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CPSR Journal Vol 19, No 4
Volume 19, Number 4 The CPSR Journal Fall 2001

What is an Information Commons and Why Should We Care? by Kristin Hitchcock

[ Read the program notes ]

Howard Besser draws our attention and our concern to the disappearing of an integral part of our communities “the Commons.” What are the characteristics of a commons? No one owns it. There is almost no control. There is a lot of diversity. People are anonymous there. What happens there? Free speech. Exposure to and exhange of ideas.

To help explain the concept of the Information Commons, Besser outlines the history of the physical commons, from the Greek Agora, to the middle age commons, to early twentieth-century parks and streets. Physical spaces that have traditionally served as commons have been disappearing. What is left in their space is the pseudo public space, which looks public space on one level but doesn’t act like it on another. Shopping malls may look like a commons, but free speech does not exist there. Streets may look like commons, but now there are street-cams ending the former anonymity.

Beyond the physical commons exists that more abstract, intellectual entity that is the Information Commons, composed of content that is critical for society. Besser sites fables, ballads, and Shakespeare in particular. The information commons is important for four reasons. Philosophically it makes up our common cultural history. It promotes progress, as new knowledge incorporates the old. It allows for creativity; for example, decorative arts rely upon previous artwork for inspiration. It encourages free speech and social commentary.

An important balance must be maintained between users and creators to keep this information commons in tact. This balance is threatened as creativity and sharing of ideas are stifled. The Internet is gradually being eroded as an information commons as it turns into a vehicle of consumption rather than production. An aggressive content industry is lobbying to erode fair use and first sale, those safeguards that have protected use of that content for social commentary and educational purposes.

Increasingly, that which should have come into the public domain continues to be owned by someone. The Girl Scouts took it for granted that they could sing “Happy Birthday” around the campfire. In such a world, at least, we may be thankful that, as Besser reassures us, no one owns God... yet.

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