Viral Spiral - How the Commoners Built a Digital Republic of Their Own
David Bollier (2008)


A Viral Spiral of New Commons

By 2008 the viral spiral had come a long way. Richard Stallman’s fringe movement to build a commons for code became an enormous success, partly inspiring Lawrence Lessig and his compatriots to develop the Creative Commons licenses and a larger vision of free culture. Empowered by these tools, ordinary people began to develop some exciting new models for creativity and sharing. New types of commons arose. Soon there was a popular discourse about the sharing economy, a politics of open networks, and a new international social movement. The movement was so successful at diversifying itself that it was able to engage in serious internecine squabbles.

As the commons movement matured, and people came to understand the sensibilities of open networks, the viral spiral seemed to acquire new speed and powers. Over the past few years, it has advanced into all sorts of new arenas. Part III examines three of the most exciting ones — business, science, and education. Each has taken the tools and insights developed by the commons movement — free software, CC licenses, collaborative models — and adapted them to its own special needs.

These spin-off movements of entrepreneurs, scientists, and educators recognize their debt to the free software and CC licenses, but none feels confined by that history or beholden to its leaders. Each is too intent on adapting the tools to its own circumstances. Just as CC licenses have been used in some ways by musicians, and in other ways by filmmakers, and in still other ways by bloggers, so the commoners in the worlds of business, science, and education are forging their own paths. Development requires differentiation. It is fascinating to watch how the principles of the commons are being crafted to meet the distinctive needs of the marketplace, the academy, the research lab, and the classroom.

What may be most notable about these developments is the blurring of these very categories. On open platforms, social communities are becoming sites for market activity. Scientists are increasingly collaborating with people outside their disciplines, including amateurs. Formal education is becoming more focused on learning, and learning is moving out of the classroom and into more informal and practice-driven venues.

If there is a common denominator in each of the domains examined in Part III, it is the use of distributed networks, social community, and digital technologies to enhance the goals at hand. The new open business models seek to bring consumer and seller interests into closer alignment. The new science commons seek to create more powerful types of research collaboration. The open educational resources movement wants knowledge to circulate more freely and students to direct their own learning.

For the short term, the fledgling models in these fields are likely to be seen as interesting novelties on the periphery of the mainstream. In time, however, given what we know about network dynamics, the new models are likely to supplant or significantly transform many basic parameters of business, science, and education. The participatory practices that open networks enable are showing that knowledge is more about socially dynamic relationships than about fixed bodies of information. These relationships are also spawning new challenges to institutional authority and expertise. If one looks closely enough, the matrix for a very different order of knowledge, institutional life, and personal engagement can be seen.

License: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license.

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