The Internet as a Commons

The story of modern humans is predominantly a history of small groups of nomadic tribes. To these hunter-gatherers, property was comprised of the few things they could carry on their bodies. New property concepts only started to emerge around 9,500 years ago with the domestication of plants and animals. As farmers began to cultivate land, they also had to protect it from animals and nomads in order to harvest crops they had planted, in the process creating the first form of land ownership. Today nomadic lifestyles are limited to Australia’s Great Victorian Desert, India’s Andaman Islands, Botswana, and Namibia. Most of the worlds land masses are either privately owned or public property, which is to say under the control of a nation state’s government.

As early as 500 b.c. local rulers in medieval England recognized the need for land which was neither owned by private individuals or entities governing the local region but was accessible to everybody – the common. While initially an integral part of the manor, the common was legally part of the estate in land owned by the lord of the manor, but over which certain classes of manorial tenants and others held certain rights. While the term commons historically referred to environmental features such as land and bodies of water, commons today are also an accepted principle for many shared resources, including cultural and intellectual feeds of human endeavors such as literature, music, and information.

Sustainability of shared resources

As a resource open to all, the sustainability of commons is inherently threatened by those who put private gains before the good of the all potential users by over-using the shared resource. This leaning towards degradation is often referred to as the “tragedy of the commons”, a phrase coined by economist William Forster Lloyd.

To ensure the survival of a shared resource to the benefit of all potential users, measures must be put into place which protect the commons from being over-used or monopolized. Public policy makers had some success passing legislation in cases where their constituents mostly identify a specific behavior as socially unacceptable. A prominent example for this are California’s coastal access laws which empower communities to point out public beach access and fine individuals that monopolize even small section of this commons.

Caring for the commons means much more than just regulating unwanted behavior. In addition to overuse, coasts erode if not properly attended to. A stewardship is needed, that is, a system nurturing societal cooperation, sharing of goods and thoughtfulness of generations to come. This is true for land and non-material commons such as Information.

One web for all

HTML / Language / Open Source

As the web contains an overwhelming amount of written and recorded resources, it was necessary to assign structures to this data and make shortcuts available when users are looking for specific information. Most commonly this structure is provided by search engines such as Bing, Yahoo, DuckDuckGo, WolframAlpha, and – of course: Google.

Chances are of course you only ever use one of these and may have never heard of some of the others. With consistently high market shares of close to 80%, Google has long been the only window to the web for the vast majority of Internet users. Google’s parent company Alphabet, Inc. has become the de facto steward of the web – after all: if you cannot find the information you are looking for on the first page of a Google result, do you examine the next page? Do you turn to another source? Or do you rephrase the question and ask Google again?

At this point, it should be clear to most Internet users that the World Wide Web must be considered a global commons. And, while pockets of the web – such as Wikipedia – have mostly escaped the overuse by the few, most Internet users experience the information available via the World Wide Web only as filtered by a few commercial entities.

It is one of the ways we have to acknowledge our debt to the past generations and to embody our link to a future generation. It shows we believe in ourselves as an enduring civilization, not an economy.

The entropy of knowledge

.. historical examples: Babylonions, Egyptian .. most humans after leaving high school – exacerbated by Hollywood and Facebook and Twitter.