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How do we pay for a democratized Commons?

By Erin Glass

Since the early 19th century, media distributors have relied primarily on two types of revenue streams. One, they sell their product straight out to the consumer for a fee that covers their production costs, or two, they sell advertising space to subsidize production costs either partially or completely. Facebook is certainly not the first company whose consumers are in fact their product; newspapers, journals, magazines, radio and television would not have grown into central facets of modern life had they not discovered early on that the attention of their consumers was by far a more profitable good than their content.

However, as we well know, the introduction of the internet complicated the situation.  Because of the sophisticated means consumer surveillance enabled by networked media, advertising is no longer a black box into which advertisers toss bottled messages with fingers crossed  And thus, the profit driven impulses that were once confined to “advertising space” — harmlessly so, it seems from this vantage — are now given an all access pass into almost every aspect of our personal and professional lives.  There is a great deal to be concerned about here.  But while we talk a lot about how Google and Facebook have compromised our privacy to a degree previously unimaginable, we don’t talk much about how this trend is really just making more efficient the way in which we have subsidized our media consumption for nearly the past 200 years.  One of the reasons Google and Facebook have developed such efficient, helpful tools is precisely because their controversial business practices have generated wealth that allows them to continue to grow.  Does this mean I support their business practices? No. Nor does it even mean that I think their tools are as helpful as they could be, for their guiding principle at the end of the day  — no matter how many effortless tools such a principle leads to —  is to keep users dependent on their services and blind to their collective agency and other technological possibilities. However, a critique of consumer surveillance is not going to be very useful until we decide as a society how we might best fund and continue to develop our communication tools.   Until we do so, corporate interest, for better or worse (for I believe there are both better and worse possibilities), will continue dominate our technological activity for their own interests.

These will not be easy questions and the way we answer them will have a tremendous impact on the future of the knowledge commons.  We should be careful from condemning corporate interest straight off the bat, for these forces have opened up technological possibility that most likely could not have occurred otherwise.  But, as Levine notes, “corporate power represents a constant threat to the knowledge commons. Even if some corporations find that their interests align with the norms of open access temporarily, there is always a possibility that major firms will enclose or undermine the commons” (253).  And so, I was excited to see Kranich’s article discussing the library as the potential site for building out the future of the knowledge commons.   And I think she’s right in citing Carol Rose’s thought that “narratives, stories and rhetorical devices” (109) will be essential to making this argument clear and pressing to the general public, especially to our tech-dazzled friends in the Bay Area.  Surely, the rapid evolution of media tools has prepped even the most uncritical of us to understand that the design of communication platforms dramatically shapes possible communication. Likewise, the funding model of any Knowledge Commons will predetermine from the start the potential production, use, accessibility and sustainability of that knowledge.  And so, when dreaming up the future of the commons, we must ask, what is it we as a society even want knowledge to do? Our answers, I guess, will first and foremost be political, not technological, in nature.