Invisible commons

Are there some commons that we should protect that we are just not aware of? Well, for the longest time the idea that there was a “climate” to protect was not obvious to people – and the overall discussion we now have about climate change required a concept to focus on, and climate ended up being the focal concept.

One way to think about the future is to think about possible focal concepts like this that have not been invented yet. Here are a few possible examples.

  • The Human Text – the sum total of all things written by human beings, not generated by AI. The value of this commons is still unclear to us (why is a text written by a human being in some way more worthy of protection than a generated text?) – but we may discover that there are some qualities in The Human Text that are unique for that corpus. This could of course be true for a lot of other forms of creative outputs too.
  • Social autonomy. The level of overall autonomy that we retain as a society, and the degree to which we are relying on systems to solve our problems for us. How many decisions are made by human beings and not by systems? This is a difficult one, since we usually look to the quality of the decision rather than its origin, but there may well be reasons to value human decision making not just as an artisanal quaint thing, but as better for different reasons.
  • Agency. Closely related – but more about the distribution of agency over systems, perhaps. Evolution creates behavioural complexity through pre-programming (spider’s web) or agency. We now have created a new, artificial agency – post-programming – and human agency may be squeezed in between these two forms of programming. This may make a lot of sense from evolution’s perspective – i.e. adaptive capability may increase when we revert to the ideal state of pre and post programming and avoid messy agency in the middle – but still is interesting to think about the value of agency in the middle. Dennett and others seem to argue that agency in the middle is what underpins almost all of our social institutions, even if it sometimes is a fiction. And maybe this connects to the first one: maybe there is a value in agency-produced text?
  • Fact. This is a common that we often are quite blind to – and feel uncomfortable articulating – but the depletion of facts is an interesting and hard problem to work on. Facts do – as Sam Arbesman points out – have a half-life, so there is a natural depletion – but beyond that depletion the rate at which we destroy this particular commons has to do with education, public sphere norms and many, many other social patterns. What if we started to treat fact as a commons? And yes – you could make the same argument for truth, and analyse the evolution of our relationship to truth as a commons problem.
  • Attention. While deeply individual, in some sense, attention is actually a commons we draw on to build society and democratic institutions. The way in which we manage this commons is determinative of the quality of democracy that we get.
  • Childhood. Do we still have childhoods like we used to? Is childhood a commons that underpins our civilisational growth and prosperity? What about the Global South / North divide in childhoods etc?

I am sure there are many other possible focal concepts as well. These three interest me more as examples than anything else — and the real prediction question is which focal concepts will seem obvious in the future? Animal life quality comes to mind as well, as one that many have guessed at – the idea that we eat animals may seem a lot like insulating with asbestos or torture in the future, they argue. That does not seem wholly unlikely to me, with synthetic meat on the horizon etc. These changes can be relatively swift – how long did it take for climate to emerge as an obvious commons? Arguably this took at most a decade, and then we can debate if it starts as “common heritage of mankind” or with the 1988 establishment of the IPCC, but still.

A lot of these things come back to a more fundamental commons that has remained invisible for a long time – since we believe it is deeply individual: time. As noted by many, the best measure of freedom is probably discretionary time, but that is not quite right. If you are free to use your time alone you may feel individually free – but are you really free in a more fundamental way? If there is not a certain pool or commons of shared discretionary time in a society, it falls apart. This is the argument for what we sloppily call leisure – and we probably need to think much more about this than we are currently.

We are all living in the invisible commons of time.

Leave a Reply