Broad in Scope

Welcome to Enclosure of the Commons!

If you check out the About page, you’ll see that the range of topics we intend to cover here is quite broad, despite the common thread of public vs. private resources. As such, I thought it would be appropriate to open with a discussion of a work that is similarly broad in scope, while addressing the sorts of issues that interest us here: Douglas Rushkoff‘s upcoming book, Life, Inc..

It’s worth noting up front that the reason we are able to discuss this book right now is that Rushkoff has decided to post some or all of the online, freely available, before the book is even released in print. The introduction is available right now, either on his site, or at BoingBoing. But we get ahead of ourselves. What is this book about? Here’s a bit of summary:

This fascinating journey reveals the roots of our debacle, from the late Middle Ages to today. From the founding of the chartered monopoly to the branding of the self; from the invention of central currency to the privatization of banking; from the birth of the modern, self-interested individual to his exploitation through the false ideal of the single-family home; from the Victorian Great Exhibition to the solipsism of MySpace; the corporation has infiltrated all aspects of our daily lives. Life Inc. exposes why we see our homes as investments rather than places to live, our 401k plans as the ultimate measure of success, and the Internet as just another place to do business.
Most importantly, Rushkoff shows how this moment of financial crisis is actually an opportunity to reinstate commerce and communities based in creating value for one another, rather than continuing to extract it for the benefit of institutions that no longer exist.

The introduction is worthwhile reading in itself, but it also speaks to the broad and fundamental nature of the questions that both we and Rushkoff are looking to address. When we examine file-sharing or water rights or EULAs, what we are trying to get at is the underlying issues of who has the right to access the physical and intellectual resources that surround us, and who has the right to limit that access. Like Rushkoff, we see the development of a ever-expanding ethic of private ownership that permeates these seemingly disparate social, political, economic, and cultural interactions, placing top priority on the question of “Who can make money?” rather than “Who has what they need?”

In this sense, we are involved in the common task of attempting to denaturalize and interrogate common assumptions about what can constitute “property,” how we juxtapose our rights with our wants and needs, and how we interact with other people as we (consciously on not) navigate these issues in our everyday life.

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3 Comments on “Broad in Scope”

  1. P Says:

    Video introduction to the book and PDFs of pre-released excerpts are available at

  2. Bob Says:

    I started to write something a few minutes ago, then went forward to another page and seemingly lost what I had written. If not, you may see this basic idea twice.

    My question was whether you have considered the “free rider problem” when it comes to creation and distribution of digital materials? If the creator isn’t compensated for his work in this area, how does he/she survive economically? So how does one reconcile open availability and the need for/desire for the economic goods of life?

  3. P Says:

    This is definitely one of the principal criticisms that can be brought to bear against proponents of unrestricted file sharing and I think any response to it will necessarily be complex, but I think that the starting place for a serious inquiry into how we balance the rights of digital producers and consumers has to be the following question:

    When, how, and for how long is is appropriate to commodify any given type of digital content?

    I think anti-piracy spokespeople tend to skip this question, because they assume that all original digital content is inherently property and therefore all unauthorized file-sharing is inherrently theft from the producer. While I don’t think that we want to counter this notion with a vulgar argument about all property being theft, I do think we want to suggest that there are very sizeable gray areas that we should consider the question of whether proprietary content/systems/technologies are appropriate.

    For example, record companies (and now entertainment conglomerates) and their industry associations present themselves as advocates for artists, but are corporatized methods of production and distribution of recorded music still a useful system in an age where digital technologies have radically democratized the means for recording and distributing music? Perhaps a direct relationship between the creator and the consumer would produce more mutually beneficial relationships (commercial and otherwise).

    Or, on an even more basic level, we might want to ask whether we should continue to understand the sale recordings as the primary business of a professional musician. Certainly there were professional musicians before the advent of recorded music.

    Or another approach: there are certainly many people who are producing a universe of digital content without getting paid for it – Wikipedia, Flickr, YouTube, not to mention open source software of all varieties. How do these people survive economically without being compensated for this work?

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