New Tribes On The Global Commons

It was foretold that these things would come to pass, but that the Tree would never die. And as long as the Tree lives, the people live. It was also foretold that the day would come when the people would awaken, as if from a long, drugged sleep; that they would begin, timidly at first but then with great urgency, to search again for the World Tree.

John Ford

Formal policy institutions for the most part operate in a heirarchical model to collate and disseminate information and human resources. Because institutions are made up of people, they have a inherent need to maintain the organizational structure far beyond its practical purposefulness, often spending an inordinate amount of time and energy managing their self preservation while loosing sight of the goals they set out to pursue resulting in inertia and a inability to adapt to necessary social change. Trade unions, political parties and the health care systems are a few examples that come to mind here.

The printing press was revolutionary not only because of what it did with moveable type, but because it decentralized proprietary information away from the church and toward the people affecting a shift in the power structure. It changed a lot of things, but it didn’t change the the heirarchical models of institutional control and dissemination of information that have remained relatively unchanged for centuries. Not only has it remained unchanged, but it has become perfected within the structure of the corporation that now has been granted rights of ‘personhood’.

This perfected heirarchical model of corporation as person has become ubiquitous, everywhere in everything, a kind of Leviathan that affects a complete sense of social dis-empowerment as everything and everyone has become subsumed within this top down metasystem organized as corporation. This model has prevailed primarily for the simple reason that it took a great deal of resources to organize, access and maintain the information. You needed buildings that had to be built and maintained, and people that needed to be payed. But those components are no longer necessary , at least not to the degree previously required.

Whenever you have a shift in information control whether from spoken to written, from written to mass reproduction or from mass reproduction to mass organization you have a major shift in the power structure. And this is the beginning stages of what we are now witnessing as a result of information now having the ability to self organize within the various media tools that are now literally at everyone’s disposal. The power elite are of course very aware that their base of power is rapidly eroding. Hilary Clinton’s recent testimony to fellow globalists warns that the State Dept. needs more money because they are losing the information war to the likes of Russia Today and Al Jazeera; a good example of the rising paranoia within the current power structure.

It would be an oversight however to think that new media tools by themselves are going to drive social change. What is occurring is a co-emergent phenomena comprised of both the media tools and a pervasive sense of dis-satisfaction due to dis-connectedness and a perception that the institutions around which we structure society are plagued by inertia and a complete inability to adapt.

My assumption here is that we as humans are hard wired into a set of basic drives. And contrary to Garrett Harding and his Tragedy Of The Commons thesis, that when given a choice people act in their own self interest at the expense of the commons, Indiana University Professor Elinor Ostrom who was recently awarded the Nobel prize for economics has another theory backed up by decades of research in Nepal, Kenya and Guatemala. The underlying problem with Hardin’s Tragedy is that he was not studying results from long term commons managed grazing areas, but from areas under control of feudal land lords that purposely overgrazed the commons to drive off the commoners. Ostrom’s work has demonstrated how various communities have successfully managed grazing lands, forests, and fisheries sustainably over the long term and debunks the idea that private property is the only effective way to manage resource depletion. My point here it that these hard wired drives have a lot to do with participation, cooperation and self-determination. At some level we are still more tribal then we are individual. We organized ourselves into bigger and better tribes, but the nation state is failing because its too big and because it has co-opted these basic drives of social organization that are best expressed at the tribal scale. Small is beautiful.

Media tools will drive social change because they allow for a greater expression of these social needs, needs that have much to do with our ability to connect with one another on a scale where we believe we can have some kind of impact without the intermediary of the statist organizational hierarchy. Here are a couple of the primary drivers underlying these social needs:

  • Autonomy and self-determination: The urge to direct our own lives in a way that benefits both ourselves and others. It is a desire to do things because they are interesting, because they are important, and because we like it.
  • Shared Collaboration: It is the desire to do what we do in service of something larger than ourselves. It’s about creating decentralized participatory models.

Building a virtual commons has much to do with the breakdown of large, centralized and dysfunctional organizational structures from the state down to the corporation. It is a re-discovery of a human scale technology that provides a way to express these in built hard wired drives. We are consumers, creators, and we are collaborators. We are waking up to the fact that we are highly dependent on one another and that the statist dependency model of parens patria, the social welfare program is running out of money. It’s about fishing of course. You know…. “give someone a fish and they eat for a day. Teach them to fish and they will eat for the rest of their lives”. But being dependent is very different then being co-dependent. The nation state demands co-dependency as a way of control. It’s highly dysfunctional and completely dis-empowering.

Depending on one another is what constitutes communities. From the Latin communitas (munus, gift) to give among one another. What we are re-discovering are participatory models of building human scale communities that allow for greater and greater expression of creation and collaboration driven by hard wired human needs on one side and media tools on the other resulting in a complete restructuring in how ideas are spread and implemented. The one to many model as in the nightly news broadcast is being eclipsed by the many to many model of pier collaboration. In other words, media is less and less about putting out a message for consumption by individuals and more and more about creating support environments for collaborative sharing among groups. It is less about information and more about coordination. It is about groups that are scaled down to a size where people matter. Think tribal networking as the emergent model on the global commons.

Now we have the tools to allow these intrinsic motivations of creativity and collaboration to be networked into large scale efforts. This is really a revolution in the way human affairs are arranged because it inverts the model of the institution which functioned to draw people into a prearranged structure moving the people to the problem, an inherently exclusionary arrangement replete with problems of management. So instead of grouping people together and moving them toward the problem, you put the problem in front of the people. When you build cooperation into the structure as a byproduct of the operating system, you can leave the people where they are. The brick and mortar type organizations founded to coordinate activities will now work parallel to virtual organizational models that will gain greater leverage for social change because of their low overhead, and their ability to tap into the reservoir of what New York University Professor Clay Shirky terms cognitive surplus; a trillion hour per year excess of human free time and talent looking for creative expression. Shirky’s convinced this surplus will change the world now that the media tools are built to organize it.

Who would have thought 15 years ago that if asked whether a unfunded collaborative project effort would out pace the funding and organizational capacity of Microsoft. But in January of 2009, Wikipedia accounted for 97 percent of the web visits made to online encyclopedias, with Microsoft Encarta a distant second with just 1.27 percent of visits. It only took a few short years for Wikipedia to make closed source encyclopedias like Britannica obsolete. Chalk one up for Shirky’s cognitive surplus. But the open source concept doesn’t just apply to encyclopedias, but to any area where information/collaboration is traditionally in the hands of the few instead of the many.

A collaborative wiki type platform isn’t just about learning to use new software, it’s a cultural shift around approaching common problems. It’s as much about unlearning what we know about documenting projects and organizing information as it is about understanding the profound implications it has for coordinating this wealth of cognitive surplus. It’s moving from a cacophony of information saturation that simply feeds more analysis/paralysis syndrome to the coordination/implementation of strategies from small scale to large scale participatory networking models. It’s a framework that allows for greater and greater participation resulting in the creation of civic value by individuals, but enjoyed by society as a whole. Not only that, but it’s a framework that allows for these hard wired tribal drives of collaboration and participation to break out of the repressive institutional confines that have been driven historically by private profit or bureaucratic self interest that have changed little over the past half millennium. In other words, we have substituted commodity for community, the nation state for the commons and put profit before people, all in an attempt to subvert our innate drives towards respectful co-existence.

This co-emergent phenomena of human hard-ware (drives) and IT software (structure/coordination) represents a transition from a dominant market share driven economy to economic cooperation. But it’s not just the economy that’s market driven. It’s everything and everybody, including government both local and national reflected in the merger of government and corporation; fascism in pure form. Cooperation assumes of course a shift in the power base, an opening and democratization of political institutions and the emergence of non-state sources of democratic power. Historically, institutions whether political or corporate have been based on a hierarchical model with strict dividing lines between producer/provider and citizen/user in a highly proprietary format in terms of control, communication, coordination. These are the dividing lines that are breaking down as we seek to construct new models of engagement with the state and a redistribution of power outside of these institutions.

These principals of the commons have much to do with affirming customary rights to self-determination, but in the face of 500 years of free trade policy and neo-liberal economics these principals have all but become obliterated within society as corporation. This breakdown of the fundamental structure of the organization itself, both on the level of government and in business where there now exists a complete disconnect to the fundamental needs of society creates an opening, a opportunity for the emergence of radically decentralized models of co-governance that will by necessity challenge the very foundations of these self-serving institutions.

A resurgence of the tribal commons is about people connecting. It’s about people connecting with the food that they eat, the money they spend, the medicines they heal themselves with, and the institutions they govern themselves with. This is bottom line. It’s about rethinking and redesigning non-state sources of democratic power within the context of small scale autonomous networked groups. It is a redistribution of power by supporting new relationships and new ways of organizing coordination in the virtual world to create lasting sources of this power redistribution.

Shirky’s cognitive surplus is now underwritten by the mass dis-connect that we are witnessing that is waking up to the great deception of the two party system, the ‘change you can believe in’ hype, and the deliberate shakedown of the middle class by the financial elite. It’s not simply a cognitive surplus, but a deep well of emotional dis-content on a huge scale that is building into a tsunami like wave heading for a coast line near you. What we are now witnessing in New York as the Occupy Wall St. Movement continues to gain momentum across all dividing lines of race and age signals a mass awakening to the global class war and the attempted final enclosure of the commons through massive asset stripping and privatization, but as the sign at the protest rally reads, “It’s not a class war until we fight back”, shows that the gauntlet has been thrown down and there is no turning back the tide of discontent.

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