of everyone in society.

When the crowd becomes self-conscious that it is operating as a commons,  we will become more open to the new energy of transformation.

We will make choices that seek to benefit everyonethrough our collective intentions to create a sustainable community on this planet.

And by educating our children about the commons, it will become their life’s goal to support the the creation and sustainment of the commons.

Now is the time to manifest plenty in our world, to manifest the processes needed to ensure that it is used widely and sustainably, so that everyone will get their needs met today, tomorrow and hundreds of years into the future.

Putting the function of constituent power and accountability back into the hands of the people is the essence of human sovereignty and democratic freedom — and the radical hope of the commons.

The commons is the economics of replenishment

And peerfunding is getting us there.