There is something at the very heart of modern digital technology that is mostly overlooked which is actually quite ancient and profound. It is the concept of The Commons. Humans inherently share the air, the water, the land, and sky collectively but we often forget that in our world currently ruled by the notion of private ownership. Though our opinions on how to steward these resources may cause division sometimes, we can not escape the omnipresence of our responsibility to shared spaces both physical, and virtual. Technologies like the internet and blockchain give us an unprecedented opportunity to transform our understanding of the commons in a global community.
In many ways the concept of The Commons is central to the evolution of human culture, economics, and governing systems. Emerging technologies like the internet, which is still in its’ infancy-stage, and blockchain have simultaneously caused us to awaken to and reconsider how to negotiate the grey area between what is publicly shared and what is privately owned. This potent topic, which has been buried in social media noise or Bitcoin hype, literally has the capacity to make us rethink the rules governing our society and social relationships.
The Earth does not belong to us: we belong to the Earth. -Marlee Matlin
In 1833 William Forster Lloyd wrote a theory about the failure of The Commons now called Tragedy of the Commons. Basically he theorized that if numerous ranchers allowed their cattle to graze on the same land that the land would eventually be destroyed and depleted as a result of collective usage. This idea is embedded in the adoption of the privatized model which holds land owners responsible for the management of land and resources. It is important to note that this is not merely about land-ownership, but about stewardship for the greater good of humanity. Unfortunately this is often forgotten.
For centuries humans didn’t consider their collective impact, thus utilized the land and resources as needed without thought of the repercussions. In many instances they depleted these resources like the trees, the water, or the soil, and were forced to migrate elsewhere. As human populations continued to grow, wars for territory became the means through which ownership and stewardship of the commons was established. Now that human populations are so huge and resources are diminishing, we must learn to manage and steward the commons in sustainable and regenerative ways.
We have now seen the privatized model dominate the planet with some good and some not-so-good consequences. Humans have reached a point in history where our capacity to responsibly steward the commons, the elements, and resources of the planet will mean the difference between ecological catastrophe on a global scale, or an evolutionary leap that promises health and abundance for all. Almost miraculously our digital technology has simultaneously brought forth unprecedented tools to tackle this age-old quandary.
Now let’s take the concept of The Commons beyond land stewardship and into other aspects of society and community, the Social Commons. Public Health is represented by healthcare policies and systems. Technology is represented by blockchain and other virtual tools. Media is represented by information and messaging as a shared narrative is one way that humans understand their relationships and duties within society. These are a few examples of ways that systems serve (or don't serve) us all in a way that they are made available, are transparent and are distributed. Stewardship and incentivizing people (collectively) to care for themselves, each other, the land, The Commons by creating more value in the ways we serve the larger collective of humanity.
For those of you who are too young to remember, Napster was the first app that made digital media sharing possible. I mean, media sharing was possible before Napster, but it was something that a few computer geeks were able to do, and with a great deal of effort. What Napster actually provided was a way for the people next door to share digital media with the community, that is to say, the first Peer to Peer (or P2P) file sharing tool. Because of copyright infringements, ultimately Napster lost the legal battle and was shut down in the summer of 2001. Just before its disappearance, Napster users amounted at 20 million. -Napster Was the Seed of Social Networks by Agostina Di Domenico
The seeds of Napster and the original peer-to-peer networks evolved to become social networks like Facebook, Myspace, Twitter and beyond. At the onset of digital networks the concept of sharing vs. private ownership once again disrupted society. How does the concept of property work, what are the rules, and who decides? Though this conversation emerged in the realm of intellectual property, copyright law etc., it coincided with a time of extreme economic disparity and concentrated wealth. This opened conversations that question the foundation of the privatized model while giving birth to a renewed sense of community values.
The internet exponentially increased the amount of people we communicate with on a daily basis. The amount of information shared in one day between individuals is astronomical and this means that people are exploring many ideas and best practices while questioning... everything! Meanwhile the central portals for this information exchange became very valuable, and the powerful struggled to control these hubs and the communities that have evolved around them in an effort to “put the geenie back in the bottle”.
Privatization thrives in a landscape of central authorities, gatekeepers, and regulatory brokers that influence the mechanisms of finance, government, and most areas of society. Corruption of this system causes it to lose its intended use to serve and steward The Commons along with the people. After years of legal battles over net neutrality, establishment forces and large corporations got a legal ruling in their favor in the US. Sometimes it appears that corruption is winning, but that is also when we correct course, and new systems emerge.
The computer geeks, having recognized that centralized establishment powers would always assert their authority to control networks, have developed a ground-breaking technology that is both transparent, private, public, secure, and decentralized. It is called Blockchain and it is a fundamentally different paradigm that is decentralized, distributed, and peer-to-peer. It’s applications and adoption by all sectors of society are growing at an exponential rate.
“Instead of focusing strictly on finance models for currency like Bitcoin, Ethereum, and the multitude of crypto tokens in the market, we must really begin looking at Blockchain technologies through the lens of social and human aspects to envision what we need as new systems to support society for the future. These address the questions of; with whom are we exchanging, what’s our voice or opinion within this process (as in voting, remembering how we spend and what we buy are actually a form of voting), and ultimately the WHY we exchange... especially in the context of how we engage collectively. All of this ties directly into a topic that directly impacts all of our future.” -Melinda Woolf, Blockchain for Humanity
Bitcoin is built on blockchain technology and has been making headlines while flooding social media with discussions about alternative currencies that do not depend on central banks and governments. There will be successes and failures in this market but it is a very small representation of the larger picture. Money is more than pieces of paper or digital currencies, it represents a system through which we incentivize human behavior. If there is a lot of money to be made chopping down trees, then many trees will be chopped down. Emerging models are re-inventing the way we incentivize behavior and presenting new systems that govern these aspects of the Social Commons in a decentralized way.
This has enormous potential to change the way we fund social programs, projects that benefit public health, and support ideas for re-greening the planet. For example, The Future of Humanity is leading the charge to inspire entrepreneurs, technologists and concerned individuals to apply blockchain technologies, including tokenization of crypto-currencies towards addressing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. The Sustainable Development Goals are focused on various aspects of the commons, and in addition to establishing basic human rights, also focus on how to protect and maintain a healthy eco-system, society, and governing practices that are beneficial to everyone. Blockchain offers endless ways to create decentralized communities that can work together for tackling humanity’s most pressing issues.
Blockchain will revolutionize social impact initiatives by integrating charitable organizations such as NGO’s and non-profits with transparent ethical business practices. This comes back to the notion of how we utilize social systems to incentivize human behavior. Top-down, and centralized systems are effective but also prone to corruption, through enabling (albeit not the best of) basic human nature. Decentralized systems, while not perfect, provide radical transparency for agreements while allowing rewards or incentives for “hive-mind” behavior, collectives, and collaborations as cooperative models instead of traditional competitive models.
When people work together to care for the commons, they create more value for themselves and for society at large. Governments are meant to be institutions of the people, by the people, for the people that issue currencies, then create incentives based on the manipulation of taxes, tax-breaks, subsidies etc. from a top-down process. When these systems fail to distribute wealth equitably, when they are unable to manage resources (the environment, the commons), when they no longer function in a healthy way or become corrupted then humans will naturally experiment with other systems to address the public well-being and the commons.
Peer to peer networks, as exemplified through Napster and now flourishing through the advent of Blockchain, allow communities to share value, wealth, and/or intellectual property while establishing their own protocols for exchange outside of traditional centralized governing systems. This crowd-sourcing and collective decision-making model is made possible through modern technology yet it may be used to resolve obstacles that are as old as society itself. How do we manage our planet, and resources in a way that creates the most health and abundance for all? Technology has brought us a new dimension in exploring the Social Commons. This cultural innovation may bring us the solutions we seek in regards to stewarding our environment and help us grow healthy, connected and conscious communities in the future. Indeed that future is upon us right now.