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How the Commoners Built a Digital Republic of Their Own

Posted: 03/19/09 05:10 PM ET

The Bush Administration achieved a virtual lockdown of American political culture for eight years, bringing policy innovation to an utter standstill. So consider this improbable fact: one of the most significant achievements in open, participatory democracy in history burst forth during the Bush years.

Working in the parallel universe of the Internet, a loosely coordinated, global federation of digital tribes built a new kind of democratic culture. This culture is embodied in free and open source software, the blogosphere and hundreds of wikis on specialized topics. It can be seen in remix music and amateur videos, the flourishing social networking sites, and new types of "open business" models.

These innovations are not primarily creatures of government or the marketplace. They represent a new "commons sector" -- a realm of collective wealth generated by ordinary people through their own resourcefulness and sharing, largely outside of the money economy.

Although the tech world gets a lot of attention, few people appreciate how the new commons sector is achieving a slow-mo political revolution. As I put it in the subtitle of my new book Viral Spiral, the commoners have built a digital republic of their own. Using software code, free public licenses authorizing sharing and their own imaginations, the commoners have built an impressive civic, economic and cultural infrastructure that belongs to them. It is a world based on open access, decentralized creativity, collaborative intelligence and cheap and easy sharing.

The established order, meanwhile -- the world of centralized control, strict intellectual property rights and hierarchies of credentialed experts -- is under siege. Broadcast networks, daily newspapers, government agencies and politicians are still nominally "in control" -- but with each passing day, the new culture of the commons asserts its powers and out-maneuvers the old order.

The influence of this new sector -- law professor Lawrence Lessig has dubbed it "free culture" -- is large and growing. There are, for example, thousands of free software and open source software programs that power Web sites and blogs, information archives and social networking communities. Where would we be without GNU Linux (operating system), Mozilla (web-browsing), Thunderbird (email), bitTorrent (file-sharing) and BIND, Perl and Apache, which are central to many Internet functions? Linux alone -- a free program created by a vast commons of programmers -- is estimated to have spawned some $30 billion in economic activity.

More than 150 million Web objects now use Creative Commons licenses, an ingenious "hack" around copyright law that lets people allow the legal sharing, copying and distribution of their works. Online sharing and collaboration have become so popular that companies now base their business models around them.

Yet the real story is the power of the commons itself. There are now countless online communities dedicated to generating their own content. It turns out that the joys of shopping pale in comparison to the pleasures of sharing and curating information with a community of peers.

For every name-brand commons like Craigslist, Flickr and Wikipedia, there are thousands of impressive niche sites like Flu Wiki (decentralized tabulation of flu outbreaks), Wikitravel (user-generated travel guides) and Jamendo (music sharing). Sometimes these commons actual serve as "staging areas" for commercial startups. The Internet Movie Database, now the leading database of film facts and credits, was started by two film buffs. Gracenote, the database that looks up information about audio CDs, was started by a community of music fans. This is a new macroeconomic reality -- the commons as an incubator for market innovation.

To date, the commons sector has largely eluded mainstream attention because it is so fragmented and decentralized. It doesn't necessarily make money and it is run by self-organized amateurs. Neither government nor corporations are "in charge" of this eclectic, unorganized realm. It's supposedly a world of bloggers in their pajamas and teenagers exchanging silly videos via YouTube. How can we take it seriously?

Not surprisingly, powerful people from President Obama to corporate executives to newspaper publishers use the commons sector as a convenient foil. They try to dismiss it as a way to show that they remain in control -- and that the insurgent digital republic can be safely ignored.

The commoners know better.

After centuries of being victimized by market forces, the commoners now have powerful tools to protect and advance their interests. They no longer have to put up with the privatization and commodification of their shared inheritance and collective work -- a process known as "enclosure."

The commoners now have their own software infrastructures and open platforms. They have their own legal licenses to prevent anyone from "taking private" their content. One need only recall how Disney appropriated fairy tales and literary classics to build its corporate empire. Or how commercial broadcasters have used the public's airwaves for decades, for free. Or how Big Pharma pays a pittance (if anything) for exclusive rights to federal drug research -- which is then sold back to us as expensive proprietary drugs.

But in the online world, the commoners are asserting their control. Think how the mainstream media are often two steps behind the blogosphere, and how GNU Linux has taken huge market share away from Microsoft. Consider how YouTube is stealing audiences from the broadcast networks....and how the music industry has now eliminated "digital rights management" encryption from most recorded music.

Remember how Barack Obama's candidacy was borne aloft by the commoners acting on their own -- and think how Obama and Congress now face a mobilized public that is more actively engaged in our national political life than ever.

While centralized media continues their sad decline, remix artists and indie musicians and filmmakers are producing some of the most daring new works around. Newcomers with style and vision are using the Web to reach audiences cheaply and directly, without having to get the approval of stodgy, risk-averse Hollywood gatekeepers.

In education and science, there are strong movements underway to reclaim control over knowledge. In the face of soaring subscription rates for academic journals, academics have created more than 3,900 "open access" journals that are free to everyone, in perpetuity. M.I.T. and dozens of other universities have put their curricula up on the Web for free, spurring a new "open courseware" movement.

Students frustrated by exorbitant textbook prices are starting to develop "open textbook" projects, in the style of a wiki, so that they can pay $25 for a print-on-demand textbook with the latest scholarship, rather than $125 for a standard commercial textbook that may be outdated.

An open culture, a sharing economy and a digital republic: the foundations for this new world actually matured during the nightmarish Bush years, beneath its contemptuous gaze. Now that such radical ideas as participation, transparency and accountability have a stable home on the Internet (provided Net Neutrality can be assured), the challenge will be to safeguard this world -- and build it out even further.

R. Buckminster Fuller once said, "You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." That's exactly what the commons sector is doing. For all the thrashing about that will surely occur in coming years, somehow I think I know who will prevail.

David Bollier is an editor of OntheCommons.org and the author of Viral Spiral: How the Commoners Built a Digital Republic of Their Own (New Press). For several short video interviews with Bollier on the "viral spiral," visit here, here and here.