posted 10 Sep 2008 in Volume 12 Issue 1
The Gurteen perspective: Raising all the ships on the sea
By David Gurteen
What is ‘the commons’? Many of you will have heard of the tragedy of the commons where limited natural resources such as the land and the sea are overused and polluted as people act in their own self-interest.
But natural resources is only one form of commons. Today the term is used in a broader sense to include a diverse realm of shared resources such as our cultures, languages and human knowledge.
The English language is a good example of this other form of commons. No one owns the English language; it is free and evolves as we use it. The value of the English language lies in this use – as more and more people adopt English as their lingua franca, it becomes more and more valuable.
Another example of a form of commons is the World Wide Web. It is global; no one owns it as such; anyone can use it and although not totally free it comes close enough to qualify as a commons. And like the English language – use does not deplete it – use adds to its value!
Thus, the commons can be defined as a global resource; either tangible or intangible that almost everyone can use that is free or very low cost.
So as I have described, there are two forms of commons – tangible resources such as land and water and intangible resources such as knowledge and culture.
These commons are quite different, however: the use of the tangible commons leads to depletion and thus the tragedy of the commons, while the use of the intangible commons leads to abundance and the so-called comedy of the commons. In the comedy of the commons, each person, while getting something for himself or herself, also (directly or indirectly) contributes back to the common good at the same time.
Dan Bricklin, the co-creator of VisiCalc – the first spreadsheet program – calls this the ‘cornucopia of the commons’ and defines it as where use brings overflowing abundance. Dan explains that there are three ways to get people to contribute to the commons.
1. To pay them; 2. To find and encourage volunteers. 3. To design systems in such a way that they can contribute by pursuing their self-interest. For example: Yahoo! built it internet directory using the first method; open source projects such as Linux and shared content projects like Wikipedia use the second method and examples of the third and probably most powerful of the methods include web applications such as Napster, Delicious, BitTorrent and Flickr.
People who donate to the commons by method two or three are not being altruistic. It is simply a different but nevertheless extremely effective way of pursuing their self-interest.
But to my mind the real tragedy of the commons is not that we are depleting and polluting the gifts of nature through our own self interest – though this is tragic enough – but that we do not recognise the value of the cornucopia of the commons and do not readily contribute to such commons and thus are missing the ‘overflowing abundance’ that Dan Bricklin talks about.
The quality of our lives depends almost entirely on the work of past people who have contributed to the commons. As Isaac Newton said “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” Can I suggest that we all think how as individuals we can make our unique contribution to the commons and raise all the ships on the sea whether within our own organisations or society at large?
David Gurteen can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.gurteen.com