Knowledge commons and community

I'm being radical here, and suggesting a close connection between the two.

I'm going to put off the task of setting out what a fully-fledged knowledge commons could look like, because in the early hours of this morning I was struck by an insight that, I believe, will help to make that task both easier to write, and easier to understand.

Online ‘communities’, as well as real life communities, have been on my mind again, and I was reflecting on what are the features that make a ‘community’ into something which we would all call a real community, either online or offline. What I have read in the past is not exactly clear as to what qualifies as a ‘community’. The term is well known for its vagueness. Having said that, I have been aware of the work of Étienne Wenger on what he calls communities of practice for some time, just that I don't recall having studied it, and I will go back and check what he and followers write.1

Earlier, I was considering writing about what kind of knowledge commons might suit what kind of community. A learning community will need a knowledge commons that affords easy, and maybe structured, learning. Any community of interest will naturally have a knowledge commons that includes some of what is known about the topic of interest. A local, geographical “community” should, perhaps, be based on a knowledge commons covering all kinds of information about, and relevant to, that geographical or administrative area, but do these exist? I felt the need to put the word ‘community’ in ‘scare quotes’!

New light was dawning in me. Communities that had effective knowledge commons systems tend to function well as communities. Maybe the opposite holds: those that don't, don't?

It is not the technology (or lack thereof) that is vital to the existence of a knowledge commons. Ever since the printing press, the written or printed word has been a vital technology for many kinds of community communication. And before that, for aeons, there have been indigenous communities that relied entirely on word of mouth as the vehicle for transmission of their knowledge commons. Maybe word of mouth works adequately for small-scale societies where people live in more or less isolated groups of up to Dunbar's number of around 150. But if the group is not isolated, or the people are engaged in other things and don't have time for the necessary oral maintenance of their traditional knowledge commons, it looks to me as if community spirit is compromised, and could even die in all but name.

So here is my thesis of the day: the quality of a community is reflected by and in the quality of its knowledge commons. Gaps, defects, failures in the knowledge commons (looked at as a whole) will reduce the quality of the community – will make it less community-like, and more like a disjoint collection of disconnected individuals. It is not that a community can have a knowledge commons or not; it is that a knowledge commons is fundamental, essential to having a community, in any strong sense of the word.

How can this be evidenced, or rather, made attractive and useful as an idea? The first idea that comes to me is that we could look at the literature on community, and compare what is reported about community cohesion, sense of community, community spirit etc. (which could be assessed in several ways) with the nature and effectiveness of the knowledge commons it works with. We can look out for whether Ostrom's criteria are met, in ways adapted to knowledge commons, and see if breaches in those criteria are reflected in reduced quality of community. We can look at case studies of communities that are falling apart, and see if we can identify characteristic failure modes in knowledge commons that correspond to their falling apart. Best of all – here I expect to hear cheers from all progressive ‘social engineers’ – we could try taking a failing community, diagnose its knowledge commons failure, intervene in an attempt to correct that failure, and see if the community comes together again.

As well as repeating that I am not only talking about modern information technology as the basis of knowledge commons, but any techology, it might also be worth stating that I don't see the knowledge commons as the only thing needed for community to thrive – it is not a sufficient condition. Other kinds of human bonds are vital. Nor does a functional knowledge commons guarantee any kind of creativity.

At the risk of falling into circularity, we could even turn the tables again, and suggest that what we understand by a knowledge commons is, more or less, whatever system of storing, passing on, maintaining and updating information and knowledge that results in a functional community. To me, that is not a vicious circularity. I am linking the two concepts, and that gives me – in my newly self-assigned role of researcher and developer of knowledge commons – a helping hand, as I can look at the community studies community for help – and I would hope to return some value there as well.

I think, in any case, this connection gives me a better starting point from which to give examples of rich and inclusive knowledge commons – at a later date.

1: This looks like a surprisingly good resource on Wikipedia: Community, which I will explore, including references to communities of practice and much more.

Topics: Knowledge commons; Commons and collaboration

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