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Open Wide

Stephen Shore, Church Street and Second Street (June 20, 1974)

In cities and on the Web, distinctive shared spaces attract private capital, which erodes the very qualities that make them unique

Since the earliest days of Linux and of Wikipedia, conflicting attitudes to profit have co-existed with a commitment to digital sharing. Whether it’s source code, text, artistic works, or government data, some see the open digital commons as an ethical alternative to corporate production, while others believe that sharing and profit go together like wine and cheese. And now, as massively open online courses bring the rhetoric of digital openness to education and Web-based startups are making it easy to share apartments and cars and unused parking spaces and jobs, the seeds have been planted for a sharing economy whose flowering is welcomed both by idealists who value authenticity, sustainability and community sharing over commodity ownership and by venture capitalists looking to make their next fortune. Strange bedfellows.

Cities have long been sites of commons and commerce: full of trade and private enterprise but shaped by parks and streetscapes, neighborhoods and rhythms of daily life that grow from non-commodified sharing. In his 2012 book Rebel Cities, David Harvey observes how, in cities, “people of all sorts and classes mingle … to produce a common of perpetually changing and transitory life,” from the irrepressible energy of Manhattan to the café culture of Rome to Barcelona’s distinctive architecture to the symbolic meaning of modern Berlin. Yes, by 2009, volunteers had spent a hundred million hours building Wikipedia, but cities put this dramatic number into perspective: Every year the citizens of Canada alone volunteer roughly 20 Wikipedias for hospitals and children’s sports, for charities and the arts — the equivalent of more than a million full-time jobs in a population of 30 million — and there is no reason to believe that the count is complete or that Canada is exceptional.

The similarities between urban and digital worlds are not incidental. Both are cultural spaces, and cultural spaces have always been iceberg-like. Above the surface, market forces and state interventions; beneath, a mass of noncommercial activity organized, at least in part, as open commons. But while digital entrepreneurs look to the “Internet’s way of working” to disrupt the bricks and mortar of our cities, urban experiences have sober lessons for the digerati if they will listen: The relationship between commons and commerce is fraught with contradictions. Harvey never once mentions computer technology in his book, but his reflections on cities make a compelling case that money-making and sharing are far from natural allies, and that the role of openness must be questioned if commons-based production is to be a real alternative.

The economics of culture are those of monopolistic competition. Each and every cultural work is a unique creation and, like other unique goods, they offers the prospect of “monopoly rents” for any who can corner the market on that work. Open commons are themselves cultural works, and while the tending of commons is collective and non-commodified by definition, the commons itself is a magnet for private capital. As Harvey points out, “the common, even — and particularly — when it cannot be enclosed, can always be traded upon … the ambience and attractiveness of a city … is a collective product of its citizens [but] it is the tourist trade that commercially capitalizes upon that common.”

So a non-commercial common attracts commercial capital, but is this a problem? After all, open commons are not scarce resources, prone to depletion like clean water or ocean fish stocks. Your enjoyment of a city park or a downloaded song does not hinder me from enjoying the same. What turns the contradiction into a tragedy is that private capital tends to destroy the qualities that attracted it in the first place. While commons and commerce can never be completely disentangled, it is large-scale capital that is most damaging, and it is the commitment to openness that blocks off ways to prevent the damage.

Private capital damages open commons through three mechanisms. It erodes the common, it alienates the community that tends the common, and distorts the essential nature of the common.

Neighborhood diversity is an open commons prone to erosion. Harvey writes: “A community group that struggles to maintain ethnic diversity in its neighborhood and protect against gentrification may suddenly find its property prices (and taxes) rising as real estate agents market the ‘character’ of their neighborhood to the wealthy as multicultural, street-lively, and diverse. By the time the market has done its destructive work, not only have the original residents been dispossessed of that common which they had created (often being forced out by rising rents and property taxes), but the common itself becomes so debased as to be unrecognizable.”

Capital homogenizes even as it demands uniqueness. For a global tourist industry to profit from a city’s special qualities it must fit that city into its worldwide operations. Hotel chains build standardized hotels, charter companies demand standardized airports, marketing departments seek messages that resonate around the world. The more distinct a city’s culture, the more pressure to squeeze it into the homogenizing templates of global tourism and global trade.

In the digital world, sharing-economy sites such as Yelp or TripAdvisor are built on reputation systems, which are digital commons prone to erosion. The value of these systems is their trustworthiness, so the work of tending them must be non-commercial: payments for ratings automatically tarnish the integrity of the system. But once the reputation commons has become sufficiently valuable, the temptation for hotel owners, visitors, and others to game the system for private gain becomes significant. A restaurant rating placed by a competitor restaurant is not easily identified, and so disputes proliferate as reputation systems become more widely used. It is up to the site owners to handle the erosion.

Sadly, the approach of some “sharing economy” companies is to ignore the problem. TripAdvisor CEO Stephen Kaufer dismissed the issue of reputation gaming, saying, “One or two phony reviews: who gives a shit?” Brian Chesky of apartment rental service AirBnB claims that when it comes to screening apartments, “It turns out that cities can’t screen as well as technologies can screen. Companies have these magical things called reputation systems.” But reputation systems are not magic.

The importance of occasional bad reviews is not immediately obvious and varies from context to context. A few bad outcomes completely break some regimes (there is a reason the supply of heart surgeons is not governed by open recommendation systems); for others, such as the entries in Wikipedia, scattered inaccuracies are less important. Accommodation sites have had their share of damage, misuse, and rape, but Chesky and Kaufer emphasize the large number of successful transactions on their systems, gauging their success by the average user experience.

But incumbent licensing regimes, so disparaged by sharing-economy advocates, are evaluated differently and with good reason. The severe consequences of extreme incidents lead, over time, to demands for rules that are stricter than crowd-based ratings. The value of the system is determined not by the average but by the worst possible user experience. So far, there is no sign that sharing-economy sites are taking serious measures to treat the rare calamities with the central importance they deserve: The commercial incentives of sharing-economy entrepreneurs make them bad stewards of the reputation-system commons on which they rely.

Harvey writes that, in co-opting the uniqueness of an open common, capital “produces widespread alienation and resentment among the cultural producers who experience first-hand the appropriation and exploitation of their creativity and their political commitments to the benefits of others.” Many digital commoners have experienced such an alienation moment, a realization that the common they thought they were tending is, in reality, a private estate, made green and fertile with voluntary labor and then sold lock, stock, and barrel to the highest bidder.

Woody Guthrie wrote one of the great commons songs: “This Land Is Your Land.” After Guthrie’s death, his daughter Nora entrusted piles of his previously unheard lyrics to radical musician Billy Bragg, who put them to music and turned them into a pair of successful albums in the 1990s. When entrepreneur Michael Birch was putting together social network Bebo.com in 2006, he reached out to Bragg, who — frustrated by the music industry’s treatment of musicians — gave him advice on how to build an “artist-centered environment.” But the two “ignored the elephant in the room: the issue of whether he ought to consider paying some kind of royalties to the artists.” Bebo was to be a common after all, and the tending of commons must be done in a sharing, non-commodified way. In 2008, Birch sold Bebo.com to AOL, pocketing an estimated $600 million. The sale led Bragg to write that “if young musicians are to have a chance of enjoying a fruitful career, then we need to establish the principle of artists’ rights throughout the Internet — and we need to do it now.” This site, it turns out, is not your site.

Whole online communities have experienced their own similar alienation moments. Goodreads, a social space for book lovers, was sold to Amazon, triggering an angry backlash among members whose voluntary contributions built much of the site’s value. Academic reference manager Mendeley, which long employed a rhetoric of openness, alienated its user base by selling itself to Elsevier, a company with a reputation for resisting open-access publication at every turn. Undeterred, Mendeley still pronounces that its “real power lies in what it does with the collective data from users.” Tumblr’s owner David Karp may not be “about the money,” and the owners of Zipcar may believe that their company is “about the people who make it a reality: a team that works hard, members who believe, and organizations that are making conscious decisions for the future.” Nonetheless, they didn’t mind selling out to Yahoo and Avis, respectively, and alienating their commoners when the price was right. Early collaborative sites like IMDB (another property of Amazon) and CDDB (now owned by Sony Corporation) also turned out to be not commons but private estates, tended by sharecroppers.

Techno-optimists tend to credit technology alone for fostering digital commons and downplay the nontechnical work of many commoners. In his book Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirky highlighted Couchsurfing, a site where young global travelers can arrange to visit and host each other, as a healthy digital commons. Couchsurfing started life as couchsurfing.org, not couchsurfing.com; even the code that ran the site was provided by the Couchsurfers themselves. But the site did have owners, and in August 2011, they incorporated and accepted $7.6 million in venture funding. As the company’s market value has grown, the Couchsurfing community has deteriorated. A long-time Couchsurfer laments the days of “art gatherings, bonfires, a weekly meet up at a bar, café gatherings, potlucks,” now lost.

The community’s former strength turned out to have little to do with technology. As a commenter at Quora writes:

The old Couchsurfing thrived with a very haphazard and underfunded management structure precisely because local volunteers around the world believed they were part of a cause bigger than profit. Local collectives were highly tied to their local communities … The technical architecture of the new systems is much better, but paradoxically the ‘professional’ product development process fixes things that were broken on purpose. In other words, Couchsurfing evolved around certain quirks and inefficient processes that actually became critical to the health of the social trust platform.

Over 5000 Couchsurfing members have joined the forum We are Against CS becoming a for-profit corporation.

Contrast Couchsurfing with Hostelling International, a venerable network of national youth hostelling organizations that has remained resolutely nonprofit. Over 100 years old, it is still going strong and ”currently provides 35 million overnight stays a year through more than 4,000 hostels in over 80 countries.” Some people do support themselves through the commons of hostels — some work in the hosteling organizations, others are paid to run hostels themselves — but it’s orders of magnitude away from the sudden injection of millions of venture-capital dollars.

As capital is attracted to a successful common, so the nature of the common itself becomes a matter for dispute. In his analysis of cities, Harvey turns again to conflict between the tourist industry and residents over the shared meaning of an urban space: “The initial erasure of all mention of the slave trade in the reconstruction of Albert Dock in Liverpool generated protests on the part of the excluded population of Caribbean background.” Similarly, after reunification, Berliners were caught between the frying pan of a globalized aesthetic (the “Disneyfication of the Berlin Wall“) and the fire of a “parochial nationalism,” with the potential for “a virulent rejection of foreigners and immigrants.” Capital, Harvey argues, wades into the culture wars to pursue the monopoly rents at stake in commons, making “interventions in the field of culture, history, heritage, aesthetics, and meanings.”

Digital commons are subject to similar distortions. The nature of Linux, which famously started as an amateur hobby project, has been changed by the private capital it attracted. Independent contributors now make fewer than 12% of the changes to the kernel; the bulk of the changes come from developers employed in the hundreds of corporations that build businesses on the Linux commons. In an introductory video, the Linux Foundation explicitly acknowledges the corporatization of the effort, explaining that Linux is “built collaboratively, across companies, geographies, and markets.” Reflecting this shift, the operating system is no longer primarily for individual users who wish to control their computing environment. Instead, its major uses are in consumer electronics products (including phones), enterprise data centers, financial trading systems, and the massive data centers of the Web 2.0 giants such as Amazon, Google, and Facebook. Once a challenger to capitalist modes of production, Linux is now an integral part of them.

So capital erodes, alienates, and distorts efforts to build value on non-commodified sharing, and openness demands that capital is given unfettered access to the commons. Are digital commons and urban commons doomed to feed the hand that bites them?

Perhaps not. Among all the contradictions of the commons, Harvey identifies one that provides grounds for hope. The search for monopoly rents on commons “leads global capital to value local initiatives — indeed, in certain respects, the more distinctive and, in these times, the more transgressive the initiative, the better … It can even support (though cautiously and often nervously) transgressive cultural practices because this is one way in which to be original, creative, and authentic, as well as unique.”

Capital cannot afford to eliminate the uniqueness of a particular commons entirely. Harvey argues that this contradiction provides an opportunity for radical movements to build around urban commons, that the urban commons can still be “spaces of hope for the construction of … a vibrant anti-commodification politics: one in which the progressive forces of cultural production and transformation can seek to appropriate and undermine the forces of capital rather than the other way round.” Some would see the eruption of protest in Turkey, sparked by the redevelopment of a park near Istanbul’s Taksim Square, as an example of such politics.

In the digital world, limiting openness is one way to restrict the encroachment of capital and to maintain digital commons as alternative spaces. Like urban commons, digital commons can be spaces of hope, but only if the contradictory relationship between commons and commerce is acknowledged and addressed, if the destructive influence of capital can be limited, and if some of the accepted wisdom around digital commons is challenged — including the unquestioning acceptance of “openness” as a virtue.

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