Why:A democratic culture

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Why will people allocate private and public resources to support educational endeavors?


¶1 — In the egalitarian test that we face, the cultural commons is essential to the idea of A Place to Study. We live in a cultural environment riven by all sorts of hierarchies. A major test in the 21st century, and a great opportunity, requires developing a meaningful realization of cultural democracy. For this purpose we need to expand and invigorate the cultural commons. The idea of A Place to Study requires a vibrant commons, a complex world of striving shared by all.

¶2 — Without treating our cultural resources as a commons, each person will not have unfettered access to tools of cultural creation in the areas of interest to him or her. Enclosing cultural resources as a form of private property means that some have access to them and others do not, imposing an elitist, not democratic, configuration of the culture. Over the past 500 years, policies of enclosure have been very productive in both culture and commerce, even though the results were inherently elitist. The great challenge in our time is to go beyond that condition.

¶3 — I want to conclude my talk by suggesting that the advent of digital technologies is a fundamental historical disruption, as a result of which policies of disclosure need to supplant those of enclosure, certainly within the domain of culture, and quite probably that of commerce as well. We have before us the prospect of a truly democratic culture, one that has outgrown its traditional elitism. It is a prospect worth our pursuit. My flip way of putting all this — it's time to make Marx do a somersault. The material forces of production have become immaterial, driven by knowledge production and by electronic communications. These operations — their affordances and biases — are very different, potentially less alienating and exploitative, than the material techniques of industrial production. But we are caught in a historical vise. The legal and intellectual procedures developed to manage the material dynamics of industrial production and consumption threaten to impose their principles of operation, including their operational limitations, on the emerging alternatives to material production.

¶4 — Marx had too little sense of historical irony. He was probably right that the material forces of production determine the cultural superstructure — systems of law, organizational procedures, patterns of education, tastes, and conventions. While secondary as historical determinants, the texture and quality of the lives we experience largely depend on these superstructural arrangements. And once a highly developed superstructure has been set in place as the working context for daily living, it may very well be able to block the emergence of alternative potentialities. That can happen as the legal and organizational structures generated out of traditional capitalism cycle back and shape the emerging forces in an open, knowledge economy. If that happens, the superstructure of industrialism will persist, essentially unchanged, having implanted its norms and categories on the emerging system.

¶5 — Our world is filled with amazing continuities from one era to the next, continuities that defy the pure material logic of the productive systems at work — just look at how principles of land inheritance were adapted to the hereditary transmission of industrial capital. In principle, capitalism rewards the risk takers astute in the here and now, but the surviving system for the inheritance of landed wealth created through it a defacto hereditary aristocracy of wealth and power in economies supposedly open to intelligence and initiative.

¶6 — I'm not going to go into all of this in my talk, but it is in the back of my mind. I think we are in the early stages of a historical shift, one in which the social, cultural character of the means of production is changing, not just a tweak here or there at the margins, but a deep change, what Hegel called an Aufhebung, literally in English (auf = up and hebung = heaving) an upheaval. It is not at all clear, however, whether we, the people of the world, will be able to realize the historical opportunities embedded in that change, for there is a real possibility, perhaps a probability, that the organizational strategies of prior systems of production have sufficient historical inertia to impose themselves on the new. Those old strategies were driven by a principle of enclosure, converting the natural commons into property, privatizing it, making commodities from it. In an historical sense, enclosure was at first a progressive strategy, for there were real, material reasons why enclosed properties could be made to work better, more productively, than they would if left as a commons for any and all to use as they saw fit. Holding resources in common, for use by any and all, is a wonderful principle as long as the use of them does not become excessive, degrading their potential productive value to all. But there are, of course, powerful tendencies to overuse, and the seeming ubiquity and inevitability of this overuse has been succinctly described as "the tragedy of the commons."

¶7 — A common solution, a way to avoid the tragedy of overuse, has been enclosure, privatizing the resources once held in common, a powerful process unfolding over the past 500 years. It has allowed for the productive control of who can use privatized resources for what purposes. In a direct sense, some persons greatly benefit from enclosure, namely those who receive exclusive control of enclosed resources. Other persons, those excluded from use privileges they formerly enjoyed, significantly lose from acts of enclosure. The distribution of who become the gainers and who the losers was basically arbitrary, turning on the accidents of who had the power, intellectual and physical, to construe custom and law in their favor and who did not. Legitimizing, after the fact, these arbitrary gains and losses has been difficult. Contention between the winners and losers form enclosure has been the over-riding problem in modern political history. As a result, distributive justice has become the central problem of political economy in the modern era.

¶8 — Enclosure drives material growth at the cost of numerous injustices. The resulting political struggles work to moderate those injustices and to rationalize the ones that persist, but they also perpetuate new injustices and reawaken old ones. And the process of enclosure, and the question of its justice, continues to churn on on because essential common resources, hitherto bountiful for all, continue to turn tragic — air through pollution, the oceans through overfishing, water through over-consumption, perhaps the climate itself through excessive flatulence, industrial and bovine.

¶9 — It is interesting that one can speak of enclosure and privatization as a common solution, for that implies that it too may be susceptible to a tragedy of the commons. Historically, alternatives to enclosure exist as means to prevent the tragedy of the commons. We might sum them all up as the practice of getting intelligent acceptable-use policies into effect for the various resources in question. One might almost say that enclosure, privatization, by itself does nothing, except insofar as it has been a strategy for putting productive acceptable-use policies into effect with respect to a great variety of productive resources. People have all sorts of other means to promote use and to regulate common resources, and many acceptable-use policies, once put in force, become self-sustaining — for instance, the basic rules of the road. Politics and education primarily address the human need to develop and manage the whole ensemble of these different acceptable-use policies through laws, regulations, conventions, custom, communications, market exchange, and on. How tragic is the commons? That question really interests me now. Some resources get used up through the use of them and we call those "non-renewable resources." They are highly susceptible to enclosure and tend to become commodities that get bought and sold. Ultimately, however, enclosing them as commodities does not prevent the tragedy of their over-use and in times when their supply is limited and the need for them widespread, a regulated commons in the form of rationing gets imposed upon the market in the name of the common good. Some resources, like agricultural land, are renewable with reasonable management, at one or another level of productivity, depending on the managerial regime in effect for them, which may have resulted from enclosure or coopeeative agreements. Other resources — knowledge, art, and culture — seem in part to work differently. Instead of being tragic, becoming less productive with increasing use, they seem at least in part to expand and improve with increasing use. To the degree they do so, their fate is a happy one — comedic, not tragic.

¶10 — With these resources, the ones that in part get better with increasing use, we might draw on McLuhan's distinction between the medium and the message in a somewhat different way than he did. For McLuhan the medium was the message because the characteristics of each medium determined what messages people could communicate with it to whom, where, when, how, and why. While in this sense the medium is the message, we must at the same time recognize that the message is not the medium. Messages consist in lived experiences, some person's desires, emotions, thoughts, and actions. Media reside in objects and energies, which people employ for all sorts of passing purposes. Media are things, out there, in the world; messages are experiences, in here, in my life.

¶11 — Distinguishing between messages and media is important for understanding the cultural commons. The messages of knowledge, art, and culture get enhanced with their increasing use and exchange, even though the medium for expressing these messages may not. As a commons, the medium may be tragic while its message is not. An excessively read book becomes dog-eared, and extensive degradation of the medium can severely impair the availability of its message. We know from later references to certain texts that this degradation of the message can become absolute when all the media, the manuscripts containing them, have been destroyed or lost.

Michel de Montaigne. The Complete Essays, M. A. Screech, trans. (New York: Penguin Books, 1991) pp. 170-1.

¶12 — In my last email, I noted how the material characteristics of books used to support research required large, costly libraries that were easily subject to degradation through overuse. Hence the research library is, like many other things, an example of enclosure, open to some and closed to others. And the book itself — whether an ancient scroll, a Christian codex, or a modern printed tome — is a means of enclosure, putting the text in a finite place, between two covers holding it upright on a shelf, making of it a commodity of exchange. But the thought itself, that is something people have used the enclosed media to communicate to one another, to disclose the thought into the commons of human culture. The thought is not a commodity of exchange; it is a state of mind that each can form and hold. Recall the wonderful passage from Montaigne, "On educating children" — Truth and reason are common to all: they no more belong to the man who first put them into works than to him who last did so. It is no more secundum Platonem than secundum me: Plato and I see and understand it the same way. Bees ransack flowers here and flowers there: but then they make their own honey, which is entirely theirs and no longer thyme or marjoram. Similarly the boy will transform his borrowings; he will confound their forms so that the end-product is entirely his; namely, his judgement, the forming of which is the only aim of his toil, his study, and his education.[6] The messages are part of a great intellectual commons, a status recognized in the American Constitution in the rationale it provided for copyright. The medium, until recently, has been a different matter. The materiality of books and similar materials has been such that they must be produced and exchanged as commodities, not only enclosed in libraries, but in law as well. Producing and disseminating books has been costly. Books have bulk, they require large quantities of specially processed paper, along with just the right ink, with each book carefully produced with capital-intensive equipment and significant labor. Once produced the books must be warehoused and then transported to many places at a tangible cost and sold or loaned to readers through special places each requiring a staff. To induce people to create, process, publish, and sell the media for our messages a special form of legal enclosure has been put in force, the right to make and disseminate copies of the particular expression of a message. This has been immensely successful historically in promoting the production and exchange of printed books, thereby counteracting the degradation through overuse incurred by the more limited instances of of the mind at work afforded through hand-copied manuscripts.

¶13 — It has become an open question whether, or to what degree, this strategy of legal enclosure in the realm of the mind, namely the right to make copies, continues to best serve the human uses of culture and thought as intellectual communication shifts from the basis of print to one of electronics. The economics and material constraints of making electronic copies of words, sounds, and images differs radically from those of material reproduction. Making and distributing printed copies of a text required capital to pay for the significant material and labor it took. Enclosing the text through an exclusive right to make copies of it enabled printers and publishers to make a commodity of the book and to sell it as a sufficient profit to reward their own labors and those of the authors they published. There are other ways to reward authors — teaching positions, grants and fellowships, prizes — which are already in widespread use with work of high cultural value and restricted market value.

¶14 — An exclusive legal right to make copies in an electronic medium is purely vestigial. One can reproduce the bit pattern constituting the work ad infinitum, incurring negligible incremental costs and no degradation of the products. People anywhere at anytime can open the work from the cloud, storage on the web, or download it to their drive in a pittance of time and at infinitesimal cost. There is no tragedy in an electronic commons: use can be infinite without degradation — that is the radical peculiarity of the electronic environment. Tragedy in the electronic commons arises as we perpetuate in them legal artifices that create fictitious scarcity patterns under which use is accorded to some and withheld from others. Schumpeter's law of creative destruction works on capital as well as labor, and from the moral view obsolete capital may have a lesser claim than the obsolete labor to our sympathy and succor.

¶15 — We face a historical question, whether strategies of enclosure, that have served reasonably well for several centuries, have become obsolete, and if so, whether people can dislodge them for alternatives that are more inherently egalitarian. Historical changes aggregate from the interplay of real concrete activities in the world, as people start acting in many different contexts with different ends in view, and some principles of action, largely implicit, lead to greater relative success and other tacit principles lose influence. As this happens, some people reflect on what is happening, trying to uncover the principles of relative success, and other search for ways to shore up the effectiveness of established arrangements. I think the operational characteristics of digital electronic media are making a basic shift possible. Through this shift, an era of enclosure is giving way to one of disclosure, not all at once, but through an accelerating spread of discernible exemplars. Software innovators are beginning to prompt recognition that intellectual enclosure is becoming an outworn strategy of cultural management through historical demonstrations that other means to support creative development can be more successful than enclosing the material commodities of traditional media in trade secrets, patents, and over-extended copyrights. Developing such innovative examples is what I mean by the phrase, "disclosing the commons."

¶16 — Wikipedia has so far been the pre-eminent example of disclosing the commons. Traditional printed encyclopedias were striking examples of enclosure as a technique of print-publication for creating very useful resources that could be sold as valuable commodities to a portion of the population. It required considerable capital to commission extensive content for a high-quality encyclopedia like the Britannica, and even more to edit, produce, and distribute what could only be a big, heavy, costly set of volumes. The Britannica successfully dominated the English language market for quality encyclopedias with successive editions of a comprehensive, authoritative product. Wikipedia destroyed the capacity of print-publishers to enclose encyclopedic knowledge. It did so, overturning in a few years practices that had dominated for several centuries, by disclosing the encyclopedic commons. In it, a diverse community freely generates complex acceptable-use policies and works collaboratively under them to create an encyclopedic resources, freely available to anyone, more convenient to use, of vastly greater scope, and of becoming equivalent, if not superior, in depth and intellectual quality. I want to close my remarks in Toronto by trying to state what sort of shift is taking place in the principles of thought as historical action moves away from enclosure of the commons towards its disclosure. In its deepest sense, the turn away from enclosure, unleashing the power of disclosure, transforms the basic way we perceive the geopolitical world around us. This transformation occurs, not by introducing something novel, something previously never thought of or accounted for in experience. Rather the transformation happens by changing what we take to be primary in geopolitical perception. It makes something formerly primary secondary, and something once secondary primary. We have two ways to describe and think about the world, one as a system of bounded areas and the other as sets of interconnected places. Over the past 500 years or so, historically effective action has relied primarily on thinking informed by the idea of bounded areas, while thinking about the connections between places was secondary. Increasingly, thinking about places and their interconnections has begun to gain primacy in many areas of action — that is the historic transition into which we are entering.

¶17 — Throughout the modern era, a fundamental strategy for thought and action involved postulating boundaries and working intensively on one or another union of objects within them. This was the era in which the world was staked out with area maps, onto which all sorts of boundaries were projected and acted on as if they were real. It is the era of taking censuses, and developing the detailed representation of populations and their activities through statistical counts and analyses, presented, in a telling phrase, through statistical abstracts. Nation-states developed with their boundaries minutely surveyed. Their sovereign powers — executive, legislative, and judicial — worked creatively to make the populace within their boundaries more and more homogeneous in matters of law, politics, education, language, literature, tastes, morays, and beliefs. Economies took on, more and more, a national cast and economics, especially macroeconomics, increasingly became a study of how diverse statistical aggregates and measures interacted on the national level. Wars became national affairs, declared and fought over boundaries, pitting the massed power of one area against another, with not merely armies, but the whole population mobilized, minorities exterminated, and the contending areas battering each other with every means possible until one or the other bent, then broken in total surrender.

¶18 — Not all maps are area maps that indicate postulated boundaries and differentiate between what resides within and without. Consulting area maps, geographers can tote up the miles of railway track that lie within Germany at one time or another and compare the German total with that for France or Great Britain and they can make all manner of such statistical comparisons of what lies in this area compared to what lies it that. But the maps of the railroad track that had actually been laid in Germany or in France or anywhere else were not area maps, but place maps, which show a network of connections between different places, intrinsically devoid of any boundaries, except perhaps between seas and land. And the use of place maps is very different from the use of area maps: areas allow the generation and comparison of aggregations; places and their connections allow the management of specific, purposeful interactions.

¶19 — A good city map, a place map par excellence, only incidentally represents administrative boundaries, and it usually stops, not at legal limits, but wherever the edge of the paper is relative to the scale with which it is representing the places of the city — its monuments, parks, buildings, roads, and other places of human meaning and action. People use the city map to find their way in conducting the myriad interactions that constitute the life of the city. And in daily life we constantly use these city maps and many other place maps — each depicting possibilities of interaction along roads, or plane, train, subway, and bus routes, paths in parks, the schema of a website, component grids in computers, the layout of stores, offices, hospitals, campuses, or museums. All these depict connections between points of interest and facilitate our taking concrete, independent action in the world.

¶20 — We can best understand the great historic transformation going on about us as one in which thinking about and acting on bounded areas is declining in significance and scope, and thought and action about places and their connections is gaining power and reach. It is a mistake, for instance, to see the post-World War II movement for the unification of Europe primarily as one of substituting more inclusive boundaries for the older, more constraining boundaries of the component nations-states. Instead, the emerging European Union accentuates the interconnections between the different places in Europe, along with the general blurring in consciousness of the actual external boundaries of European inter-connectivity. The boundaries of the EU keep changing as old bounded nation-states enter it, less to become part of a larger, more inclusive state, than to partake in the enhanced interconnections gained by de-emphasizing the prior borders of the component members. As a bounded entity, Europe has become highly malleable. It is best defined, not by area maps, but by networks of transportation and communication, and the movement of workers, students, goods, and tourists along its networked linkages.

¶21 — In like manner, the whole phenomenon of globalization has arisen, not through the promulgation of new area boundaries, but as the linkages between the diverse places of the world have become denser, more predictable and capacious, able to move persons, ideas, and things from here to there more rapidly, more dependably, and far more cheaply. Globalization as an accentuation of connections between many places creates communities of interest and patterns of activity that challenge the authority of those who control boundaries and the spheres of activity within them. Some of these network-based challenges such as terrorism are deeply destabilizing. Others, such as the global flow of labor, capital, and knowledge, which simply do not conform to established jurisdictions, require creative institutional innovation with respect to environments that are rapidly emergent, poorly described, and ill understood. Future generations will have to develop netsmanship as past ones developed statesmanship.

¶22 — Networks are displacing areas as the locus of human perception, communication, and action. In the modern era wars were conflicts between areas; now terrorists instead conduct warfare across networks, attacking places — buildings in New York, hotels in Mumbai, trains in Spain, buses in London. Economists still worry about GDP and other aggregate measures, but what really matters are the flows of goods and services between places and persons across the networks of production, information, communication, and transportation that constitute the world economic action. An economy is not a bounded area, but an incredibly complicated network of reciprocal interactions. And we must wonder whether the base of data available to economic thinkers is well suited to understanding and managing those complex flows.

¶23 — Scholars have habitually defined their fields and differentiated one discipline or subject from the others with the use of area metaphors, intensively mastering what was inside each area and largely ignoring what was outside it. All this and much more has been part and parcel of the principle of enclosure, drawing a boundary around some part of the world and making what lies within it special to some and beyond trespass to others. The principle of establishing mental enclosures has pervaded the world as we experience it and think about. It deeply affects academic norms and procedures, which work to cultivate and enforce specializations, the result of all the intellectual enclosures we have arbitrarily established. But thinking persons are beginning, more and more, to switch from enclosure to disclosure, from the area to the network, a world of interconnected nodes, in making sense of how the human understanding and collective intellect actually function.

¶24 — Historically, in mapping scientific, artistic, or literary development over time, it takes place (a significant phrase) through interactions between specific persons — scientists, painters, writers — working in particular places and particular times. Thus, in historical life, thought and ideas have actually developed through networks in the intellectual commons, a universe of interconnected places, not diffused in some bounded area. Thought and ideas constitute a system of ideational places in space and time and connections between them, and the apparent reality of a field or area of specialization has been akin to an optical illusion arising essentially because it was easier to content oneself with working in proximity to bulky materials stored in one location rather than another. In reality, thought thrives by attaching ideas to places, putting them into words and attaching the words to something we can place, giving it an address in one form or another — incising it on a prominent stone, printing it in a book that a student can cite and locate in a library and publisher's catalogs, or retrieving it from patterns of bits precisely addressed on discs and networks. The viscosity of old intellectual networks, which gave rise to the illusion of areas, subjects, and fields, is giving way to vast, comprehensive databases in which every item is equidistant to any inquirer, who can work with ease the connection of any item with any other.

¶25 — In thought and action, people dot the world with innumerable addresses of many, many kinds, and use these places, so defined, to identify connections between them and to guide all our human interactions across the resulting networks. What is the Commons? It is the human use of places and their connections. The Commons may conjure up, as an unexamined image, an apparent area, a picture of some village green, sectored by some paths, or some stretch of land, partly striped into small fields and partly rising into a woods. But what made these seeming areas into an actual Commons was not their existence as a bounded area, but the paths and places on them — here, a broken branch for fire word, there a stand of nut trees; here a plot to be plowed, there a spring for drawing water, and even more the the purposeful persons going first here then there, using the resources they found in measure to their actual, immediate needs.

¶26 — Places and the connections between them, and the uses to which persons put them, define the Commons, and the Commons, its places and their connections and uses, is inherently open to all, to be exploited according to agreed-upon patterns of acceptable use. Enclosure bounds and closes off a set of places and their potential connections. It asserts possession of the places within the boundary and proprietary control over the connections between them. The pendulum of history has swung to the limit towards enclosure and has begun to swing back towards disclosure. The shift we are experiencing moves away from property towards the commons. Enclosure promulgates boundaries; the commons lays out paths, people going hither and yon to gather, greet, and gossip.

¶27 — That's about it, John. My talk won't touch on everything in these emails, but it is good to try to get the whole set of ideas out. What cultural democracy really means and whether it is feasible needs a lot more reflection. The same for the relation of networks to the commons. It just occurred to me that most networked forms of communication and transportation are called "common carriers." Interesting aspects of all this keep popping up.