Designing the Digital Commons

According to Terry Eagleton, in his essay The Function of Criticism, Habermas’ concept of the public sphere “hovers indecesively between ideal model and historical description and suffers from severe problems of historical periodization. The ‘public sphere’ is a notion difficult to rid of nostalgic, idealizing connotations; like the ‘organic society’, it sometimes seems to have been disintegrating since its inception.”1 Similar could also be said of the digital commons. Long, long time ago, back in the mythological times, before 1993, the entire Internet was ‘public domain.’ All code and content were publicly owned and accesible to all, thus pioneers of the early days report. In this once so rational, egalitarian environment, built and maintained by engineers, academics freely exchanged ideas and resources. There is a paradox early developers never really dealt with: before ‘the public’ everything was public. As soon as the masses invaded the new media arena, the precious public domain got overrun by market forces and government regulation. Ordinary users requested easy to use interfaces, tailored entertainment and above all, safe and reliable systems. They do ask for a ‘public domain.’

There are many versions of the Fall of the Net. In all these stories, currently the public domain does not really exsits and what could labeled as such is all but a shadow, an echo of glorious days gone by. Paradoxally it is society which spoiled the purity of the early cybersettlers’ paradise. The ‘tragedy of the commons’ has been provoked by individuals and corporations that drew on the value, produced by the commons,   which they then consumed privately. In his book The Future of Ideas Lawrence Lessig’s lost freedom is the creativity and innovation that marked the early Internet, fueling “the greatest technological revolution since. Benjamin Barber paints a similar grim picture. “Citizens are homeless: suspended between big bureaucratic governments which they no longer trust … and private markets they cannot depend on for moral and civic values…. They are without a place to express their commonality. The ‘commons’ vanishes, and where the public square once stood, there are only shopping malls and theme parks and not a single place that welcomes the ‘us’ that we might hope to gather from all the private you’s and me’s.”2

Like Atlantis, the mythological empire which sank in the ocean, destroyed by a not yet understood catastrophy, the digital public domain lives on as a ghost of the past, always ready to return. In short, the digital commons has to be “reclaimed” and “stewarded.”

In the romantic readings commons are defined as “land communally held, fields where all citizens might pasture their sheep, for example, or woodlots where all might gather firewood.” Against this harmonic, communitarian viewpoint I would suggest another, less innocent definition in which social spaces, such as the commons, are defined in the acts themselves, rather then by their legal or spatial frameworks.

“Creative wealth has no such limits; its carrying capacity is endless. The technology for making eye glasses cannot be exhausted by its use, nor would the works of Homer or Confucius be diminished should every man and woman on earth have read them.

Unlike the historical, spatial meaning of the commons as a distinct terrain, todays commons are embedded in law and code.”

A legal definition of public domain could look like this: “ The public domain is a space where intellectual property protection does not apply. When copyrights and patents expire, innovations and creative works fall into the public domain. They may then be used by anyone without permission and without the payment of a licensing fee. Publicly owned national parks are also considered by many to be public domain lands. Because of the extensions of the terms of both copyrights and patents, and the privatization of lands and other resources owned by the Federal Government, little is now entering the public domain. Since the public domain is a treasure trove of information and resources to be used by future generations, many advocates are concerned that its stagnation will make it more difficult for future generations to find creative inspiration.”3

“A commons is a place, a real physical space or an more ephermal information space, that is not privately owned. Natural commons include the oceans and the atmosphere. Garrett Hardin’s famous essay ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ argued that such commons would inevitably be degraded and used up – like a village commons where everyone would feed their livestock until there was no grass remaining. Information commons hold the shared history of our cultures, such as myths and folksongs. Information commons are unique, because as ideas are taken from them to provide inspiration, they are not used up. Those ideas remain for the use of future generations of creators.”4

Charlie Nesson mentioned the idea of a commons in cyberspace first to Lessig. “He spoke of the need to support a space in cyberspace free from control – open and free, and there for the taking.” Why would anyone need to build a commons, Lessig asks himself. “Cyberspace was not a limited space, there would always be more to build. It is not like the American continent was; we’re not going to run into the Pacific Ocean some day. If there’s something you don’t have in this space, something you’d like to build, then add it. I thought.”5

The digital commons are usually situated in-between the state and marketplace and are easily squashed by either—or both sides. “ The civic sector represents our collective selves, in other words, particularly in all of those affairs (such as community action and cultural expression, education and social welfare) that are neither driven by the profit motive nor derived from the authority of the state.”6

Instead of complaining about the disappearance of public space (in the tradition of Richard Sennett7 ) we could actively shape the ‘dot.commons.’ In doing so we may have to accept that the digital commons are unstable in nature. Despite all the projects, mentioned below, we may find out that the digital commons is a negative utopia. As an event or experience rather then a fixed space, the digital common existed in future (or is about to happen in the past). With Italo Calvino we could say that the digital commons could be one of the ‘invisible cities.’

The advantage of this rather unlikely, imaginary definition of the commons of the legal definition is that it comes closer to what techno citizens are actually experiencing. Arguably, the music file platform Napster, at the height of its use, around mid-2000, was a digital commons.


Open Content License (
Project Gutenberg
Public Domain images (
Public domain music (
Center for the Public Domain
Cellular phone spectrum

Open Source Architecture:
Building Eyebeam
Leeser Architecture, Diller & Scorfidio, MVRDV Architects
Yale School of Architecture

Open Courseware

Applying Open Source Principles, Practices, and Tools to Teaching, Learning, Professional Development, and Planning.

Ishii, K., and B. Lutterbeck. Unexploited Resources of Online Education for Democracy: Why the Future Should Belong to OpenCourseWare.

  1. Terry Eagleton, The Function of Criticism, London: Verso Books, 1984, p. 8. []
  2. Benjamin Barber, A Place for Us: How to Make Society Civil and Democracy Strong, Hill and Wang, 1998. []
  3. Taken from the website of the Center for the Public Domain, []
  4. []
  5. Lawrence Lessig, Reclaiming a Commons, speech at the Berkman Center, May 20, 1999. []
  6. []
  7. Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man, New York: Knopf, 1977. []