Can knowledge commons be common?

Too busy writing around this topic, not here, but for other projects and people, but now may be a good time just to put a stake in the ground for this topic, in which I have a great and growing interest, and which seems more and more vital for any future commons-based economy of well-being. While traditional commons, like the ones studied by Elinor Ostrom, are based on tradition and family knowledge being handed down, scenarios of radical change, even potential collapse of the current economic system, cannot rely on traditional knowledge being handed down through families or local communities. It needs something much quicker.

First, the idea of a knowledge commons is not exactly new. Wikipedia is the classic example that is almost always cited, and the P2P Foundation has a lot of related material, as well as its wiki being a kind of knowledge commons itself. To be a commons in the sense I mean it, a repository of knowledge not only needs to be openly available without cost, with the technical ability for all capable commoners to contribute to it, but it must also be effectively governed by those commoners who create, maintain, and use it. Wikipedia meets those criteria, though many have at least asked questions about whether the governance works as well as it could. Wikipedia is in a very special position, and it is in essence not replicable, because everyone interested in maintaining definitive, encyclopedic reference articles will naturally want to congregate around the best example of its kind. Attempted ‘forks’ of Wikipedia have been notably unsuccessful.

To focus solely on the technology is highly misleading. If Wikipedia had no effective community governance, it would quickly dissolve into a battleground of people loudly asserting their own beliefs. There would be no effective checks on the general acceptance of articles. It would be as bad as some myths suggest it is. It is much better than skeptics suggest it is. To focus solely on the community governance is also misleading, and this is part of Wikipedia's actual challenge at present, as I see it. You can have excellent procedures and practices for agreeing policy and resolving disputes, but if the technology is not well-designed, it will only be that section of the population who are specially able or motivated who will actually use it. An effective knowledge commons needs both.

So, to fulfil its purpose as an aid to people withdrawing from the current, sick economic system and building up new practices, or newly rediscovered ones, some kind of reliable knowledge sources are needed. As we all have experience from school, difficult topics need to start from elementary introductions; so if a knowledge commons is going to serve as a learning resource, it needs to map out the learning pathways.

This knowledge is currently held by many different, separate people and communities. It doesn't seem to me likely that we can get all these people to use exactly the same system. Despite the relative success of Wikipedia, I see people as more likely wanting to start off in their existing communities of interest and communities of practice, and building from there. There's a challenge, because several communities have overlapping interests, so how do we all avoid scarce attention, effort and energy being wasted in duplication? To me it seems that the answer needs to involve some kind of federation, building a distributed body of knowledge.

There are much more to say here, but that is a first introduction. I hope to go on in other days to talk about

and probably much more, but this is a very quick start. I would love to see effective knowledge commons being common. I'd love to see them coordinated. And I'd love to see knowledge about knowledge commons being more common as well.

Please join me, so we can be fellow commoners creating this meta-knowledge commons.


Topics: Knowledge commons


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