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Virtual Commons

It's hard to say much new about the Internet as commons-we've all blabbed ourselves nearly to death on this topic in the last four or five years. Here's the summary, as I see it:

The Internet is the only commons that now enjoys support from the whole political spectrum, including the farthest right. "Technology" is our only universally safe code word for collective caring for the future, oddly enough. You can find nutcases who advocate privatizing the roads, the water, the military, but the Net is still sacred.

The Internet fails as a commons in the sense that you can't fully get away from it. A commons implicitly defines that which is not part of it, a sense of the personal, the private. A commons suggests a social arrangement in which people are able to meet in a shared zone that places some restrictions on personal behavior and identity; a reasonable, consensual, part-time trade-off. A diversity in private life is thereby allowed. Geography provides a ready means to achieve this separateness. The ubiquitous potential of the Net does not. What we're seeing with webcams is only the beginning. In the future, to get away from the Net will require radical strategy.

The Internet is rather big for a commons. One imagines a Kafka story about an ambitious central park so large that it takes days of walking to meet another person with whom one has anything in common. And yet Net culture has, to the surprise of many Net old-timers, "scaled." There actually are online communities, and not just the WELL, and their ephemeral, transient quality doesn't detract from their importance.

The Internet might also turn out to be just a little too fluid to be a commons. We see this in some of the most vexing current problems, such as "my kid downloaded revolting pornography at the school library." There isn't any perfect resolution to this kind of problem. Internet filtering software fails to restrict all porno sites while blocking many non-porno sites, and cannot help but make divisive political and esthetic judgements.

Another example of an intractable problem is spam. In a commons made of earth and grass, it is easy enough to measure and control obnoxious advertising. In the Internet it is not. The only ultimate solution to spam is to block all unsolicited communication, once again destroying the medium's beauty and raison d'Ítre.

To guarantee that the Internet will be acceptable as a commons means ruining it as a tool for personal empowerment, which is its essence and its strength. The Internet can only function as a commons on the basis of a greater degree of trust and faith than have been required by other collective resources.

The Internet will be a commons to the precise degree that people are decent without policing. In one sense, this is a more difficult-to-achieve decency than that required by the old-style grass commons, because it is a full-time, instead of a part-time, job and it must be taken on by large populations instead of just one locality at a time. The most extreme and odd characters will define the limits of experience in an utterly open commons. In a world of increasing population, the extremity in the margins of human behavior can only be expected to increase.

Fortunately, in cyberspace, unlike the physical world, there is not as much of a resource crunch, so human behavior can be seen in the most favorable light. Thus far, it turns out, spam, pornography, and other vices have not been so severe as to destroy the possibility of the Internet as a commons. This is truly a miracle, and the most joyous empirical reason for optimism in centuries. On the other hand, the fear of abuse on the Internet, even if actual abuse hardly materializes, might be enough to kill the possibility of a free Net.

Having said all this, it's important to remember that the historical "commons" were local, rather than global, and therefore exclusionary. The idea that a "commons" can be universal would likely have sounded oxymoronic to the traditional stewards of grass and trees. There has always been a tension between a sense of collective responsibility within one's own clan (at the potential expense of other clans) and a similar wellspring of altruism directed toward humanity or nature as a whole. Clannishness comes more naturally to humans, it seems, than a more universal sense of stewardship.

The Internet was and is made up by people, so there is nothing in it to steward but our own collective sense of trust and faith. We are the trees and the grass. Our sun and water are empathy.