Review: Understanding Knowledge as a Commons–From Theory to Practice

4 Star, Censorship & Denial of Access, Communications, Education (Universities), Information Society, Intelligence (Public)
Amazon Page
Amazon Page

4.0 out of 5 stars Almost a Three–Ambitious Title, Narrow Focus

November 29, 2009
Charlotte Hess
An MIT publication from 2007, this is actually knowledge from the 2000-2004 timeframe, and it is annoying narrow knowledge written from legal-economic point of view. Well-intentioned, no doubt, this is not the “inter-disciplinary” work that it claims to be, and I demonstrate restraint in not scoring it as a three. Despite references to Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom and Lawrence Lessig’s The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World, these folks are largely out of touch with Web 2.0 to Web 4.0, collective intelligence, wealth of networks, and tao of democracy concepts, authors, and works. This is not a substantive contribution to evolutionary anything (cultural evolution, evolutionary activism, conscious evolution). The index STINKS and there is no consolidated bibliography.

This is not a book that focuses on innovation as much as on structured processes and conventions.  I left it at four in part because this is a very good job on one part of the elephant (the anus or intellectual property of old part) and I really appreciated the six of the twelve contributions by Nancy Kranich, James Boyle, Peter Suber, Shubha Ghosh, Peter Levine, Charles M Schweik.

My fly-leaf notes (useful stuff from the book):

+ This is a political science work with some law and economics thrown in, a superficial but useful pass from an isolated perspective. It runs in the opposite direction from World Brain and Wisdom of the Crowds or Wealth of Networks scholarship and practice.

+ Severely isolated from the larger literature, both multi-disciplinary and multi-cultural, on the concepts of “commons” both physical and mental.

+ A Weberian book, a last gasp from the era of top-down imposed order. Totally from a Western point of view, noting that the commons concept relies on a mix of social norms and legal conventions rather than economic ownership of the whole ideas. Also notes that less than 2 per cent of the Social Science Citation Index (SSCI, DIALOG File 7) comes from the developing world, which I take to be OUR problem, not theirs.

+ Any book that thinks Esther Dyson is the first word on meta-tagging, to take just one example of many, instead of Doug Engelbart and his hypertext innovations from the 1970’s, is totally divorced from the real world of information and communication technologies (ICT).

+ The book ignores self-publishing that is validated post publication, and still trapped in the paradigm that thinks peer reviewed publishing is some form of validation–with all that I know about climate change fraud and skeptic suppression within fraud-accessory journals, and medical journal fraud with ghost-written materials from the pharmaceuticals signed by doctors without integrity, this is the final straw in terms of losing the fifth star and almost drove it to three stars.


+ Information commons is distinct from the natural commons because the first gains value with more people using the same information, while this is not true of the latter (absent cultural evolution).

+ Most new (corporate sponsored) technologies seek to capture or enclose knowledge rather than liberate it.

+ Average life on the web for an object is 100 days, with citations disappearing over time toward 50% after seven years (OSS.Net has been up since 1993 and will remain up forever as the foundation for Phi Beta Iota, the Public Intelligence Blog–all it takes is integrity).

+ Distinction drawn between libertarian commons (all can partake) and association commons (a contradiction in terms, meaning a commons shared by the group that created it). The book as a whole leans toward homogeneous small communities and is very representative of the balkanization of scholarship (see Web of Knowledge image at Phi Beta Iota, I refuse to post images here since Amazon deleted over 350 of them as a lazy way of getting rid of 12 Bush-Obama morphs).

+ Key concepts throughout include wise use, public trust doctrine, precautionary principle, cyberbalcanization, social network, folk taxonomies, peer production, and metatagging.

+ Reed-Elsevier is in trouble–losing subscriptions. The combined privatization of government publications under Ronald Reagan, and the universities turning over journals to private publishing houses, has destroyed easy at cost access to knowledge.

+ Intellectual Property Rights include concepts of access, contribution, extraction, remove, management and participation, exclusion, and alienation.

+ A number of interesting organizations mentioned that helped secure the fourth star, including Open Access News, Open Citation Project, Open Archives, Open Knowledge,, Distributed Open Digital Library (DODL), Open Content Alliance, DSpace, SPARC (Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition) Engaged University Initiative, EarthForce, and the Software Freedom Law Center.

+ Scholars must change from passive appropriators of information to active providers of information into the commons (similarly and later on a librarian calls for librarians shifting from being stewards and archivists to being collaborators and catalysts.

+ Top contributions for my purposes were Nancy Kranich on countering enclosure; James Boyle on the Library of Congress as a prison for 20th century culture; Peter Suber on Open Access; Shubha Ghosh on building a commons; Peter Levine on collective action and civic engagement that is a PROCESS creating social capital emphasizing youth, local, and engaged scholars; and Charles Schweik on Free/Open Source Software (F/OSS). Boyle also introduced me to the concept of Mertonianism, from the sociology of science, for free open inquiry, I quote from page 123:

— a process of free, open inquiry, without crippling secrecy norms or strong property claims, strongly reliant on the process of peer-reviewed publication and citation to drive hypotheses closer to an underlying objective reality. Reference On Social Structure and Science (Heritage of Sociology Series)

The book kept my attention, and that is a testament to its usefulness however narrow its focus. The question this book does not answer, that I note at the end of my notes: What is the difference between cultural knowledge and structured knowledge, and what information-sharing and sense-making processes do the two integrate? It is possible to do culture without knowledge, knowledge without culture? For a start on this see Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge

Other books I recommend within my ten-link limit (see many more at Phi Beta Iota):
Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny
The Genius of the Beast: A Radical Re-Vision of Capitalism
Collective Intelligence: Creating a Prosperous World at Peace
Global Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century
THE SMART NATION ACT: Public Intelligence in the Public Interest
Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace (Helix Books)

PS:  Yes, I know one of the contributing editors got a Nobel in Economics for sharing the commons stuff–this just is not really about that, Holistic Darwinism and Non-Zero come much closer to what the Nobel pupports to be for, so I am assuming it was the earlier work that really earned the prize.

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