Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Commons, Part II

The International Forum on Globalization distinguishes between three types of commons. First, the natural resources of the planet. These are the commons we spoke about in our post last month: water, forests, mountains, wildlife. Second, they talk about a social commons: health care, social security, education and the other social goods that many believe should be basic human rights. Third, they talk about the cultural and knowledge commons. It's this third one we want to expand on here.

As medical sociologists, we have written extensively about the ways knowledge can be viewed as a resource. Knowledge about our bodies, how they work, what we need to do to keep them healthy; knowledge about what kinds of services are available to us and how we can access them; knowledge about the impacts of our daily practices on our health; knowledge about signs and symptoms and how to respond to them are all important for overall well being. Lack of access to such knowledge is often cited as a major culprit in health inequalities. 

These same principles extend beyond medical and health-related knowledge to knowledge about any number of subjects. Access to knowledge is a resource. Period. Those with greater access to knowledge can learn about things that matter to them and take actions based on that knowledge.

The Internet is a major resource for promoting the knowledge commons. Wikipedia, Craigslist, YouTube are examples of extremely popular websites which enable people to freely access--as well as contribute to the creation of--knowledge and information. The popular photosharing website Flickr partnered with the Library of Congress to create The Commons--a free and accessible library of publicly-held photography collections (the above photo of the New York Public Library circa 1911 is from there). The concept of knowledge as commons is also alive and well in public radio, television and the people actively fighting to keep the airwaves free.

Alongside examples of keeping knowledge free and readily accessible are pressures to do the opposite. Copyright laws and corporate ownership of knowledge limit access for many. The group Creative Commons is working to counter these pressures and provide an alternative to the private ownership of ideas. They provide free licensing to artists, scientists, engineers or others who may want to copyright portions of their work, but also provide access to some or all of it for others to use, re-use, build upon, etc.

Another champion of the knowledge commons is Carl Malamud, a long time activist for public access to knowledge and information, who has accumulated vast amounts of government documents, films, court proceedings and raw data to ensure free availability on his website Public.Resources.Org. He also fights against attempts by governments or others to copyright what is in the public domain.

This spirit of activism and sharing of knowledge and ideas as well as tools has been a vital part of computer engineering, where alongside the corporate, private sphere an alternative, free and open world of computing has grown. For example, the Free Software Foundation was founded in 1985 to promote computer user freedom and to defend the rights of all free software users. Among other FSF provides free licensing and software for people who want to share, develop and use software. They say, 

“To use free software is to make a political and ethical choice asserting the right to learn, and share what we learn with others. Free software is the foundation of a learning society--where the tools we all use are free to share, study and modify.”

Perhaps the quintessential example of the knowledge commons is the public library. In addition to the holdings of the library itself, libraries are places where people without other access can freely use the Internet, they often serve as community centers, venues for free lectures and group gatherings. At the library you can search for a job, figure out how to fix your car, learn how to manage high cholesterol, delve into ancient history or access SAT study guides: Libraries provide people with free access to knowledge and resources that can make a difference to their everyday lives. For these reasons, we think strong public libraries--and the knowledge commons more broadly-- are essential to social sustainability.

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