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Building the Electronic Commons
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The Good Society 11.3 (2002) 1-9

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Building the Electronic Commons

Peter Levine

On the West Side of St. Paul, Minnesota—a poor neighborhood with a large population of Hmong and Latino immigrants—young people are building an "information commons." They call themselves the "Community Information Corps," and as a first major project, they are constructing a database of their neighborhood's "learning opportunities:" everything from formal classes at the high school to an elderly Mexican immigrant in a retirement home who is willing to teach traditional Indian medicine. Citizens will soon be able to enter a word that describes their interests and see the local learning resources displayed on a map. The Commons website also provides materials about neighborhood history, news articles, poetry, and streaming videos created by local teenagers.

Meanwhile, the Community Information Corps provides training for local residents. As a result of computer tutoring at the local library, residents from Latin America have been able to stay in contact with people from their places of birth; a new mother has learned how to surf the Internet to find resources and information for her newborn child; factory workers have improved their skills; and several other adults who have varying degrees of computer and language literacy have discovered what a computer can do for them.

Someone who has searched the Web for nonprofit sites devoted to "community" would probably not be overwhelmingly impressed by the content or prominence of the St. Paul Information Commons, which is just getting started. However, the work in St. Paul has the advantage of reflecting a comprehensive and distinctive philosophy. Some colleagues and I are working to create a national association dedicated to realizing this vision. 1 Our strategy is to create information commons projects in other communities, while working with existing national organizations to build partnerships and a broader movement.

One element of our philosophy is a commitment to local, geographical communities. A second ideal is "public work," as defended by University of Minnesota professor Harry Boyte in a past issue of The Good Society. 2 A third principle is the belief that we should focus on the assets, rather than the liabilities, of even the poorest communities, because progress can come from assembling existing, indigenous resources. However, my subject here is our fourth guiding ideal: a special conception of the Internet as a "commons."

Law professors Yochai Benkler and Lawrence Lessig, among others, have developed an influential theory of the commons that has been embraced by think tanks and public interest organizations such as the New America Foundation, the Center for Digital Democracy, and Public Knowledge. This theory has merits, but also important limitations. I will describe the Benkler-Lessig theory, note some flaws, and then defend our alternative approach. [End Page 1] [Begin Page 4]

The Anarchist Commons

According to Benkler and Lessig, a "commons" is something valuable that is not possessed or controlled by anyone: not by individuals, companies, or the government. It is un-owned, and therefore free for all to use, borrow, imitate, or alter. For example, basic scientific facts cannot be copyrighted or patented; they are "free" in the sense that no one possesses them. In other cases, the individual goods in a commons may be subject to ownership, but the commons itself is an un-owned and uncontrolled context, institution, home, or source of these valuable resources. 3 The fishes in the deep blue sea swim in such a commons because anyone can pluck them out and eat them up. The fish are ownable, but the ocean is not.

A successful commons is appealing because it is a valuable good that is not controlled by bureaucrats, experts, or profit-seeking companies. These agents and institutions are useful for other purposes, but in their absence we can hope for a greater diversity of uses and more active participation by ordinary people. In a successful commons (unlike a state), participation and support are voluntary while the benefits are broadly dispersed. A commons must rely on cooperation and ethical norms if it is to survive, so it both reflects and generates "social capital...